Brian McClair: Manchester United’s Dependable Soldier
Manchester United’s storied history of success—and yes, the current situation is such that nostalgia is once again the theme here—has made a lot of club legends. The specifics of who does and does not fit into that category can be argued and will depend on personal taste. But the plethora of all-time greats of the game that have made Old Trafford a home means that some of the less glamorous names can be forgotten by history. Not by those that saw the player, of course, but by the generation that came later and only hears the stories.
And one of the stories that should always be told is of the effective, reliable, loyal and talented service of Brian McClair.
McClair – known affectionately as “Choccy” – signed for Alex Ferguson’s United from Celtic in the summer of 1987, during the manager’s first pre-season at the club. He went on to make 398 starts and 73 substitute appearances, scoring 127 goals. His most prolific season was his first—he scored 24 goals in the league as United had a decent run at the league title, finishing second behind…well, it was the 80s, so Liverpool.
He never again cracked 20 league goals, but it was not because he was not a fine forward. Rather it was because of how he was used. In his first autobiography, Ferguson said of McClair: “His qualities as a footballer were the kind that helped other players around him to thrive. Over his years at Old Trafford, I asked Brian to handle a wide variety of functions in the team. The tendency to exploit his versatility and to pick him or leave him out on the basis of what was required on a given day, was not always fair to him but you could count on Brian to be there with one hundred per cent commitment. His contribution was sometimes undervalued by people on the sidelines, but never by me, and he knew that. When major success came to Manchester United in the Nineties, nobody deserved it more than the good soldier McClair.”
McClair was a major part of that major success. He scored crucial goals against Montpellier and Legia Warsaw during the Cup Winners’ Cup run in 1990/91, for example. He was integral to the first league win, starting 41 games in the 1992/93 season, scoring nine goals—including a crucial brace in the 3-3 draw with Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough on Boxing Day 1992 and the winner at Anfield in March ’93—in spite of often playing in midfield.
He ended up with four Premier League winners’ medals, as well as three FA Cups and a League Cup to add to his European silverware.
And his status as one of Ferguson’s “good soldiers” was evident from what happened after his playing career had ended. After a spell as assistant to Brian Kidd at Blackburn Rovers, he was entrusted by the now-knighted Sir Alex to run the youth setup at the club at United, staying at the club until after his old boss’s retirement.
McClair did not fit the footballer’s stereotype off the pitch. As Derek Hodgson wrote in his 1993 profile of the player, while Clayton Blackmore named The Terminator as his favourite film, McClair plumped for It’s A Wonderful Life. Hodgson also writes that famously Indie Pat Nevin, with whom McClair had raised funds for Nicaraguan refugees, called his fellow Scot “a thinker.”
On the pitch, this assessment was echoed by Ferguson who said, “He’s a thinking player with the ball and clever with his running off it – a players’ player.'”
He was a fans’ player too. One who clearly gave everything for his club, and one who was certainly appreciated for his contribution. He is a player whose legacy should long be remembered.