Brian Greenhoff was capped for England 18 times. He played and was a regular in the starting eleven for Manchester United from 1972-1981. Following his career at Manchester United, he went on to play in various places and clubs including Leeds United. It was my pleasure to speak to Brian. We had a conversation about his life generally.
Brian was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire County, England. Yorkshire is the largest County in England. (A County in England is like a State here). He grew up playing on the streets. There was no youth academies at the time and no local clubs – young boys played in the street and then played for their school team. If they were good enough, by age 13, they would be invited to play for their town team. The best players would get invited to play for the county team. For either the town or the county teams, players went through a series of Trials. Professional scouts, although not like it is today, would watch the town and county games to look for players. That is how Brian was spotted.
Brian’s father was an avid football fan. He taught Brian how to play soccer and was the only trainer Brian had until he was joined the Manchester United Youth Squad at age 15. His father was a “football oriented” man. Brian received a lot of his training by playing in the streets with his friends.
Brian has an older brother, Jimmy, who played for Leeds United and eventually the two paired together in the starting eleven for Manchester United. In 1977, they were on the field together when Manchester United won the FA Cup.
Early Playing Days
His first organized team was at the Park Road School. They only had one team and, since the school had boys up to age 11, most of the boys on the team were 11. Brian was not allowed to play in his first year – when he was 7, but was invited to be on the team as an 8 year old.
His next school was Race Common Road School. He played there until he was 15. They had two teams. Brian played on both teams for four years – he played on the higher level team for most of the time he was at the school.
At the same time, at age 13 he played for the Barnsley Boys, the town team. This was a big honor. The games were played on the Barnsley Ground – the same place that the professional team played. He stood out on the Barnsley Boys so he and a couple other players from Barnsley were invited to the Yokshire Boys’ Trial Day.
Making a move from Barnsley Boys to Yorkshire Boys was a big move. He did well in the trial and was invited to the Yorkshire Boys squad. To Brian, playing for his County was a big honor.
Brian was also an exceptional Cricket player. Much like soccer, Cricket teams were organized through the town and county. And, like soccer, he represented the Barnsley Boys and then the Yorkshire Boys.
While he was playing football for the Yorkshire Boys, Joe Armstrong spotted him. It was raining. Joe, with his umbrella, walked over to Brian giving Brian some cover from the rain, and told Brian that someone form the club would like to come and see Brian’s mom and dad the next day. There was not much more to the conversation. Sure enough, the next day, Johnny Aston Sr. visited his home and agreed with his parents to place Brian on the youth squad for Manchester United.
Brian was under contract from 15-18 with Manchester United. As he put it, “you have three years to prove yourself.” He had to move from home and was boarded with a family who lived one mile from the training ground. All of his expenses were paid. He went home on the weekends. He did well during this time and, at 17, was given a two-year professional contract fro 20 lbs./week. He negotiated his own contract at 19 and secured a new two year deal at 35 lbs/week.
Part of the responsibility he had as a member of the youth team was to clean toilets, clean the dressing rooms, clean the first team players’ boots and sorting the kits (uniforms) for each team. At the time Manchester United had 4 teams: First Team, Second Team, A team and B Team. There were 4 games every Saturday. He trained 3-5 times per week and went home on the weekends. After training on Fridays and after lunch, they would pin the teams’ rosters for the Saturday games.
For most of his playing career to this point, Brian played midfield. He was always deft at ball control and passing. While he was training for Manchester United he was given a look at the back. He spent the majority of his professional career with Manchester United playing as a centre halve (center back) along side Martin Buchan.
Brian made his first team appearance on September 8, 1973. The highlight of his career was winning the FA Cup at Wembley Stadium in 1977. During that game, his brother, Jimmy, played alongside him.
Brian made 271 appearances for Manchester United, scoring 17 goals. He represented England 18 times from 1976-1980.
Brian’s Thoughts on Youth Soccer
While Brian has been involved in soccer at its highest level, he has spent some time working with youth teams in academies. To Brian, the biggest challenge to youth development is the parents. He was asked to coach a youth team. He was amazed at all the shouting and instructions given to the kids from the parents during the game. He derived a rule — “if you are shouting from the sidelines, take your kid home.” He continues: “Kids want to hear one voice, not eleven parents.” He honored that rule while his kids played. He watched the game as a supporter, but gave no instruction or coaching points from the sidelines. He is the father of three boys all of whom played.
Toughest Player he Played Against
Name a great player from the 1970s, and Brian has defended him. From Johan Cruyff to Pele. Brian doesn’t hesitate when asked who was the best footballer he played against — George Best was the Best. In terms of troubling him at the backline, he had a particularly tough time marking Andy Gray because of Gray’s size. Brian is 5’10 ½ “.
On his transition to center back
With his passing skills, vision, and ball control, Brian always considered himself a midfield player. Yet, he moved to defense under manager Tommy Docherty (“Tommy Doc”). They were referred to as “Doc’s Devils.” Doc knew Brian could play it out from the back and he was encouraged to do so. He did not mind the move to the back. In his words, he was “just delighted to be playing. Didn’t matter as long as my name was on the team sheet.” As advice to youth coaches, he recommends playing kids in all the positions so that you can determine their best position. Brian puts it simply – “try them or you won’t know.”
His Favorite Footballer
Paul Scholes – Brian loves the way he plays. But, he says, don’t watch him tackle!
Current Footballer Most Like Him
John O’Shea for Sunderland (currently). O’Shea is another Manchester United product known for his versatility playing both sides of the pitch as well as the middle. Known primarily as a defender and defensive midfielder.
A book about Brian’s life and playing career is about to go on sell. Here is a link to order the book Greenhoff!. It is coming out this month. http://www.briangreenhoff.com.
Many thanks to Brian for taking the time to visit with soccerthought.com. Brian is active in social media and can be followed at @hoffgreen.