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Manchester United’s Old Rites of Passage Built Some Characters but Broke Others

Manchester United’s Old Rites of Passage Built Some Characters but Broke Others

Friday, 18 January, 2019 - 06:30
Manchester United players, including Gary Neville and David Beckham, at the Cliff in 1995. Both have written about the initiation culture at the club. Photograph: Albert Cooper/Mirrorpix
London - Daniel Tylor
As Gary Neville will be able to testify, making love to Clayton Blackmore in front of the entire Manchester United first team was not the most pleasurable experience of his years as an up-and-coming player in the club’s apprentice ranks.

Not the real Clayton Blackmore, obviously. But the players who set up the game called “Shag Sunbed” – maybe you remember Blackmore’s all-year tan – did their best to make it authentic, sticking a life-size picture of him on the treatment table, slipping on some Barry White and then watching as Neville, or whoever else had been called out, had to dance round the table, seduce his man and, in front of everybody, simulate sex, sound effects and all. “I can’t tell you how excruciating that is for a 16-year-old in front of an audience of his heroes like Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson,” Neville writes in his autobiography.

In football, they know this as the culture of the initiation ceremony. Or hazing, as they know it in the United States. Except it was not a one-off event, as part of a getting‑to‑know‑you process, but more a standard part of life at Old Trafford. And, however degrading it might have been, it was often better to do what was required than risk one of the forfeits put together by the older apprentices or first-year pros.

One was known as “The Lap”, where the boy would be put on a treatment bed, looking through the hole, while the players lined up to kick a ball at his face. Sometimes it would be a flurry of punches to deliver a dead arm, or whacking someone over the head with a ball wrapped in a towel, a practice known as “The Bong”. One apprentice was dressed up in several layers of tracksuits and barricaded into the sauna. Others were bundled into an industrial tumble drier and sent for a spin. There is even the story of one boy, the smallest in his year group, being tied up, gagged and put in a kitbag to be taken to Old Trafford on the bus.

Banter, bullying, laddishness – whatever you want to call it, it is easy to understand why even strong characters such as Neville and Paul Scholes, let alone the ones who might not have been so mentally tough, are on record saying they hated some of the stuff that went on and sometimes dreaded entering the dressing room.

All good fun? Character building? Many people, inside and outside the game, will see it that way, yes, and there is no doubt a lot of the relevant players tend to share these experiences with a certain amount of laughter, too. The stories have become part of the United legend, widely regarded as an essential part of the toughening-up process for every young player who made the grade. Footballers being footballers, lads being lads. “Generations of footballers must have gone through the same thing,” Robbie Savage, another United graduate who was put through it, writes in his autobiography, “and it didn’t do anyone any harm.”

Except that is not necessarily true. In the last few days I have been made aware of one former player, now in his 40s, who found it such an ordeal he says he is still haunted by it today, likening it to post-traumatic stress disorder. Another has been left with anxiety, depression, a loss of confidence and other psychological scars from what were supposed to be the most exciting years of his life. The father of one player, the Observer has learned, is exploring the possibility of setting up some kind of support/action group for anybody else who was affected. Early days, but the idea is taking shape – and not just for ex-United boys when, plainly, this kind of activity was commonplace at other clubs, too.

To be clear, it is not compensation that is sought – nor even an apology (as welcome as one would be), more an acknowledgement that, yes, it should not have been that way, that things went too far and an acceptance, all these years on, that the environment that brought through so many great footballers had punishing consequences for others.

Whether that will ever be forthcoming from Old Trafford, however, I am not entirely sure. Earlier this year, the club’s solicitor, Patrick Stewart, wrote to one parent telling him there had been a number of “reviews” over the previous decade. Nothing had been found to support the parent’s allegations, Stewart wrote in the bluntest terms, adding that there was no point going over it again unless new evidence had come to light.

