Eric Harrison, who has died at 81, was a football coach who mentored Manchester United’s much-vaunted Class of ’92 and was responsible for forging the fledgling careers of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Gary and Phil Neville, among others.
The club’s former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, said his old youth team boss had been one of the greatest coaches of his time.
Harrison, who hailed from Mytholmroyd in the West Riding and was diagnosed with dementia four years ago, had been awarded an MBE for services to football last year. Unable to travel to London to receive it, he was invested in Halifax.
“He built character and determination in those young players and prepared them for the future,” Sir Alex said.
Harrison’s approach was founded on the lessons he took from his own playing career.
He had started out with his home town club, Halifax Town, at a time when football was an obsession. On his wedding day in October 1962, he exchanged vows with his wife Shirley in the morning and played in a 2-2 draw with Shrewsbury in the afternoon. It was one of 199 appearances for the club.
After spending seven years in the first team at The Shay he joined Hartlepool, signing a year before Brian Clough took his first managerial role with the club.
Further spells followed with Barrow (twice), Southport and in 1972 Scarborough, but wherever he went, Harrison felt something was missing – something he wanted to instil as a coach himself.
“In all my career, 550 games over 17 years, not one coach or manager took me to one side and said they would work with me to improve certain aspects of my game,” he later said.
“I was scared to say anything but I didn’t think it was right. I resolved that if I ever got a job coaching, I would make sure the players got coached properly.”
He was brought to United from Everton by Ron Atkinson in 1981 to work as a youth team manager.
Five years later, Ferguson arrived, made him head of youth development, and demanded in return that more players be brought through.
“It was like joining the army and Eric Harrison was sergeant major,” Giggs wrote in his autobiography.
By the time United were lifting the Champions League trophy in 1999, Harrison had started to wind down his coaching commitments, but he later worked as an assistant to Mark Hughes with Wales, and as a scout with Blackburn and Huddersfield.
He spent his final years in a nursing home, but was not forgotten by his former charges.
After his grandson, Joseph, contacted them, the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and Neville – players who had formed the backbone of United’s treble-winning side of 1999 – turned up to visit and spend time with their old mentor, demonstrating the strength of the bonds he built.
Harrison himself said the manager was the most important man at a football club, but insisted the youth coach should be listed close behind.
In the story of United’s great sides of the 1990s and early 2000s, he was unquestionably right.
“Although Sir Alex gave us our chance,” Butt said, “it was Eric pushing him towards putting us in from an early age.”