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Exclusive: From paint sprayer to Man United legend – Alex Stepney

Alex Stepney makes for a pleasant interview for a Manchester United blog because he’s happy to talk to fans. You can see that in our interview with him this week, as we chatted about his career prior to United, winning the European Cup and not ever discussing the Munich Air Disaster prior to that, relegation in 1974 and those tacky white gloves.

For me, a 24-year-old Red who was spoilt by success throughout my youth, I was always obsessed with the fact generations before me hadn’t grown up with such glory. So, to speak with Stepney, whom is ranked seventh in United’s most appearances list, is a massive honour.

Life was very different when Stepney was growing up. He explains this by enlightening us about only being allowed to join professional clubs when you left school at 15 and how he was told by a former Fulham manager that he would never make it. A premature judgement and Stepney takes pride from proving him wrong.

“You could only join a professional club when you left school at 15 in those days,” Stepney told Stretty News.

“I worked for a living as a paint sprayer. I went to Phillips in Croydon whilst playing amateur football for Tooting & Mitcham United.

“I had a trial for Fulham when I was 16 and the manager was a guy called Bedford Jezzard. I played half a game and he just said ‘you’re never going to make it, son.’ So I went and proved him wrong.”

Stepney was still playing amateur football. He was informed Millwall needed players for their Reserve Team — and took his chance before revealing a lovely anecdote about getting tickets to United’s FA Cup final win over Leicester City in 1963.

“I was still doing well playing amateur football and 1963 was a very bad winter as the game closed down for two months. Millwall wanted someone to play in their Reserves, so I played in the Reserve Team for about 8 games. Then the manager asked me to turn pro, so I thought why not? I was 20 and I thought let’s have a go at it.

“Ironically, it might sound a bit funny, the management in those days was a bit tighter and they couldn’t pay money or things like that because the Football League was very strict, but he gave me an envelope with fifty £1 notes and an FA Cup Final ticket to see Manchester United against Leicester.

“So I went to Wembley for the first time to watch an FA Cup final and three years later I joined United.”

This is where I stepped in curious to know how his move to United came about. West Ham were keen but he explains how Millwall showed their dislike of The Hammers by not letting him go there. A man who would go on to manage United in the future, Tommy Docherty, signed him for Chelsea but he only featured once before Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy spotted the right man to fill Harry Gregg’s void.

“I done well at Millwall and we had three good years there. I wanted First Division football and nearly went to West Ham, but that fell through because I don’t think Millwall and West Ham got on.

“So, Tommy Doc came in for me after he had fallen out with Peter Bonetti, who sadly passed away last week, so I signed for Chelsea but it didn’t materialise. I had one game for them because Peter got injured at the beginning of the 1966/67 season.”

You could say Stepney’s time at Chelsea was as brief as our conversation on the very topic. I find it hard to imagine anyone tipping him as the goalkeeper to win the European Cup with United, which is what Busby and Murphy were setting out to do.

“Then Matt Busby came looking for me, so there you go. He paid a world record fee at the time — £55,000 — and I never looked back for 12 years.

“I knew nothing about it [United’s interest] because I played against Southampton on the Saturday for Chelsea. On the Monday morning, I went into training at Chelsea and the trainer said ‘the boss wants to see you back at Stamford Bridge.’ I went and Tommy Doc took me to a hotel in London and I said ‘what am I doing here?’ He said ‘you’ll soon find out’ before Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy walked through the door.”

Isn’t that brilliant? The real Batman and Robbin.

Alex Stepney played in the lower divisions. And as a young lad who previously worked as a paint sprayer playing amateur football, he was about to join Manchester United under Matt Busby.

The Scot ensured that he would be made feel welcome.

“As a player who played in the lower divisions, I had never met any of the United players, so I didn’t know anybody. I just couldn’t believe that the day I turned up and went training, Matt came along and introduced me to everyone. I was made so welcome and knew I was in a family.”

“It was Harry Gregg and Pat Dunn, who won the Championship in 1965, and David Gaskell who played in that 1963 FA Cup final. There was three other goalkeepers there and Matt put me in for my first game against Man City at home. I was a regular right through playing 539 games for United.”

The art of goalkeeping has changed dramatically since Stepney played football. I wanted to know what big difference he sees, compared to the beautiful game today.

“If you want to see the biggest difference have a look at the pitches. Most were excellent for the first game of the season and then they got torn up and everything. They are not like that today, but goalkeepers have a different attitude today. We weren’t looked after. We had to look after ourselves. The game has changed so much. I mean, the game is much quicker. The ball is different. I don’t see many goalkeepers doing what we had to do to stay in the team by catching the ball. There is a lot of punching now and there’s not the same contact we had.”

I asked Alex about the Munich Air Disaster, if it was ever discussed when he joined United and in the lead up to the European Cup 10 years later. He describes with emotion the celebrations at Wembley as Manchester United beat Benfica 5-1, a team Busby had done homework on.

“No,” he said about Munich being talked about at the club when he joined in 1966. “I think that was the main thing even on my way up to Manchester. I wondered whether any of them spoke about Munich, and they didn’t.”

