Ahead of the start of the Premier League season, American Gambler spoke to former Manchester United starlet and Treble winner, Jonathan Greening. The United childhood fan spoke openly and refreshingly honestly about his love for the club and why he signed for United without an agent or without regard for the salary, unlike players in the modern game.
Greening also spoke about his love of Ole Solskjaer, and how the now-United manager displayed the qualities to help Greening develop as a player from his first day at the club.
The Scarborough-born striker turned midfielder spoke of the deep-rooted desire to win in every individual in the Treble-winning side, and why David De Gea needs to be made captain of a United side that is lacking in leadership.
You arrived at United after completing an initial trial with The Red Devils; Do you have any specific memories of your trial?
Yeh obviously, I was a massive United fan! I started off at York City, I got spotted when I was in the U15s and signed for York City schoolboys and then obviously signed for the YTS and then got offered a year’s pro so a year with the first team, so the manager started putting me on the bench and I was training with the first team every day and so I was making sub appearances and starting to play a little bit.
Was there an element of being star-struck by training with the likes of Beckham?
It happened really quickly actually, just before ’98. I started the game at York and I was absolutely terrible, so after the game I got showered and changed and as a player you know whether you’ve playing well or playing sh*t, and as I was going down the tunnel I walked past the manager’s office and he shouted ‘Jono, I need to have a word with you!’, so I thought Oh God, he’s going to have a massive go at me about my performance, and it was quite scary as he was a bit of a disciplinarian.
So I sat down and he said ‘Listen Jono, I’ve had Alex Ferguson on the phone. Would you like to go on trial at Manchester United next week?’
At first I thought he was joking and laughed it off, but he looked at me shark-eyed and he was serious – ‘I’ve had Alex Ferguson on the phone and he wants you to go on trial on Monday. Do you want to go?’ So I thought I was getting a b*llocking and in the end I was getting a trial at Man United! It was just absolutely crazy.
I went to United on the Monday, obviously thinking that I was going to be training with the youth team as I was just 18. Met Alex Ferguson, met the staff and they said ‘right, you’re training with the first team at The Cliff’, so I was getting my boots on with Beckham, Ryan Giggs; all the people I’d been watching on Sky.
It was weird because they were so nice as you watch them on TV and think they’re probably untouchable and like film stars, but they were just so nice. I remember Dennis Irwin, Roy Keane and people introducing themselves and saying I hope it goes well and to enjoy it, so I felt really at ease. I had four days training there and back to York on Friday as I had a game there on the Saturday.
So I trained for four days and every day I thought I did quite well and when I was leaving on the Thursday, Alex Ferguson pulled me into the office and said ‘Listen, I just want to say that you’ve done really well and thanks for coming.
Just want to let you know that of all the lads that we’ve had come here on trial, I think you’ve done the best. You’ve been brilliant, nothing has phased you and we’re really happy. We’re going to watch you for the next six months to a year – thanks for coming’.
I got back in the car and in my head I was thinking I was terrible and he was only saying that to be nice. So I went back to York, played on the Saturday and on the Monday I got the call that they’d agreed a fee and that I was free to go and talk to them, so I was over the moon. I went with my mum and dad, signed and didn’t even have an agent.
So they offered me absolute peanuts but I signed it there and then. I was only on £130 a week at York any way, so I think I signed for £400 a week for three years, just to sign for them! Looking back I think ‘what was I doing?!’ but I just wanted to sign for them, as it was the club I supported so it was a dream come true!
I think it was £400 a week for the first year, £450 for the second and £500 for the third year. You go there thinking you just want to give it your best shot in the first team and have three great years.
My first game was in March for the A team and I scored four goals, because I was a striker back in the day, did quite well at the end of the season and scored a few goals, so in pre-season I was training with the first team from that day onwards really. I was playing for the reserves, coming in and out of the first team, travelling with the first team but being the one left out, but I absolutely loved it as I learned so much in those three years.
