Saturday Interview: Football in the blood of ‘class of ’92’ architect

Eric Harrison, former Halifax Town player and Manchester United youth coach, holds the European Champions League trophy alongside Sir Alex Ferguson.
Eric Harrison, former Halifax Town player and Manchester United youth coach, holds the European Champions League trophy alongside Sir Alex Ferguson.

Tucked away in a leafy suburb of Halifax lives a footballing legend. Eric Harrison will forever be associated with the extraordinary crop of youngsters who graduated from Manchester United’s youth team and went on to make nearly 4,000 senior appearances and win almost 100 major trophies for the club between them.

Today, they are know simply as ‘the class of ’92’.

That incredible success was the pinnacle of a career that began on Harrison’s doorstep at Halifax Town in 1957 and encompassed Hartlepool – under Brian Clough – Barrow, twice, Southport and Scarborough.

Harrison’s career has seen him and his wife of 53 years, Shirley, with whom he has two daughters and five grandchildren, live in 18 different houses.

You can take the man out of Halifax but you can’t take Halifax out of the man; Harrison made 550 league and cup appearances as a wing-half but says he was happiest as a player at The Shay.

The man who would help shape one of the most dominant eras in English football joined the groundstaff at Halifax in May, 1956, whilst serving his apprenticeship as an electrician.

He was then called up for National Service, stationed with the RAF in Stratford, though when allowed, he would join up with the team on match-days.

On one occasion, he needed to be tended to by physio Allen Ure, having arrived with his feet crippled from a foot drill.

There was no doubting Harrison’s dedication to the club. Married on the morning of October 6, 1962, he helped them to a 2-2 draw with Peterborough United that afternoon.

“I remember vividly when we played Rochdale,” he recalls, “and I hit two screamers and I was jumping up in the air, all that business.

“The crowd were jumping up and down. They were good days for me. That was where I was happiest as a player, no doubt about it. Especially when I scored those two screamers.

“I was a legend that day!”

Born in Mytholmroyd, Harrison grew up as a Halifax fan and went to The Shay with his mates, celebrating victory or rueing defeat with a beer afterwards.

In later life, he was arranging a post-match pint with his family after playing for the club.

“My dad and my uncle used to come and watch me and they’d say ‘see you in the bar afterwards’. Happy days,” recalls Harrison. “It was virtually from when I left school when I was 16 that they took me on at The Shay.

“I did a bit of coaching there but really enjoyed my playing days.

“We had a real legend there in Alex South. He looked after me so well. He was a good cricketer as well and a great lad.

“If things got a little bit rough, he’d go over to to the guy who’d togged me and say ‘do that again and I’ll knock you out’.

“It was really tough back then. There was no messing with players like Alex.”

But Harrison insists he was no soft touch either.

“I think I was hard. I could tackle, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “I wasn’t frightened of putting my head in where it hurt. I thought I was a decent player.”

Harrison reflects on his career sitting in a room adorned with mementos ranging from a signed and framed Real Madrid shirt from David Beckham to a special award from the Premier League in recognition of his work with ‘the class of ’92’.

The 77-year-old retains a child-like enthusiasm for the game, whether it’s watching Gary Neville on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football – “I think he’s very good on that” – or keeping tabs on the next generation, grinning from ear-to-ear at the mention of United’s Under-18s’ recent victory over their City counterparts.

Harrison still keeps in touch with United’s old boys, regularly visiting Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes on match-days and attending training sessions at their clubs; the coaching bug continues to bite.

After he stopped playing, Harrison worked as coach and assistant manager at Everton before joining Manchester United in 1981 where he worked under Ron Atkinson, whom he had known from their days in the RAF.

“Even when I was a young player I was doing my badges so I always knew I wanted to go into coaching,” he continues. “I got all my qualifications – you couldn’t get a job unless you were a fully-qualified coach.

“At that time there weren’t many coaches that wanted to work with younger players so it fitted in well with me.

“It’s in my blood really. I’ve always felt when I’ve been coaching, especially younger players, that they need a lot of help but they had to do what I told them.”

Under Harrison’s disciplined, but paternal guidance, ‘the class of 92’ graduated with flying colours. Even after more than 20 years since the emergence of Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, Harrison still beams with pride at their success.

“By the time I left Halifax I’d done all my coaching badges and I was really into coaching.

“I went to a few clubs like Barrow and Hartlepool, which helped me, because you’ve got to go through the good and the bad.

“But ‘the class of ’92’ – now they were brilliant. Their only ambition in life was to get in the first-team.

“Alex Ferguson used to call me into his office every now and then.

“He’d say ‘I want a hungry group of youngsters and you’re the one that’s got to do it’.

“His priority was to get some top youngsters into the first-team.

“They were all local lads – you’ll never see that again. Never ever. They were so dedicated and so determined to play in the first-team.

“There was a bit of luck involved.

“But I knew, and Alex Ferguson knew, they were going to play in the first-team.

“That was the best period of my football life.

“I’m very proud of that time.”

The architect of United’s trophy-laden dominance is also afforded similar reverence.

“I would have liked to have played under Sir Alex as a manager. Not half,” laughs Harrison.

“He’s head and shoulders above anybody I’ve worked with.

“Talk about the hair-dryer treatment.

“If you got on the wrong side of him, he turned into this mad Scotsman. He had a bad temper, although he’s calmed down a bit now.

“He did a fantastic job, though.”

Harrison insists he was never tempted into the top job himself – “I never wanted to be a manager, no thanks, too much stress there” – but he has no doubts that Giggs, arguably his greatest success story of all, will eventually follow Ferguson’s footsteps into the Old Trafford manager’s seat.

“I think that’s an absolute certainty,” he says.

“In my head I can still see that game against Arsenal (in the FA Cup semi-final replay in 1999) when he went through all those players and smashed it into the net.

“A fantastic player. I don’t think you’ll get anyone again from a youth team who is as good as Ryan.”