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memory lane 'This Liverpool team isn't a patch on the ones I played against'

During Ashley Grimes' six-year stint as a Manchester United player the team 'did a bit of damage' to Liverpool, but the Anfield side hoovered up trophies while penny-pinching United lost players and won little, as the former Ireland star recalls

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Ashley Grimes in action for Manchester United. Photo: Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Ashley Grimes in action for Manchester United. Photo: Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

Ashley Grimes in action for Manchester United. Photo: Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images

In the 'before time', when there was no pandemic, match day at Old Trafford for former Manchester United player Ashley Grimes meant a stint on hospitality duty, chatting to fans about his own time as a footballer there as well as the current state of the game.

A veteran of six full seasons at United from 1977 to 1983, and 107 appearances with 10 goals, the man from Cabra has some stories to tell: he was Tommy Docherty's last signing for the club, was a spectator for their two FA Cup wins of that period, missed a year of football with an infection picked up on Ireland duty and then scored in the second game of his comeback, and left Old Trafford after six years, partly due to the penny-pinching approach by the club.

It's a career which, overall, the 63-year-old is proud of. "At the very start of it all, the dream was to play at Wembley and represent my country and I did both," Grimes says now.

But if he was doing a meet-and-greet with fans, the topic of the Manchester United-Liverpool fixture is where there are whispers, not boasts. Of the 90 league games he played for the club, three were against Liverpool, and United didn't score, and in Grimes' six seasons at United, his club managed just three wins in 12 league meetings with the Anfield outfit.

Observer

There were highs: he was an observer, only at the club a matter of weeks following a move from Bohemians, when Docherty's United beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final of 1977 and in his second season United knocked eventual league champions Liverpool out of the FA Cup.

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 "I had a bit of an argument with Mr (Ron) Atkinson. It was very hard and I'll never forget that" Photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

"I had a bit of an argument with Mr (Ron) Atkinson. It was very hard and I'll never forget that" Photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

"I had a bit of an argument with Mr (Ron) Atkinson. It was very hard and I'll never forget that" Photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

But for that time, United had to watch as their near neighbours hoovered up honours: in his spell at Old Trafford, Liverpool won nine major trophies, compared to one for United, a fact which younger fans are aware of.

"I started doing match-day hospitality at Old Trafford seven years ago, it's obviously on hold now due to Covid. It's nice when people remember me, though some still expect me to have the blond curls, and there's not much hair left," jokes Grimes, his Dublin accent still rock-solid after 43 years living abroad.

"People like to talk about the match that's on that day, they know their history, they like to see your caps and medals and hear your stories as an ex-player. But they prefer not to talk too much about those days in the '70s and '80s, they don't like talking about it because Liverpool then were a tremendous outfit at the time.

"I had a few games against Liverpool in my six years at United, and I would argue it was level pegging for much of the time, we had a lot of draws, but they were a class side.

"United then were really just a hindrance to Liverpool, we beat them in the '77 FA Cup final and I know that annoyed Liverpool, that denied them the treble. Apart from the FA Cup, Liverpool were dominating at the time, winning the league and winning in Europe so it was hard to get past them. We did a bit of damage to them here and there over the years, we were a danger to them that no one else was at the time but they were such a class side.

"United just didn't have the strength that Liverpool did, Liverpool just picked the right players, every time. And they didn't go crazy with signings, they were very particular with the players they brought to the club and when they did buy, they never bought badly."

Even now Grimes, known as a midfielder, can recall his own battles with Liverpool in the United shirt: a 2-0 defeat in December 1979, a 1-0 loss in April 1982 and a 0-0 draw, in October 1982. "I played at centre-back, left-back and midfield against Liverpool so it saw it from all angles, and I knew how good Ronnie Whelan was, he was exceptional," he says.

"That Liverpool side were excellent and this current Liverpool side wouldn't get near them, this Liverpool midfield is nowhere near on a par. The current Liverpool side have dropped a lot of points and if they do win the league this year, it will be with a low points tally, they are just not on the same level.

"They were strong and powerful but every single player in that side was a good ball player, they had a superb midfield, people like McDermott, Souness, Case, they were all excellent and had a strong side from back to front. I know they won the league last year, but this United side just can't compare."

Once again, tomorrow the Liverpool-United game will pass by without any Irish involvement but for his time at the club, there was a green stamp on the fixture, and Grimes was there on merit. A prospect at Stella Maris, he had been on trial at United as a 12-year-old but was rejected. Having broken into the first team at Bohs, he was gaining rave reviews for a league-winning side, and the League of Ireland then was a good source of talent for English clubs.

"The standard in the League of Ireland then was very strong," he says. "Me, Mick Martin, Gerry Daly, Paddy Roche all went from the league to play for United, Jimmy Conway went to Fulham. The League of Ireland was on a par with the old Second Division in England, some really good players. That's why I find it sad when I go back home, see the Bogies in Cabra and no kids out playing, they're on their phones instead of kicking a ball around, that's awful to see."

Docherty signed Grimes in March 1977, but was sacked within weeks, after that Cup final win over Liverpool, when his affair with the wife of the club physio became known.

"It was a quick end for Tommy but that was a situation the club couldn't turn away from. He had an exciting team at the time but some of the decisions he was making were upsetting people," Grimes says.

Under new boss Dave Sexton, who had tried to sign Grimes for QPR months earlier, he worked his way into the United side, a debut in August 1977 and getting 16 league games in a first full season which also included a stunning FA Cup goal against Chelsea.

He was a steady performer for the side, though an illness, picked up while playing for Ireland in March 1981, knocked him off course. "Rheumatic fever put me out for over a year and I still feel the effects of it, it got into my whole system. It was very damaging, it was horrible," he says. "We played Belgium in Brussels in a World Cup qualifier, it was bucketing down rain, and the rainwater was filthy, that's what did the damage, I got an infection in my throat from the rainwater which became very serious. I collapsed one day in training, and I was out for 15 months."

His final season (1982/'83) ended on a sour note. Man of the match in an FA Cup semi-final win over Arsenal, Grimes didn't make the starting XI for the final against Brighton and was left on the bench for the drawn game and replay. "I had a bit of an argument with Mr (Ron) Atkinson. It was very hard and I'll never forget that, something you work so hard towards and yet you don't get to play, even when we were 4-0 up in the replay of the final I didn't get on.

"Believe it or not, United were short of money at the time. I had a house ok but I wanted more financial security. I was on £90 a week when I went to United, and I finished on £300 a week. But at the time the tax rate was 60pc, you were getting nothing, really, unless you were in the team and got appearance and win bonuses, a lot of players left for financial reasons."

Grimes had a happy five-year spell at Luton after one season with Coventry, then had an injury-scarred stint in Spain, with Osasuna, alongside Sammy Lee and the late Michael Robinson, finishing his playing career with Stoke. Former United team-mate Lou Macari brought him onto his coaching staff at Stoke and Celtic but Grimes drifted out of coaching after Celtic, and focused on scouting work with a return to United as match-day host seven years ago.

And he'll have a special eye on tomorrow's tie at Anfield. "I don't think foreign players have the same feeling for the fixture as a lad from Liverpool or Dublin, it's a special game. You could feel the atmosphere when you played in it, it was like the tunnel was burning as you walked out at Anfield or Old Trafford, it was ferocious," he says.

"It's the biggest game of the season and the two teams have always been close. They are joined at the hip as they're so close in the table, and neither team has that one outstanding player, the player you know can change the game on his own. So it will take a team effort for someone to win it tomorrow."

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