Brian McClair opens up about that ‘old man down the pub’ picture
Brian McClair is a happy man. “I always appreciate waking up in the morning,” he says as he speaks on the phone from his home in Cheshire. “Every day is there to be enjoyed.”
McClair has a lot to enjoy at the moment. Life With Brian, the podcast in which he conducts, in his own, unique way, a celebrity interview, has just been announced as the most popular sports podcast in, of all places, Costa Rica.
“I know, number one in Costa Rica,” he says. “Yet another bizarre thing in my life.”
And bizarre is a legitimate term to use when speaking of Brian McClair. Because this is not the standard retired former footballer.
“I think I’m normal, others think I’m weird,” he says. “I tend to notice bizarre things, bizarre things come out of my head.”
His idiosyncrasy is clear in his appearance. A few weeks ago he was photographed in the Gold Cup, a Manchester pub not renowned as a haunt of the rich, famous or any combination in between. His long hair and Methusalah-like beard sparked immediate – and completely unfounded – social media debate about his well-being.
“It started in lockdown,” he says of his coiffure. “I just thought: let things grow, see where we end up.
“Then before Christmas I decided to have a tidy up, but I never got round to it. I was out one night and next thing I see I’m trending on social media as ‘old man down the pub’. I’ve had the trim since. You’ll be disappointed to hear I look a wee bit less as though I’ve been cast away on a desert island.”
The hair was never in evidence across an 11-year stay at Old Trafford, when McClair was an integral part of Alex Ferguson’s first great Manchester United side, winning 14 trophies, including four league titles.
Tactically astute, disciplined and athletic, he could play anywhere in midfield or attack, and scored a shedload of important goals for the club. This was a man who managed, through more than a decade at the country’s most reported club, never to be interviewed. It was, he says, largely because he found the whole process boring.
“It was very rare when I was a player I got inspired by questions,” he says.
He preferred to communicate directly with the supporters through his own writing. For many a United fan, almost as memorable as his contribution on the pitch was the regular column he wrote in the club magazine.
It was called Choccy’s Diary, after his punning nickname (these days he refers to himself, as a further play on his hirsute appearance which makes him look like the former Brazilian great Socrates, as Chocrates).
The diary’s laconic, dry humour quickly gathered a cult following.
“Sometimes it was factual, sometimes I made it up,” he recalls. “A lot of things I made up got into the papers. Once I said that the manager had got all us players to have a chip embedded, so that he’d be able to track our movements all the time by satellite. That got everywhere. I enjoyed doing that.” Not that everyone appreciated his jokes.
“The other players say they never got my sense of humour. I take that as an accolade,” he recalls. “In the dressing room plenty of things I said were said to find things out about them.
“I was interested in what made them tick. I was always happy to start a debate. A lot of players want to win at that. I remember Gary Pallister, in particular, always wanted to get the last word. I was giving him a lift home once.
“We were having a chat and I deliberately wouldn’t agree with him. When we got to his house, he jumped out the car, shouting at me, slamming the door and running off up his drive so I couldn’t respond. I laughed all the way home.”
He revived the diary when he became reserve-team coach and later academy director at United. So popular did it become, that he found himself approached by players anxious to use him as a sounding board. He began to wonder if they were looking for him to place their stories in print.
“People would tell me things and I had to make a judgement whether to pass it on,” he says. “Usually I did. The thing is, I love a story. If it made me laugh, I’d repeat it. I only got a row from the manager once for something I wrote. Actually, I thought it was a trivial story. But he was fuming.”
After nearly 25 years with the club, McClair left United to become performance director of the Scottish FA in 2015, but retired from that position a year later. He has not been involved in coaching since.
“You get to a situation where it’s all consuming. For 15 years coaching, it was 24/7. In all that time, I didn’t have a day off. I’m not complaining, I never thought: ‘s*** I’ve got to go to work today’. But that’s because I’ve never worked, I’ve never had a job. It’s been a hobby I’ve been paid for.”
Although he insists he hasn’t retired and is available if anyone wants him, he is not chasing another appointment in the game. Instead, he spends time with his grandchildren and doing things he wants to do.
“I’m not pacing the cage, I’m loving it,” he says.
Not least his podcast. The idea came about during lockdown, when he was approached by a United fan called Matthew Crist, who he had worked with before on Choccy’s Diary. The plan was simply for the two of them to chat with a guest as they might down the pub.
What is clear listening to his podcasts with everyone from Pat Nevin through the chef Michel Roux Jnr to Rowetta Idah of the Happy Mondays, is that – unusually in the medium – he is more interested in his guests than in himself. Not that he is silent.
His chats often spark memories of his time as a footballer, which are invariably way more revealing that the standard after-dinner circuit anecdote. In his discussion with the boxer Anthony Crolla, for instance, he recalled how, in his days at United, Paul Ince would be so obsessed about being the last out of the tunnel, he routinely failed to listen to the manager’s last-minute instructions for marking at a set piece.
“Me, keen not to get the hairdryer, always knew exactly where I was meant to be,” McClair explains. “Ince never listened.” Invariably, at the first corner, Ince would be in the wrong place, McClair would upbraid him and a row would ensue. And in McClair’s retelling, the language exchanged was industrial. It is simply not the kind of story you would hear elsewhere. And it is one, you imagine, Ince will not enjoy being so exposed.
“I don’t mind if anybody minds,” says McClair. “I’m not bothered by people’s opinion of me. I don’t have any filters now, if it comes out of my head I tell it as it was. All the things I do say are factual. I’m not sure why I shouldn’t say them. Stories are a really important thing in life. If we don’t tell them, they’ll disappear.”
And McClair is telling them all right. And he is telling them brilliantly.
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