The first year we won The Treble so I was a part of that. I remember wining the Premier League trophy on the Saturday, winning the FA Cup the following Saturday against Newcastle, and then on the Wednesday obviously winning at the Nou Camp. It was the maddest 10 days ever, and as a 20 year old it was an absolute dream come true. I was only on £400 a week at the time!
Did anyone have any energy left to celebrate after the Champions League win?
Oh yeah! We went back to the hotel and there was a massive party for all the friends and family and people were drinking until 5 or 6 in the morning. Some of the lads were still drunk when we had to fly back out the next day as we had the parade in Manchester on the open top bus. Some were still drinking on the plane and getting on the bus!
What was it like to be around someone like David Beckham? How much did you learn from him as a player?
I learnt a lot from all of the players, but when I first went to United I was a striker. My actual debut against Bury, Ferguson told me I was playing about an hour before the game as I didn’t even know, but he’d already told my mum and dad without me knowing and he’d invited them there to watch, which was absolutely brilliant of him. I set up a goal for Ole, so got an assist, I hit the post and got man of the match.
My first few appearances I was coming on as a sub playing up front, but Ferguson said he wanted me to play right or left wing, and to be honest I’d never played that position before. All through grassroots, playing for York, I’d played up front or centre midfield so it was a new challenge for me.
To be honest, all I did was watch – if I was on the right, I’d try and do what Giggsy was doing on the left; his starting position, when he came infield, if he stayed out wide, or if I was playing on the left, I’d watch where Becks was in or out of possession. There was no coaching involved telling you what to do; I just had to learn on the job!
Who was the player that you most enjoyed playing with?
I loved Roy Keane because his desire and passion to win, not even every game, but I’m talking about training games like young versus old or a 7 a side competition. His desire to win football games was unbelievable. The standards he set in training where doing a passing drill, if your first touch was off or your passing was off, he’d be on you. In a possession game if you gave the ball away, he’d be on you. He was unbelievable. I think from that perspective Roy Keane drilled the squad, drilled the players.
Teddy Sheringham was great with me, so was Ole Solskjaer; we used to do extra finishing practice together. Teddy used to play two-touch with me, which we always used to do before and after training, but like I said before when I was a kid I used to think they were all superstars, but they were such nice people. That squad and the team spirit – everyone had the desire and everyone got along and that’s one of the reasons why we won The Treble.
I think me going to United at that age, helped me play until I was 35 and helped me have a career because I had to learn, I had to be one of the first in the building, one of the last out, had to do extra passing, extra crossing, extra finishing, I had to go to the gym more. I think if I didn’t go to United, I would only have had a five or six-year career, I honestly believe that.
The United team you played in was filled to the gunnels with leaders, and couldn’t be further from the current crop. Who should be named United captain? Is there a leader in that pack?
If you look back at the squad I played in, obviously you had Roy Keane, but you had Jaap Stam who was a proper leader and tough man, Schmeichel obviously, Nicky Butt could have been captain, Teddy Sheringham could have been captain. There were so many people that could have been captain, whereas you look at the current team and who is going to drive the players, who’s going to get them going and have a go at them when they’re not on form, and there’s not many in the squad.
It’s a tough one.
The keeper (De Gea) is an easy choice because he’s been there for years, he had a little dip towards the end of last season but he is world class. So if he was made captain, I don’t think there would be too many people criticising the decision because of the length of time he’s been there and signing a new contract.
But I don’t like a keeper being captain, I prefer someone out in the midfield or a centre half and someone who can see the whole game, but would you say Pogba’s the ideal candidate? He’s obviously said he wants to go so for me you can’t give him the captaincy. It will be interesting to see who he signs, but for me I’d have to give it to De Gea at the moment.
Matic wasn’t at his best last year, he had a lot of injuries but the season before he was tremendous, and if he can get back to that form he could be captain in the middle of the pitch, he’s got the experience. I don’t think many Untied fans would be buzzing with that decision, but he works hard and he’s a good professional, but I think Ole will give it to De Gea to be honest.
