Football: Part of the scenery but McClair still relishes his bit part at United

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The Independent Online
Next week Manchester United continue their quest for the European Cup with a home tie against Juventus. Watching from the substitutes' bench, and dreaming about making a dramatic intervention, will be Brian McClair.

After a decade at Old Trafford the Scot appears to have become as much of the furniture as that bench but he still feels he can be an influence.

Not many footballers would agree to be interviewed just two and a half hours before a major Premiership match but then, Brian McClair is not an ordinary footballer.

A cynic might suggest that is because he does not actually play, he just sits on the bench. If his nickname was not so established ["Choccy'', as in Choccy-eclair] he would now be called The Judge. Some might even wonder if the ever-expanding quota of allowed substitutes is part of some McClair masterplan to stay at Old Trafford for ever; others have suggested that he must be Alex Ferguson's love-child.

It is a measure of the 33-year-old Scotsman that he relates the last tale in his new book* together with a first-page reference to the fan who suggested his armchair was a better player. He also makes an impassioned defence of his decision to stay as a bit-player at United rather than take centre stage somewhere else.

Sitting in one of Old Trafford's many restaurants before Wednesday's match with Chelsea he repeated his defence. "I'm happy with the situation. Everybody has choices and I chose to stay here. I understand that I won't be involved that much but I was involved enough last year to get a medal. It's worth it as long as you feel you are having an influence. I still feel part of the victories - and the defeats.''

Staying match-fit, and match-sharp, might appear to be a problem but, said McClair: "Experience helps, at my age you play the first yard in your head. I always feel that even when I'm a sub I'm tuned into what's happening in the game. I concentrate hard and feel tired even if I don't play. As for fitness I play reserve games which aren't ideal but they are better than training at times. Other training can be structured around that. Brian Kidd has very good ideas about training, how each player should go about things.''

It is not difficult to see why players stay at United, almost any move is downwards and not just financially. Few clubs do as much for their players. In his book, which is part-diary and part-autobiography, McClair recalls that when he played for Celtic players bought their own stamps and photographs when answering fan mail. He did the same when he joined United before discovering the club provided and paid for everything.

Then there is the football. Even United's reserves get better crowds than some lower division teams while the first-team's success is an obvious attraction. In the last two seasons McClair has achieved a personal double, a championship medal with both first team and reserves. Plus there is Europe. Ten days ago he had 15 minutes in Kosice and, on Wednesday he will be hoping for a run against Juventus.

"I think when we went to Juventus last year we paid them too much respect. I don't think we would do that again. The young players have benefited from the experience of last year, they are more mature. I could see it in them last week. Kosice are not a top side but you still have to be professional. Being involved in Le Tournoi [with England in the summer] helped too. They can see for themselves there is no mystique about players who play in other countries.''

McClair has watched these players from their reserve days. "You could see the talent in them and you hoped it would mature. I think they have all come along quicker than anyone expected." Who's next? "John Curtis gets mentioned by a lot of people and there are Ronnie Wallwork, Phil Mulryne, Grant Brebner.''

McClair's own entrance into football was less conventional. After a year as an apprentice at Aston Villa he returned to Scotland and began a university course studying maths and science while playing part-time for Motherwell. The studying only stopped when he joined Celtic two seasons later. This, a friendship with Pat Nevin, an interest in left-wing politics, and an interest in the wider world (in Kosice, for example, he was the only player to bother seeing the local cathedral) make him, in football terms, an intellectual.

This is dangerous ground as, Eric Cantona apart, no footballer likes to be regarded as different. Phil Neale, the Worcestershire cricket coach who once played for Lincoln City, said the change from university to dressing- room was a major culture shock. On his first away trip he took along a Tolstoy to read and only just managed to prevent it being thrown out of the window. After that he began reading the tabloids and watching Coronation Street so he could join in the banter.

Throughout the interview, McClair, who is, after all, only talking to me to help sell his book, has been very guarded. He has sat with his shoulders hunched and hands together between his legs. He is said to mistrust the press and his answers reflect that. There is none of the wry humour and little of the thoughtful observation that make the book an enjoyable read.

However, when I ask him if, like Neale, he had to adjust to fit in with the dressing-room he becomes animated. The arms move and he says: "I don't accept all footballers are thick and read tabloids. It's an enjoyable place to work, it's nice to have a laugh about anything, football or whatever. Occasionally you can have interesting conversations.''

I hasten to add that I was not suggesting footballers are thick. It is a popular belief but most players I've interviewed are clearly intelligent. However, footballers are generally under-educated as, from an early age, they have concentrated on making their way in the game. McClair, who notes in the book that in his younger days some clubs seemed to believe "too much education was bad for your legs" admitted: "Players do tend to neglect their education. I was fortunate my parents wouldn't let me do that. They drummed into me how precarious professional sport can be.''

McClair, who signed a one-year deal in the summer, has only made two substitute appearances this season but he may yet be offered another year in May. When picking his "dream team'' last week Alex Ferguson said he would have McClair as a substitute. "He has this priceless ability to get into a match and pick up the pace straight away which not many players can," the United manager said.

McClair was once quite a player. Goals are now rare at first team level - his last was in November 1995 - but he is the only United player since George Best to have scored 20 League goals in a season. He has made more appearances for Ferguson at United, 450, than anyone. Few know Ferguson better.

"The manager's always been really ambitious. Whatever he achieves in a season he looks back as the end of it and thinks `well I've done that'. Then at the start of pre-season he comes in and says `right that's finished, forget about that, are we willing to climb back to the top of the mountain?' He has the ability to see if there is a hunger in the staff. If there isn't either the player has chosen to go or he has sold them. He doesn't have a favoured team but always picks one to win a specific game. Most of the time he has got it right.

"He doesn't have the temper he's supposed to have, he sometimes uses synthetic anger as a tool. We've heard tales about when he was younger at St Mirren and Aberdeen and I'm sure there were occasions, but they get embellished. There are some apocryphal tales about. I'm sure we'll do the same as we stop playing. He never makes out its Man United against the world, he never mentions anybody else. The players don't feel that either.''

There's a smile as McClair describes the joy of goalscoring then he heads for the dressing-room. He is about to find out that he is not even on the bench for the Chelsea match. But he will be on Wednesday. He'll be watching intensely and wondering if Ferguson will turn to Kidd and say `tell the old man to warm up'.

*Odd Man Out: A player's diary. By Brian McClair with Joyce Wooldridge (Andre Deutsch) pounds 14.99.