When I asked United if they would accept there had been a culture of hazing – a practice made illegal in some parts of the United States – the club did not commit either way, responding with a statement emphasising the importance they placed on the wellbeing of young players. “While it is difficult to establish the existence or extent of these practices in past eras, the club takes these matters seriously,” it read.

But is it really that difficult? Are United aware, presumably, about the considerable number of former players – David Beckham, Keith Gillespie, Ryan Giggs and more than there is space here to list – who have talked openly about what used to go on and, in some cases, devoted thousands of words to it in their autobiographies?

If it was so difficult to establish the truth, could the club invite Nicky Butt to recall his experiences from those years (he is, after all, their academy coach)? Or, failing that, watch The Class of ’92, the documentary film in which the stars of that generation talk about it extensively? Can United not locate any of the other players who are not household names but have spoken publicly about their own experiences? Because it really should not be difficult whatsoever.

All that can really be said on that front is that when David Gill, then the club’s chief executive, wrote to the same parent in 2012 he did confirm he had read the relevant passages from the autobiographies of Neville and Savage. The content, Gill said, had prompted more questions internally. He had “checked again with Sir Alex [Ferguson] and relevant staff and they have confirmed that they are unaware of initiation ceremonies of this nature taking place at the club”.

In which case, the players who came up with these stunts achieved something very rare indeed, bearing in mind Ferguson’s well-established reputation for supposedly knowing everything that went on at the club. Nobody knew anything, according to United, until a parent complained at the time. But it is a pity that Gill did not specify who he meant by “relevant staff” when, rather awkwardly, Neville’s book claims that certain coaches seemed happy to look the other way.

The worst of the punishments, according to Neville, was being stripped naked and having the whole United kit – the shirt, the shorts, the socks, even the number on the back – being scratched in dubbin on to your flesh from a wire brush. “I think the coaches must have seen it as part of our education,” he writes, “because they would look out of the windows at the Cliff [United’s old training ground] and see an apprentice running round the pitch in nothing but his boots, yet they’d turn a blind eye.”

Everything got out of hand, he adds, when another player got so annoyed by all the punishment whacks he started swinging back. “Kiddo got wind of it and summoned all the second-years together.” Kiddo, of course, being Brian Kidd, the youth-team coach and, later, Ferguson’s assistant.

The bottom line here is that, whether the staff remember it or not, there is so much evidence pointing in the same direction it is a shame United appear unwilling to accept it as fact. Savage, for instance, remembers some of his teammates being so petrified about what might happen once they returned to the dressing room they could barely concentrate on training.

Yet he also makes the point in his autobiography that, to him, it was not unduly sinister, or out of order, just all part of the challenge of becoming a professional footballer – you got your head down, worked hard and got on with it. Some got through it, some didn’t, and some turned out to be among the finest players the country has ever produced. The lucky ones are convinced it helped the bonding process and, to go back to the earlier point, it would be wrong to think this is just a United thing – or that it is only football where the humour is this brutal and unforgiving.

They even made a storyline out of it on The Inbetweeners once, with three of the main characters going further than could ever be appropriate to ingratiate themselves with some students at Warwick University – Neil downing a cocktail of orangeade mixed with fag butts, Jay punching himself in the face and Will eating a bonsai tree.

Except it is not so funny, back in the real world, when you hear the story of a player at one club who was left with a stutter because of the “blacking” he endured during the 1980s – involving the pinning down of young apprentices while their testicles were daubed with black boot polish. Or what was meant by “The Teapot”, when the victim would be turned over and a hot receptacle placed against his buttocks.

At United, one of the stunts organised by the first- and second‑year pros in the club’s digs was to gather together the younger boys, put on a pornographic video and the first player to get aroused would have to endure the forfeit, usually a barrage of punches. It was a tough school and if United really wanted to find out exactly what had gone on it should not be difficult. Just ask the relevant players, read the books, watch the film. But that, perhaps, is the relevant question here: do they really want to know?

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