An interview with former Manchester United goalkeeper Gary Bailey, by Callum McFadden for WFi.
I want to start by asking you about the influence of your father Roy who won the league title with Ipswich Town in 1962. How important was his influence on you and your footballing aspirations growing up?
“My father was a huge influence in my life as a human being and also as a footballer.
“He was a manager of a club in South African football following his career at Ipswich Town. I would go to the training session as a child and I was able to play in goal and take a few shots from the team at the end of the sessions.
“Being around a first team at such a young age gave me a great insight into what it took to be a professional and the passion that the players had.
“Gradually, I then started playing at a higher level and he would share his experiences as a goalkeeper with me and give me advice on my starting position and my overall technique. I owe so much to him.”
You were born in England but raised in South Africa. What was your childhood like?
“It was a great experience. What is there not to like about growing up in the sunshine?
“I was too young to understand the politics of the country when I was growing up. However, when I returned to South Africa in the late ’80s from Manchester United, I joined Kaizer Chiefs. The club was known as a black soccer team and as a result, I was a lot closer to the political change that took place.
“South Africa is a great country and there were a lot of British nationals living and working there, particularly in the mining industry.
“The biggest change for me was coming to England to play football. I was used to spending my summer breaks on the beach and in the swimming pool but that soon changed! (laughs).
“I started studying engineering at University and would play for the university team during the academic year and the summer break.
“To go from there to breaking into the Manchester United team at 20 years of age was a massive step for me. I had the skills but I did not necessarily have the traditional preparation because to me playing in the rain was a new experience as was playing on frozen pitches in winter.
“That being said, I wouldn’t swap my upbringing in South Africa because it was the outdoor lifestyle that I loved and still love to this day.”
You joined Manchester United in 1978 and went on to represent the club on more than 250 occasions. What are your early memories of your time with the club?
“My first memory is my first game against Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park. I had to wear flats because the pitch was rock solid. It was frozen.
“It was as hard as a table. I remember running to get the ball close to the touchline and slipping out of the field of play, over the painted lines and into the crowd.
“My teammates were looking at me and shouting ‘Don’t move, just stay in goal.’ That was my welcome to English football.
“I have to say that my teammates were great with me. We had members of the great Scottish team of 1978 in Gordon McQueen, Joe Jordan and Martin Buchan who had a great sense of humour and were also hard guys.
“They did not take any enemies. If you did not quickly understand the expectations of the club then you would be hammered by them.”
Your arrival at the club coincided with the retirement of European Cup winning goalkeeper Alex Stepney. Did you feel any extra pressure on yourself because you were replacing an iconic player?
“If you are replacing anyone at Manchester United then you know that they are going to be a top player.
“I had already represented South Africa from the age of 18 so I was not a total novice. I was also a cocky South African kid who knew what I could do.
“That is not to say that it was not tough. I had Gordon McQueen and Martin Buchan as the two centre-halves playing in front of me. They had just played at the World Cup and I’m this 20-year-old kid shouting at them in no uncertain terms about where I need them to be and asking them for feedback.
“They looked at me as if [to say], ‘Who the hell are you again?!’ (Laughs).
“However, I had to do that because to be a top goalkeeper you need to communicate quickly and clearly. My motto was you stand there, and you stand there and if anything comes in the middle then it’s mine. No debate. No arguments. That’s how we worked it at United.
“At a club the size of Manchester United, you always have to perform and I did that in my first few years which earned me respect in the dressing room from the senior players.”
You played under three managers during your time at Old Trafford. If we start first of all with Dave Sexton. How do you reflect on his time in charge and the FA Cup final of 1979?
“Dave was a lovely man who understood his football and may he rest in peace.
“Some would say in hindsight that the club was too big for him and it did feel like that at times.
“Whereas Ron [Atkinson] thrived under the attention and pressure that comes as Manchester United manager. He embraced it. I loved Ron.
“Dave did not like the pressure and I think over time that spreads to the players a little bit too but he was reasonably successful and we came close in that FA Cup final in ‘79 against Arsenal.
“It was his last season that was a real bad one. That was the only time in time at the club that we finished outside the top four places in the league.
“Unfortunately, I do not have great memories of the final against Arsenal because as a goalkeeper, I come for the cross and I have to get there. I could have looked behind me and said who was covering but the bottom line is, the moment that you leave your line as a keeper, it’s on you.
“That match brought me back down to earth with a bump and I got some tough press which I understand. Thankfully, I came back the next year and we came close to winning the title and took it to the final day of the season at Elland Road.
“If we won and Liverpool lost then we would be champions. It did not happen but it was a good season compared to the one before.”
You went on to win the FA Cup twice in 1983 and 1985 under Ron Atkinson. What was it like to be a part of a successful side at Wembley in those showpiece finals?
“It meant a lot after ‘79. Losing is not always a bad thing as long as you come back stronger and go on to achieve success which thankfully we did.
“Cup finals can be manic and you don’t know what is going to happen next. You can play teams who are ranked lower than you and have a tough ask.
“That was the case in 1983 with Brighton. We had beaten them twice in the league that year and they weren’t a particularly great side but they did well to reach the cup final.
“On the day of the first final, we got in the lead then they got a goal from a corner and really should have won it in the last minute of extra time when Gordon Smith had a glorious opportunity.