“Harry Gregg, who sadly passed away this year, was there and he was incredible in Munich. It was something that was instinctive of him which showed the kind of guy he was.

“There was Bobby [Charlton] in the team, Bill Foulkes and other players who had been there, like Nobby [Stiles] and Shay Brennan. They were all young kids when it happened.

“It was never mentioned and I found that I couldn’t say anything. Not even to players who I roomed with who had not been around at that time, at the club. You just didn’t do it.

“The fact is when we won it [the European Cup] I went straight to Bobby, Bill and Matt. When I looked at it on film everybody done that. Although we never spoke about it, it was in us as we knew what it meant to them and the supporters.

“It was incredible. In the first round we played a team from Malta with a concrete pitch covered with light sand. That wouldn’t be allowed today.

“We went to Sarajevo and had to fly to Dubrovnik. That was followed by an eight-hour bus journey from Dubrovnic — through the mountains — to Sarajevo, play the game and take the same route back to play a game on Saturday. That’s how it was.

“We went to Gornik after winning 2-0 at home. There was 105,000 in the stadium in Krakow and it -16 with six inches of snow on the pitch. I remember lining up in that tunnel because we had nylon shirts and they had poller neck sweaters. We got through that and the next game was the semi-final against Real Madrid.

“It was a bit surreal. Going back to the final we knew we had a job to do. The year before I joined United they beat Benfica 5-1 in Portugal. George Best was unbelievable and then we came up against them again in the 1968 final.

“Matt wouldn’t give a team talk on how we’d play. Instead he would go around the dressing room and discuss things with you all individually in the build-up to a game. That was the way he worked.

“We knew he wanted it which had a lot to do with Munich but we still never talked about it. I think it was a big weight off everyone’s shoulders, but in a very glad way we had done it for him and the supporters.

“We done it but wanted to go on and see what else we could do.”

Shay Brennan originated not too far from where I am from and was briefly player-manager of my local amateur team Clonmel Town FC after winning the European Cup with United. Stepney shared a hilarious anecdote about what Brennan did in the dressing room after extra-time in the final.

“Things have changed so much since those days. Shay was a guy who liked a pint and was a very quiet character. Typical Irish who enjoyed those around him and would come in with certain remarks.

“The funniest thing about Shay was in the final,” Stepney smiled.

“When we went into extra-time we got a throw-in on our left after about 2-3 minutes. John Aston, who was the man of the match, threw the ball back to Tony Dunne. He had gone through this unbelievable 90 minutes and it was 100 degrees in the stadium. Tony could have taken it on or passed it to Bobby Charlton in the middle of the field, but he didn’t really want it so he passed the ball back to me. In those days I could pick the ball up [from a back-pass] but I didn’t want to just kick it. I wanted to keep possession because I looked to my right and there was Shay Brennan on the other side of my box and I threw it to him because he was on his own. It turned out that he didn’t want it either so he passed it back to me. I had no other choice but kick the ball forward down the middle of the pitch and Brian Kidd got a flick on. George [Best] was still full of running and ran around the goalkeeper to score. We won the game and did our lap of honour. The dressing room was unimaginable with the champagne, trophy and everybody shouting. This is when Shay Brennan stood up on the chair and he had a Senior Service, a glass of champagne and he said ‘right lads, just remember I started the move for our second goal when I passed the ball back to Alex’.

Stepney told me Matt Busby wasn’t a manager to give team talks. Instead he would discuss matters individually with the players. I wanted to ask about Stiles and his performance up against the legendary Portuguese forward Eusebio.

“We are over 50 years on now but the last thing I can remember Matt saying before that walk up Wembley tunnel was, ‘Nobby, I want you to mark Eusebio man-for-man like you did two years ago in the semi-final of the World Cup against Portugal.’ Nobby probably would have said, ‘where do you want me to mark him?’

*Stepney laughs*

“Everyone had a job to do in the team. Nobby and Paddy [Crerand] were our hard men.”

Like I said at the beginning, I love learning about United from generations before me. Many Reds claim following United in the Second Division was the business. United took over towns with their numbers and won the division comfortably under the man who was in charge the previous season when they got relegated. Stepney takes responsibly. The table never lies.

“Players were getting a little older and things like that, so we got relegated,” he added.

“In all due respect the league table never lies. I played 42 games and I let in 48 goals. We never scored goals and lost 12 games 1-0. That was the problem. Then with all due respect the club kept on Tommy Docherty. They gave him a year to get out of the Second Division and he did. He got rid of who he wanted to get rid of, like most managers do, but he also got what Manchester United was all about. He got wingers. He got Gordon Hill, Stevie Coppell and Stuart Pearson as striker. So, all of a sudden you’re in the Second Division and we take it by storm.

“After getting promoted there’s a feeling in the side again, he eventually buys Jimmy Greenhoff and we win the FA Cup. OK, we lost the final to Southampton, but cup finals are one-off games. If you don’t play well you’re going to get beat. If you get some luck you’re going to win.”

More Stories Alex Stepney Jimmy Murphy Man Utd Manchester United Matt Busby Nobby Stiles Shay Brennan Tommy Docherty