Sunday, January 24, 2021

Eric Harrison, the mentor, the father figure and the Manchester United icon.

Aristotle said, ‘Educating the mind, without educating the heart is no education at all’. It holds true for every profession, certain values, and morals transcend everything and they hold together what makes us, human.

In his final days, Eric Harrison had completely lost his sense of thinking to mixed dementia and had very little memories of the past. But he could still recall the name of every Manchester United player he ever coached during his 27 years at the club and that tells a lot about the kind of man he was. A man of principles and virtues, which he tried to instill in every single player that came through United’s famous academy.

Before Sir Alex Ferguson made ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ the superstars they eventually became, it was Eric Harrison who nurtured them, not just to play football but he watered their roots and made them so strong that they could fight with any adversity in their lives. David Beckham who visited Eric at his house with carrot cake after driving across almost 100 miles when he got the news of his illness. Beckham in his latest social media post recalled that he saw him not just as a coach but much as a ‘father figure’ and owes him everything. Much like him, most players saw Harrison as a person they always looked up to, he always kept them pushing forward in football and in life as well.

Eric Harrison was rewarded an MBE for his services to football and community, to which Sir Alex then reflected and said, “If you wanted a teacher who gave you the right path forward, he was that man. I was really lucky as I got to know that,”. “Obviously, the Class of 92 was the climax of his coaching career, but all the young players who came through looked at his contribution.”

“He was able to impart knowledge to them about the best way to be a footballer. Not all of them made it, but the five (Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and Gary Neville) are a testimony to the work he did.” The ‘Class of ’92’ totally epitomized whatever his hard work and commitment as United’s Youth team manager.

Sir Alex Ferguson said, “Eric’s contribution to football — and not just at Manchester United — was incredible. When I came in, I was lucky enough to have Eric on the staff as head of youth development, so I got to see the work he did and not just with the Class of 92 but with all the young players.”
“He built character and determination in those young players and prepared them for the future. He was a teacher, he gave these players a path, a choice, and he only did that through his own hard work and sacrifice. He was able to impart that education to the young which made him one of the greatest coaches of our time. On a personal level, Eric had a very wicked, dry sense of humor and was straight-talking and I admired that in him.”

He was always very keen on keeping the discipline, from the way his players dressed to how they behaved on the pitch and how they talked to the kitman and canteen ladies, everything had to be in the very code of conduct. It was important to him because he just didn’t train his players to be a good footballer, he trained them first to be good professionals and to be a good human.

Phil Neville holds Eric as dearly as he does his own father and in a recent interview, he recounted, “I would have loved Eric to grab hold of some of the young players coming through nowadays and put them through what we were put through because it was special. I don’t get sad when things like this happen. I just feel blessed and lucky I was touched by someone who had an unbelievable effect on my life.”

The word ‘Manchester United way’ is thrown around a lot lately as United have struggled to steady the ship since Sir Alex’s departure. Likes of Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho are by no means any less of an icon of the game and their philosophy won them many accolades but their struggles with United were mostly down to what they believed was the right way to play football, which although justified but wasn’t a fit for a club like Manchester United which has always had its own way of playing the game.

This ‘Manchester United way’ was there since the days of the ‘Busby Babes’ and before the arrival of Sir Alex Ferguson in 1989, it was Eric Harrison who instilled that very philosophy in his youth teams, those players then went on to represent Manchester United and their philosophy on grandest of stages.

Eric Harrison, more than a legendary coach who fostered the likes of Robson, Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and many other legends of the game, will be remembered as a person who always cared of his players like his own, always watched how their careers unfolded even if they were at the dusk of their prime and tried to mentor them on football and life, even long after they left the club. He will forever be remembered as a man who alongside Sir Alex Ferguson built the modern Manchester United.


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