After a lifetime in football, Mike Phelan may well have spent more time in the spotlight in the last few weeks than at any other stage of his career.
Phelan has been without work since David Moyes decided not to retain his services after taking over at Old Trafford this summer, yet the name of the former United Assistant Manager has been at the forefront of fan discussion after Phelan claimed he had controlled the United team in all but name during Sir Alex Ferguson’s last five years in charge. To all but the most blinkered observer, it was a thinly-veiled plea for new employment. If reports that he is about to be offered the vacant manager’s position at Wigan Athletic are to be believed, it may well have worked.
Phelan boasts a long association with United, having been signed as a player by Ferguson from Norwich in 1989. After five years and 146 appearances in a red shirt, he returned to Old Trafford in 1999, working in the academy until Steve McLaren’s departure to manage Middlesbrough saw him promoted to first team coach in 2001. In 2008, he became Ferguson’s fifth full-time assistant boss, following in the footsteps of Archie Knox, Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, and most recently Carlos Queiroz, who left to manage Portugal.
His time as Fergie’s No.2, it is fair to say, passed by relatively unnoticed. History is likely to remember him as Ferguson’s dutiful mouthpiece, the balding lieutenant persistently seen on the BBC churning out platitudes for Match of the Day to compensate for his boss’ spectacular stubbornness against the corporation. That, or as the man who gave the infamous Bebe his debut, during his one game in full control of the first team, a 5-2 League Cup win at Scunthorpe United in September 2010. Others, meanwhile, will remember him as the coach who almost gave the greatest manager in United’s history a highly embarrassing heart attack after dutifully popping an errant balloon in the dugout.
Yet Phelan was a permanent fixture within a management team which led United to three Premier League titles and two European Cup finals. Indeed, if the statements he made in recent interviews are to be believed, he was an integral figure in the day-to-day running of the club during Ferguson’s final years, making major selection and tactical decisions. In the context of United’s recent run of results, United fans have begun to wonder whether Phelan’s role was of more importance than they may have previously realised.
What exactly, then, did Mike Phelan contribute to United’s prolonged silverware assault? The fierce discipline of an Archie Knox? Pioneering and innovative coaching techniques, in the model of McClaren? The foreign flair and European pedigree provided by Quieroz?
Most likely, none of these. Phelan’s value seems to have originated from his sense of duty, his consistency and upmost familiarity with the workings of the Old Trafford club. He was the ultimate right-hand man, privileged to be working under one of the game’s greatest figures and prepared to sacrifice his personal ambitions, even his identity, to help his mentor achieve success.
It was a role that makes his comments in previous weeks all the more surprising. Although certainly exaggerated by the media, his recent interview was peculiar for man who always seemed to enjoy such a rapport with Ferguson and had always given selflessly to the club. Most likely, his statements were designed as little more than a poorly disguised come-and-get-me plea, one that may well have done much to damage his United legacy.
So what now for Phelan? United’s former coaches have typically rarely struggled to find work after leaving Old Trafford, the most recent example being Rene Muelensteen, who Robin Van Persie once described as “truly one of the best coaches in the world” and was recently appointed the new manager of Fulham. McClaren and Queiroz, meanwhile, both went on to manage both major club sides and their respective national teams after leaving United.
Yet the transition from coach to manager has proved notoriously difficult for many. Phelan will undoubtedly be wary of the fates of the likes of McClaren and Quieroz, who largely struggled to adapt to the demands of full time management. Their skills were in coaching; in working with technicalities, tactics and routines, rather than overseeing the entire living, breathing operation of a football club, a machinery constantly influenced by fans, the media and shifting transfer markets. Despite this, West Bromwich Albion’s Steve Clarke has recently capably demonstrated just how beneficial an astute coach occupying the top position can be.
Whether Phelan’s honest, less technical approach to coaching is more adaptable than his predecessors to the demands of fulltime management, only time will tell. Despite his comments in recent weeks, United fans will wish him all the best for the future.