“It annoys me when people say that he missed because I saved his effort. I came out at his feet and spread myself and thankfully the ball hit me and I was able to recover the ball.
“It was a decent, solid save so I do not think he should get the criticism that he gets for it. Although, I guess that was the biggest chance that Brighton ever had to win a major trophy then and probably even today.
“I felt euphoric when we won the replay to seal the win and get our hands on the trophy because we lost the League Cup to Liverpool in 1983 as well.
“I had pure relief and keeping a clean sheet in the replay was a sweet feeling too. I honestly thought that final would be the springboard for great success because Ron had built a team that was capable of winning a league title.
“Unfortunately, we came close and went well in Europe but it was not to be. Whether it was injuries or luck, we just fell short. It was frustrating for us as players, for Ron and for the fans too, but that is football.”
You mention the quality in that team, I have to ask you about Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath. What was it like as a goalkeeper to have them in front of you in defence?
“They were fantastic. Kevin Moran was as brave as a lion who would throw himself into every tackle but Paul McGrath was the genius. He was the best defender that I ever played alongside.
“Rio Ferdinand would be the best recent example of a player like Paul along with Raphael Varane. Paul had unbelievable pace and he was excellent in a pairing with Kevin.
“We also had Gordon Strachan in that side as well as Mark Hughes, Norman Whiteside, Bryan Robson and many other top players so we really should have won a league title.
“Bryan Robson was the key player to us. When Robbo played, we felt as if we were unbeatable. He was impossible to replace if he got injured.
“He was our Messi or our Ronaldo as the younger generation would think of a player and their importance to a team now. If he was fit for a full season then we would have won a league title without doubt.”
How did the 1985 FA Cup success compare to the 1983 success?
“It was a cagey game and losing Kevin Moran to a red card did not help because we had to play the last twenty minutes against Everton, who were league champions, with ten men.
“Fortunately for us, they had played in Europe during midweek so I think they were tiring at that stage in the game.
“I was thinking it was best for us to keep the clean sheets and take our chances in a replay with eleven men on the field.
“I did not think about winning after the sending-off. When Norman Whiteside picks the ball up, I’m screaming at him to get in the corner and waste time then he cuts inside and, again, I’m thinking ‘No, Norman, don’t shoot… oh, wow, great goal Norman, great goal!’ (Laughs).”
“We had to defend for our lives in the last six minutes after that wondergoal by Whiteside and I was punching every ball that came into the box just hoping that no one including myself would make a costly error.
“I was filled with sheer relief at full time when we had won the cup again. We were a great cup side and reached the semi-finals in Europe as well during my time at the club.
“We should have went on to win the league in 1986 and after a great start, it looked like we could do so.
“We were playing so well that when I joined up with the England squad, Gary Lineker told me that with the amount of wins that we had put together, he felt we would have the title wrapped up.
“When I went back for the next England camp in March, we were six points behind in the league. Again, injuries played their part but enough of the excuses. You need to have a squad big enough to get over the line.
“I think if Ron looked back, he would realise that we perhaps needed some more quality off the bench.”
You mentioned earlier that you loved playing for Ron Atkinson. What was it like in 1986 when Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at the club from Aberdeen?
“I thought Sir Alex was brilliant when he arrived. I returned injured after the World Cup as did Robbo and Norman.
“Without a spine to the team, we struggled and Ron was replaced.
“Sir Alex was good at every aspect of football management. Ron was a showman and a good buyer of players but he was not one who put a great deal of emphasis on tactics.
“Sir Alex could do it all. He knew how to set up tactically, he could motivate you, he knew who you were and he could throw the teacups at you when he had to.
“I thought he was absolutely brilliant. I only played for him five times due to injuries and I would love to have played for him a lot more.
“Amazingly, these days he may not have been given the time to succeed as it took him a few years to get the team in order to go on and achieve sustained success.
“A genius as a manager and as tough as nails who was also a very nice guy. He had it all.”
Finally, Gary, you have two England caps which you received in the era of Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence. How would you sum up your England career as a whole?
“It was very frustrating because as a goalkeeper, only one can play.
“My dad and I used to joke about it towards the end of my career and he would say that if he were from another part of the UK I could have wracked up tens of caps.
“It is what it is and I have two caps even though I was with the squad for ten years. It is not a great number of caps but it happens to many great goalkeepers who get stuck behind one who is just in front.
“Think of [Marc-Andre] ter Stegen with Germany as an example of that. He is a great goalkeeper but played in the same era as Manuel Neuer.
“Playing under Sir Bobby Robson was fantastic. He was very similar to Sir Alex Ferguson. Tactically astute and someone who never painted every player with the same brush. He knew his players and what they needed to thrive.
“A lovely man and a pleasure to work with. I just wish that I could have played under him more. His career at Barcelona and other elite clubs just shows you how good he was.
“I am still proud of getting the caps and the fact that I went to the World Cup in 1986. I also played for Manchester United nearly 400 times so when I look at it that way, it is not bad.
“Playing under two of the best managers of their generation in Sir Alex and Sir Bobby was special too and I am very lucky to have had those opportunities too.
“I have gone on to be involved in new challenges since I retired from playing as a pundit, a commentator and business so I am happy with what I’ve achieved.”