Did the players ever mention the word Treble prior to winning the last leg of the treble in Barcelona?
No-one ever mentioned it really, we were so focussed on winning the league and then obviously the FA Cup. When we won the League, we knew we had a great chance to win the FA Cup, but no one ever mentioned the famous word Treble. The confidence was sky-high and with the team spirit and the drive from Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson was the leader of it, we felt unbeatable.
Obviously we had a lot of luck along the way, but I think Keane in Turin in the semi-final was absolutely inspirational; people were that determined to win a game of football that we thought we could win every game. It wasn’t the best final for spectators. Even when the game was going along, I was on the bench with other people, and we knew we could get back into it, and there wasn’t that feeling that we’d lost and we were going to get a chance.
I remember watching thinking we’re riding out luck and we had a few lucky things, thinking is it going to be our day?, and as soon as they made a few substitutions taking Lothar Mattheus off, with Ole and Teddy coming on, there was a shift in the play for the last 15 minutes.
We seemed to have more of the ball, we seemed to be flooding forward a bit more, and as soon as that first goal went in we were like ‘Wow’.
I remember thinking Nicky Butt went down limping. I remember thinking it’s 1-1 and there’s only Phil Neville or myself that can really go into that position; I was properly panicking about it!
We spoke to Jon Spector who told us that Fergie was an incredible man manager and would never get the hairdryer treatment out for Ronaldo, but dished out a lesson to Kieran Richardson. Is there anyone you remember receiving the hairdryer treatment? Was anyone exempt?
I’ve seen him lose it loads of times, I’ve seen him have a massive go at Giggsy and Gigsy having a massive go back, and they were nearly fighting! I was there when Becks got his eye cut, I remember it all kicking off and I think Ferguson had chucked something off the massage table in the middle of the room and he’s picked up a boot and he’s gone to chuck it – he didn’t chuck it at Becks – and it ricocheted off something and hit him in the eye and Becks was all cut.
But I’ve been in the changing room where nearly eight or nine lads have been fighting. It was that desire to win games of football, which I’m not sure the current United squad have got now.
Roy Keane used to come out if you’re passing wasn’t on point or if you weren’t working hard enough and blatantly say it to your face. If you didn’t agree with it, you’d have an argument about it, but when the whistle went you forgot about it; you went out and did your job.
United have had one season of Tevez and Berbatov sharing the goals, and one season of Van Persie winning us the title since Ronaldo left. Do you feel as though United never really replaced Ronaldo?
We played more of a 4-4-2 whereas now more people are playing more of a 4-2-3-1, but when United are at their best and I speak to a lot of United fans around the ground, they would like an out and out right and left winger and two strikers, one with a license to drop into the pockets like Wayne Rooney or Tevez.
And since then, there’s been a void. Martial came in and looked okay in his first season, playing more to the left. He’s said he wants to play more as a central striker and I watched him play as a central striker against Inter Milan and he did okay, but he didn’t score. He had a couple of half chances, but I think Rashford is obviously brilliant is down the centre, but I’d like to see him play alongside Martial in a 4-4-2, especially at Old Trafford as a lot of teams and just defend and get on the counter-attack. They definitely need to find a partnership and someone who can score 25 goals.
Can Rashford get to the level that Rooney and Ronaldo were at for the last 10-15 years? Are united lacking the golden-boy that we’ve always had?
I hope so, and he has definitely got the potential. He’s just turned 21 and his stats prove that he’s up there with Ronaldo at that age. I think he’s got that desire and work-rate to get better, doing extra in the gym and speed and fast feet stuff.
He’s absolutely rapid and the one thing defenders hate is pace. His skills allow him to go either way, he can shoot with both feet, he can shoot from 25 yards out, he can score tap-ins and I think he can get better with his head but I think he’s definitely got the potential to do really well.
What advice would you give to Daniel James, having also joined United at such a young age?
My advice would be listen to the staff and the older pros, make sure you put yourself out there and make sure you’re a team player as that’s why I settled in easily, as I was approachable and listened to people. When Teddy Sheringham and Ole Solskjaer told me what to improve on, I’d have been absolutely stupid not to listen to them.
