More famous for his penchant for wearing shorts no matter what the weather -as well as being Sir Alex Ferguson’s mouth piece on MOTD, Phelan is not nearly as respected by many at Old Trafford for his United playing career.
There’s no denying that when Fergie does finally retire and look back at some of the great players he’s signed and nurtured over his United career, that Phelan will be far from the great man’s thoughts.
While the likes of Beckham, Giggs, Cantona, Scholes, Keane and Ronaldo will no doubt be mentioned by every journalist pouring over the pantheon of players United’s longest serving manager has worked with, there may be a few names overlooked that did almost as much as anyone to ensure the club took it’s first steps towards dominance.
The United team of the late eighties didn’t contain many players that would go on to enjoy a glittering Old Trafford career. Even the successful ones amongst that sometimes struggling team didn’t quite reach the level of adulation that their successors would merely a few years later. Apart from Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, most of Fergie’s other signings in the late 1980’s were destined to be classed as either not good enough- Danny Wallace- never the same after a trip to Sweden- Neil Webb- or tainted by a subsequent role at Anfield- Paul Ince. Yet the fact remains that were it not for the 1990 FA Cup final win and the Cup Winners Cup triumph the following year, Fergie may never have been able to achieve the success that fans back then could probably only have dreamed of.
Mickey Phelan was an integral part of both those cup successes- not to mention having a small role in the inaugural Premier League campaign and I for one think it’s time to give his playing career at Old Trafford a bit of positive reflection. Don’t get me wrong I’m not about to start claiming that Phelan was the best footballer ever to grace Old Trafford but he was by no means the passenger some have often dismissed him as since he returned to the Theatre of Dreams in his coaching capacity.
My memories of Phelan’s playing career aren’t too clear as I was quite young, to be honest my overriding memory is of his fine moustache, but I do remember that United seemed to be on an upward curve and Phelan was an important part of it.
Phelan was a real utility man, who was happy to slot in at right back or even do a stint in midfield depending on where he was most needed. Phelan’s greatest night in a United shirt was arguably the 1991 European Cup Winner’s Cup final against Barcelona. For those of you too young to remember the pre-Champion’s League era, this was a competition for the European sides who had won their main domestic cup. The sort of competition you were still unlikely to see Manchester City in- even in those days.
Due to the nature of European competition back then you could well find yourself facing some of Europe’s top teams no matter what trophy you were contesting and United faced a Barcelona side few outside Old Trafford expected us to be able to cope against. This was also the first time an English team had contested a European final since the ban on all sides from these shores had been lifted.
The Barcelona team managed by a certain chain smoking Dutchman by the name of Johan Cruyff would go on to become known as the ‘Dream Team’ and contained the likes of Goikoetxea, Michael Laudrup, Koeman and Begiristain.
Phelan playing in front of Denis Irwin on the right hand side-it’s easy to forget Irwin was actually right footed- was given the task of helping the Irishman keep the dangerous Begiristain quiet and did a superb job in not only that but also supporting the attack. It may have been Bruce, Hughes and Robson who received all the plaudits but Phelan was an integral part of an emphatic win.
Following that night in Rotterdam Phelan found himself relegated to a supporting role as a new breed of United stars emerged although he still played enough games in 92-93 to receive a title winners medal. Phelan even managed to bag himself an England cap in the days when a decent 45 mins against the likes of Aston Villa wasn’t enough to earn you a call up.
He may not have been as exciting as Andrei Kanchelskis or as consistent as Denis Irwin but when it comes to looking back at where it all started to go right for Fergie at Old Trafford, with over 100 appearances and a hat-trick of trophies Phelan can be justifiably proud of playing his part.