Manchester United

Well-respected Phelan plots an unlikely win for Hull vs. old club Man United
August 26, 2016 8:31:46 AM PDT
By Andy Mitten

Hull City's caretaker manager Mike Phelan spent 19 years at Manchester United, the team he'll face on Saturday. Both sides have won their two Premier League matches so far, with those of Hull far more surprising than United's victories.

Phelan, 53, was a United first-team player between 1989-94 and, having returned after a five-year absence, a coach for 14 years until 2013; when Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down, his successor David Moyes decided against retaining Phelan.

Ferguson was disappointed Phelan wasn't kept on, but understood that managers bring their own men with them. Phelan felt similarly; although he'd spent most of his career at United, he had been about enough to experience football's sharp end.

In 1999, the year United won the treble, Phelan was sacked as assistant manager of Stockport County. The man asked to deliver the news was the club's newly-appointed manager, Andy Kilner.

"It was really awkward and not right for me to be put in that position," says Kilner, who is now in charge of the AK Cleveland Elite Football Club in Ohio. "On one hand, I was delighted to be given my first job in management. I was 32 and the youngest manager in the Football League. On the other, the first thing the chairman told me to do was sack Mike Phelan, a very respected coach who had worked with Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest manager ever."

Kilner tried to be polite but Phelan was being dismissed and it wasn't a time for pleasantries.

"Are you sacking me, Andy?" he asked.

Kilner was.

"I'd rather have worked with Mike but that wasn't an option," says Kilner. "I'm pleased he's doing well and really respect the job he's doing at Hull."

Phelan initially worked with young players after moving to United. They liked the man who, depending on who you talk to, is known as Mick, Micky or Mike. "Mike's a good man on the grass," says Eric Steele, the former United goalkeeping coach, who worked alongside Phelan for five years. "He'd played, he's good with people. You have to be when you're working in the Premier League. Mike recognises when players need to be picked up, when he has to be strong.

"He's proved at Hull that he's got a grasp of what is needed," Steele adds. "Don't underestimate what he's done already. He learned a lot under the great man (Sir Alex Ferguson) and it doesn't surprise me that he's doing well at Hull, even with their limited squad. I went to watch an under-23 game there last week and everyone was speaking well of him. They didn't have to. I'm really pleased for him."

Having won promotion via the playoffs, Hull began the season with only 13 fit first-team players and no new signings and were clear favourites for a quick return to the Championship. Amid ongoing unrest and dispute between the club's owner and fans, popular manager Steve Bruce, who played with Phelan at Norwich and United in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Phelan took temporary charge and responded by delivering wins against champions Leicester and Swansea City.

"Mike's put them in an unbelievable position, especially given the strength of his squad and the number of players missing," says Steele. "He's got a chance at being a Premier League manager, one he's waited a long time for and he's taking it. People were writing Hull off but Mike is proving them wrong. He's got huge experience as an assistant. It's slightly different as manager, you have to make the big decisions and delegate, but Mike communicates well and he's seen how it's done."

As Phelan rose up the coaching ranks at Old Trafford, from assistant reserve manager to a first-team coach and then assistant manager during Ferguson's last five years at the club, he became a trusted lieutenant of the Scot.

"Mike Phelan is another of the benefits of growing up within a system," wrote Ferguson in his book "Leading." "He had played for me; I brought him in as a youth coach and he gradually worked his way up the organisation"

Phelan would scout opponents and players for Ferguson and often travelled with the manager. When Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were perceived to have fallen out after England played Portugal at the 2006 World Cup, Ronaldo felt he would be unable to play in Manchester again.

Ferguson thought otherwise, while Rooney suggested that the two players do a joint interview to show there were no hard feelings. When asked about the idea by his manager, Phelan said that a joint interview would look prompted and artificial. It never happened.

Ferguson also used Phelan if he wanted to convey a message -- "Sometimes, Mike Phelan might tell me that it was time to give everyone a bit of a roasting, particularly the new players" -- and it could be more effective coming from an assistant rather than the manager.

Four days after Hull host United is the transfer deadline. It's always an uncertain time of year but that is exacerbated for Phelan who, as well as needing to bolster his threadbare squad, also knows his own future is not certain. 

A takeover by a Chinese consortium is underway -- but not imminent -- and Phelan is odds-on favourite to be named permanent manager. If he is appointed, Hull will get a man with an easy-going manner, according to former teammate and roommate Gary Pallister, who recalls one incident after United's 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup final win vs. Barcelona in Rotterdam.

"Micky couldn't pass urine (for a drug test) so I agreed to wait with him. So did Paul Ince," says Pallister. "We didn't want to leave him alone and agreed to get a taxi back to the hotel. We waited for ages, then saw television pictures of the players celebrating on the bus back to the hotel. And one of them was Micky!"

"Mike's a great guy," says former United striker Diego Forlan. "He always spoke to me and always wanted to know more about football. He'd ask me questions about players and football in South America. You could see he wanted to be a manager. Players like him because he helped keep training interesting and he communicated well. Not every coach does that."

Rene Muelensteen, another of Ferguson's assistants who was not retained three years ago, also has nothing but good memories of Phelan: "Mick was very supportive and has a great knowledge and experience of the game. I really enjoyed every minute working with him at Manchester United."

After last weekend's win at Swansea, Phelan congratulated his Hull players and told them that they were only 34 points from safety. One dared to contradict him: "No, we're only 80 points from winning it!"

Given their circumstances, staying up would be like winning the league for Hull but, in Phelan, they have a well-respected coach who is getting results. On Saturday, he has a chance to get one against his former club.

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