So for me, it’s listening to the older pros, taking their advice and also if the staff tells you that you need to work on your left foot crossing for instance, then be open minded and just be a team player. Most of all enjoy it as you’re at the biggest club in the world!
You were at United at the same time as now-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; could you tell that he would go into management?
What qualities did he have as a person and a player that lent itself to management?
I’ve got a lot of time for Ole as we have a lot of history together, as my debut for United I played up front with him as my striking partner and he was brilliant with me that day, really helped me out and really encouraged me.
The second thing was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when I went away for my first away trips with the first team, he was one of my roommates and I was so nervous, but he made me feel so at ease, which was brilliant.
Thirdly, he used to always stay and do extra training with me after training and tell me what I needed to work on, so I definitely saw those qualities in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he’s a very approachable guy, he loves football and always doing extra. Then towards the end of his career he started doing his coaching, doing the U18s and the U21s, so he always wanted to know the latest drills, so I always thought he would go into coaching and then obviously he went in to management in Norway, and then at Cardiff.
He absolutely loves football which is one of the main things to be a manager, because if you don’t love it what’s the point?
Does he need to ensure he wins trophies to keep the job, or will United give him time to re-build the squad and achieve success?
I think he needs to win trophies, maybe not this year as he’s trying to re-build with younger, hungrier players that want to play for the shirt and the badge, which he has mentioned a few times over the last weeks. I think he’s trying to build that same team spirit as he had when he was at Untied as a player and that winning mentality.
I think he’s got this year to turn it around, but every big club has to win trophies, so if in three or four years time, if they’re not consistently in the top four, in the Champions League, trying to win trophies, catching Manchester City and Liverpool, he’ll be out. That’s just the horrible fact about football nowadays.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Ole Solskjaer who played all his football and coached there for years. He’s got six months or a year to re-shape his squad, but if in a few years he’s not winning trophies, he’ll be out the door.
I think he’s got all the right attributes to be successful. I think he’s done a clever job keeping Michael Carrick as he’s a fountain of knowledge and a very calm person, and also bringing in Mike Phelan who obviously understands the whole culture of the club is a big thing. I think those three the supporters love, and hopefully they can bring the good times back.
There’s on-running conversation around Paul Pogba’s future; do you United need to lock up his commitment to the club as a matter of priority?
There are a couple of things about Paul Pogba, and obviously Fergie got rid of him; he said he thought he as too big for the club so he got rid of him, which was quite interesting! On his day he can be absolute world-class. Against Inter Milan he was absolutely fantastic. His range of Passing, his skills to beat players and his possession of the ball. One game he’s a 9/10 – his work ethic, you can’t get near him – and then the next three games he looks like he’s not even trying, passing the ball out of play. I think for Untied fans, it’s just the consistency that you need to bring every game which he isn’t doing.
He’s come out and said that he wants to go, and Ole has come out and said that he wants to keep him so it’s a catch-22 situation. He’s a world-class player on his day but if he keeps saying that he wants to go, Fergie got rid of him as he said no one is bigger than the club. It’s going to be interesting over the next few weeks, if Madrid come out publicly and say that want him at Madrid, as it will be in Paul Pogba’s corner to say to the world, the players and Ole that he wants to leave United.
Then Ole will have a decision; do you sell him for £160million and invest back into the squad or do you keep an unhappy player that might not try for you. It’s a tough situation, but for me, if he came out and said he wanted to go to Madrid, I’d sell him for as much as I could and invest in the squad.
For me, if you have an unhappy player, it kills the team spirit in the changing room. If I’m a United player, sitting next to Paul Pogba who wants to leave, I know he’s not going to give 100% in training or on the pitch, so automatically it creates an atmosphere where players won’t like him.
You signed for Untied on £400 a week for the team you loved, without looking at the contract. Bale considered a move to China to play in a lesser league for £1,000,000 a week. Does that sum up the state of football?
