As I arrive, Eamon is escorting a guest from his daily podcast The Stand through his front door. Brexit is looming and while it once would have filled many column inches for Eamon Dunphy’s newspaper columns, it is now a topic he discusses through his popular podcast. He shepherds me into his living room which is filled with books - tomes - on every topic. Barack Obama, Bertie Ahern and the Drumcondra Mafia, Piers Morgan. A book of poetry by John Betjeman resides by his laptop. Gore Vidal sits in the bookshelf next to I Am Zlatan.
He is a seasoned pro in the Irish journalism world. Both beloved and disliked from all factions, he is a character in every sense of the word. Eamon greets me warmly and he is incredibly affable; offering tea or coffee while I make myself comfortable before our interview. Leaders Questions is paused in the background. At 73, he says that he is busier than ever. He is preparing to record two podcast episodes the next day with former Republic of Ireland, Manchester United, and Leeds United footballer John Giles.
Eamon Dunphy literally wrote the book on Matt Busby. The bittersweet A Strange Kind of Glory was released to wide acclaim in 1991 as the definitive book on the Busby era. It cut through the bullshit and the mythology of Busby to tell an adoring tale of an ageing Busby that was truly warts and all. Busby was the hero in spite of his many failings. It was released in a time when Manchester United were floundering in the early Ferguson years and it harked back to a post-Munich time when Manchester United were similarly struggling, before the Holy Trinity of Best-Charlton-Law took flight and led Manchester United to glory in the 1968 European Cup.
Dunphy speaks animatedly about the disarray of Manchester United in the early 1960s. He is a good authority on his subject matter, having been a youth player at Manchester United at the time, arriving on the boat from Ireland in 1960 after being discovered by famed Irish talent scout Billy Behan. In his time in Manchester, he was schooled in Manchester life by fellow Irishmen John Giles and Noel Cantwell, both of whom would fall foul of Busby; while also being an underage contemporary and friend of George Best.
He is quick to point out how the disharmony of Manchester United in the 1960s resonates with the modern-day club. Football is cyclical and while Alex Ferguson once wanted to avoid the mistakes that Matt Busby left in his wake, it seems as though the club has gone down the exact same path.
“After Ferguson, then the succession thing which Liverpool mastered for a while, Shankly, Paisley, even to Joe Fagan, Joe won something, but succeeding someone like Ferguson who was so dominant, such formative influential figure is very difficult and they don’t come along easily. He picked David Moyes and David is a very good manager, a good man, but they never really gave him a chance and maybe it was too big for him. You need big characters.”
Manchester United have tried to hire big characters in the post-Ferguson time. Men like Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho were hired, but perhaps at the incorrect time. It is clear that Dunphy once rated Mourinho but felt that by the time he had arrived in Manchester, his heart was no longer in football.
“Mourinho had gone when he went there. He had had that scene at Chelsea. He doesn’t have the character. You talk about character - he doesn’t really have it. He is vain, he is tempestuous. It’s all about him, him, him. So they are in a death spiral now. They don’t know what to do and they don’t really have. They may have the money – which they don’t spend, the Americans don’t spend on the scale that they should do – but they don’t have Champions League football. Pogba wants to leave. De Gea. You saw the effect on De Gea last year at the back end of the season, and the rest of them are…way out of it… That Pogba thing.”
In re-reading A Stranger Kind of Glory, character is everything. Character is your worth as a man. Character is your strength of conviction and your willingness to stand tall when the chips are down. Character is your willingness to defend a teammate and face down Patrick Vieira in the tunnel at Highbury.
In addition to writing the Busby book, Dunphy also ghost-wrote Roy Keane’s autobiography in 2002. Keane had character, determination and strength of will; those phenomenal traits that can drive a team forward, but this level of character is now desperately lacking at Old Trafford. In Dunphy’s eyes, Paul Pogba and his lack of character is a big problem at Manchester United.
“I think he’s hopeless. For what he is, you pay £20m and that’s a lot, but [screw] it. But if you paid £100m and now they are looking to sell him for a hundred and fifty, well that’s lunacy – that’s the lunatic asylum. He doesn’t have the character, or the game. He’s not good enough. Neymar at least had, has this touch of genius, this quality- but Pogba has very little. Very little. And so at the moment he’s sashaying around with his agent Raiola and putting himself out there to Juventus, Real Madrid, what are they thinking?”
Part of the problem for any player joining Manchester United nowadays is the enormous weight of expectancy. There are problems for any team trying to carry on from the successful era that ran before hem.
“I’m not saying it’s a similar situation in terms of personality and culture now, but certainly they are on the same trajectory because they’ll forever be compared to Beckham, Scholes, Keane and that is hard… they had character and great talent. For the guys gone in there, it’s hard to be a Manchester United player. What people are looking at, in the back of their mind, is what was there before. So you are being compared all the time, so to go in there, no matter how much you cost, you know where the bar is and the bar has been set by your predecessors, and it is very high. It’s very high. For each individual player and for the team, it is very high. Pogba doesn’t even begin to get onto it. But yet he is supposedly the team leader and even if he had the ability I don’t think he has the emotional sustenance…”
The #GlazersOut campaign has highlighted problems with Manchester United that have been looming for a long time. Dunphy believes that the managerial genius of Alex Ferguson covered over the cracks for a significant period, but without the force of character that Ferguson wielded, along with his incredible strength of conviction, it would be enormously difficult for any manager to succeed with the poor executive structure at Manchester United nowadays.
“[Ferguson] knew how to do the job. And Pogba is symptomatic. Even the Sánchez thing.. that sort of deal… it’s a cancer in the dressing room. You have a guy there earning that kind of money, 550k a week and you have Rashford fighting for a deal. Rashford is a player of real potential but he wasn’t even playing in his right position up until OGS came in. Solskjaer is just… he’s just a nice lad.”
While Eamon is quick to declare himself a Liverpool fan, it is evident that he holds Manchester United in the highest of regard. He cut his teeth in Manchester in the early 1960s and speaks lovingly of Manchester, its people and its heritage. Like Giles and Cantwell, ultimately Eamon Dunphy fell afoul of Matt Busby and was sold to Division 3 side York City, though he holds no ill will.
I put that to him towards the end of our interview; I ask how he can afford to speak so lovingly adoringly of Busby in spite of their personal history and he says that it is in the past. He sees Busby as a classic ‘great man’ and says that doesn’t hold grudges. He obviously doesn’t. Dunphy says that he wants to see Manchester United come good again but is highly doubtful that it will happen any time soon.
“It is depressing if you are a United fan, but [United] have had a good run of it, so I wouldn’t be whinging too much. It’s going to be very interesting. It’s a great story, it’s a great club.”