I was fresh out of school, the Premier League had only been going for a few years and all I wanted to be was a professional footballer. I got the chance at York and then the dream move to the club I supported and it wasn’t about the money or anything like that. I can see that later on in your career; Gareth Bale is a multi-millionaire, he probably doesn’t need another contract.
Danny Mills was saying he had four years left on his contract at Man City and he was 30 odd, and they were trying to get rid of him, but he said I’m not going anywhere, I’m going to see my contract out because he has commitments. When you sign a contract over four years, you make plans to build a house, help family members etc. and he’d already committed.
The point is that Gareth Bale has all this money, but he might have all these commitments, he might be paying for family members, he might be doing all sorts for people. So this unbelievable contract offers comes along. If someone offers you £30million or £150million, no matter if you’re a footballer, an actor, a singer; you’re going to be tempted!
Juventus are rumoured to have told United they want between £70-90million for Paolo Dybala. How big a boost would it be if United could sign him?
It would be a massive boost, he’d be a great acquisition for the club. I think if they sell Pogba they need to sign two or three players extra to fill the void. He’s looking for younger, hungrier players who want to play for the badge. He fits the mould as a player with a lot of years ahead of him and he can look after the ball really well.
It would be fair to say Sanchez didn’t have his finest year as a professional last season; do you think his United career is quickly coming to an end?
It’s a strange one because when they signed him from Arsenal, because I was one of those who was really excited about it. I thought he has loads of energy, plays off the cuff, can play on the left or right, can play as a number 10 or play up front. He could score goals, had loads of energy and pace, but we just haven’t seen it. In one game last year, he gave the ball away 28 times in the first half. 28 times for an international footballer!
I was just thinking if Roy Keane was playing in this game he’d have been absolutely battering him for giving the ball away so many times! You’re talking about a world-class player who has played for Barcelona, Udinese, Chile and Arsenal. Maybe he’s not had the luck and a few injuries, but he’s not the same dynamic player that he was at Barcelona, he seems to have lost a bit of pace, not fit enough and things just aren’t going for him on the pitch.
His confidence is absolutely shot and I think he just needs re-building from the start and hopefully if he can get a run of a few games under his belt, then hopefully we might see the old Sanchez that we saw at Barcelona and Arsenal.
At Arsenal you’d see him ping one in the top corner, put in a cross or a great pass for someone to score, but when you watch the highlights you see the best of him. When you actually watch him he’s actually quite poor at the simple things like keeping the ball. He’s gone to United and he’s still doing all the poor things, but not the worldy passes or beating three or four players and putting it in the top corner.
Who was the best player that you got to play with and against in your career?
Every time someone asks me who the best player I ever played with was, I always say Paul Scholes and I give them the reasons why. Every time someone asks me who the best player I played against was, I say Paul Scholes. He defied being a footballer; he had asthma, he couldn’t run, he was small, he wasn’t ripped and never did weights, he was always at the back of the running at pre-season, he ate like a normal person and wasn’t into diet or anything like that, he wasn’t fast.
But, you try and get the ball of him on the pitch! For, me playing with him was brilliant because he could control the game, he could spray it around as he had a SatNav ping on him. But playing against him I remember the manager saying to me to get tight to him;
I knew I was a mile fitter than him, much stronger than him but in his head he was 25 times faster than me. I’d go and pressure him and he’d flick it round the one corner (one touch), play a one-two and be out the other side. If I’d give him half a yard, he’d get it out of his feet and ping it to the right wing to Valencia with an 80-yard pass. The manager would come out and say ‘I thought I told you to get tight to him!’ and I’d think I’m trying my hardest!
He can do anything with the ball, he can weight it, he can loft it, he can hit people on the run, he can dink balls through the middle for people to score, play through balls, score goals. He can do anything. Even use his head.
He was the best player in training every day at United; he was unbelievable. When I had to play against him I used to hate it as I thought ‘bl*ody hell, he’s going to take the p*ss out of me here!’