Nicky Butt
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Nicky Butt says Man Utd have to sign Varane, talks first encounter with Ronaldo and tips Grealish to play big England role

| 21.06.2021

Nicky Butt knows what it takes to create a winning team. After graduating from the Red Devils’ academy, he played an impressive 387 games for United, winning six Premier Leagues and the Champions League in 1999.

Nicky also played 39 times for England, including at the 2002 World Cup, and we caught up with the former midfielder ahead of England’s game against Czech Republic to get his thoughts on United and what he’d like to see from Gareth Southgate’s men.

Man United have to sign Raphael Varane this summer

For me, next season has to be about getting some silverware back in that trophy cabinet for Manchester United. It’s about getting the right players who will allow you to challenge for trophies. It’s a winning club, so we can’t go this long without silverware.

The biggest thing that needs addressing for me at Manchester United this summer is that centre-back position; we need a partner for Harry Maguire. It has to be someone that’s going to be compatible with Maguire. If you spend the kind of money you did on Harry Maguire, you then have to follow it up by bringing someone in who can play with him. He’s the club captain; Victor Lindelof is too similar to him. It needs to be someone with pure, blistering pace, someone who can play out from the back.

Everyone talks about Raphael Varane. I understand he’s a little bit older than most people would perhaps like, but you just have to go back to the days of Teddy Sheringham. I think we bought him when he was 32, and we went and won the treble with him. If Varane is available, then I’d go all out for him.

I think Man United are solid enough in midfield. I keep hearing things about Declan Rice, but is he a better player than Scott McTominay? I’m not sure; I think with McTominay, Paul Pogba and obviously Bruno Fernandes, we’re in a good place in the middle of the park.

I get embarrassed talking about the Class Of ’92; the senior players carried us for three years

When I was coming through the ranks and joining up with the first-team at Manchester United, we had a lot of good players in centre-midfield. Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes left, and I don’t think it was necessarily like-for-like for me, David Beckham and Paul Scholes. I think it was a case of the manager trying to make use of his young players. He wanted to give us a chance, because otherwise what was the point in having us around the place?

Paul Ince was a top, top player and he joined Inter Milan. I think the offer was too good to refuse back in the day, and the manager put the likes of me, Beckham and Scholes all in the starting line-up, and I think a lot of people thought he was a lunatic for doing so because we got battered by Aston Villa, going home with our tails between our legs.

I get a bit embarrassed talking about the Class of ’92, because if it wasn’t for the senior players at the club, we would have never even have got through the first season, never mind have the careers we’ve all had. We owe a lot to them.

Players like Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, these players were like Gods to us, and they still are to this day. They helped us through a really big part of our lives. The manager knew he had a good group of young players, but more importantly he knew he had top quality senior players that could help us.

I don’t think they get enough credit for the job they did; you hear the phrase Class of ’92 a lot, but in fairness, those names probably carried us for at least three years. Scholesy might get two goals and have a great game one week, but that wasn’t a regular thing when he was 18. Beckham might put in three or four great passes and score a nice goal, but that wasn’t every week.

Fergie scared us away from driving our fancy cars to training

I can honestly say I never had any real fallouts with Sir Alex [Ferguson]. Obviously, there are times where I hated him for dropping me, or he’d tell me off for doing something wrong. But that was the manager’s job. He was tough, and he was honest.

As a kid, you think he’s singling you out, but as you get older you realise he’s doing his job and if I was to become a manager, I’d be tough with my players, just like he was.

He knew how to keep our feet on the ground, and he knew how to stop us getting carried away. We all represented the club in the right way, both on and off the pitch.

The only thing I can actually remember is that we were scared to bring new cars into the training ground, because we knew that if he thought you were being too flash, you were stuck in the reserves for a few weeks. We all had these unbelievable cars, but we never drove them!

We knew when he walked into a room, he was the boss. But we managed ourselves a lot, too. People can say anything they want about the manager, but he instilled into us the mindset that if we wanted to be a part of the club for a long time, we had to put the work in. The minute he saw you getting carried away or getting ahead of yourself, you were out of the club.

We sat in a car park for three hours waiting for Fergie to sign Ronaldo

We played a game in pre-season against Sporting in Lisbon, and we’d just travelled from Chicago to Portugal. We’d got off the plane, had a bite to eat, we were all completely knackered, and we’d got onto the pitch and this young kid was just electrifying. We were all just looking at him and thinking ‘wow’.

We were all making excuses after the game; we were tired, it was a rubbish game, and we ended up sat on the team coach for about three hours after the game. Everyone is getting annoyed because we just want to go, but it turns out the manager and David Gill were in the stadium pretty much signing Cristiano Ronaldo there and then.

He came to our training ground, a young, tall but skinny young lad; a really nice lad, he had bags of pace, bags of skill and he was very determined. You’d kick him in training and he’d get up, get the ball and run at you again and again. Honestly, we didn’t expect him to be anywhere near the level he’s now at; we knew we had a super talent and we knew he was a top player.

But it was his second year at the club when we started to notice things. You realise he’s spending much longer on the training ground and in the gym. It’s like he realised the areas he needed to improve in his game, so he would stay out, taking free-kick after free-kick, he’d be working on all of the little details that make him the player that he is now.

I know people will think I’m exaggerating, but that’s a fact. He was out on the pitch, free-kick, free-kick, free-kick, free-kick, free-kick, free-kick, non-stop. I swear he was absolutely obsessed. He spent as much time as he could in the gym, getting bigger, getting stronger.

It was over those first couple of years at United we saw a real change in him, and then obviously he’s since gone on and reached a new level. He arrived at the same time as Eric Djemba-Djemba and the pair of them palled up together. They were very good mates, so it wasn’t like any of us felt like they had to take Ronaldo under our wings. There were so many good lads in that squad; we were all really close, so when we stepped out on the pitch, we all looked after each other.

Grealish wins free-kicks; we’ve forgot about how much of a role set-pieces played in the World Cup

Jack Grealish has to play, for me. He’s got to be a starter. I understand if we got deep into the tournament playing against a team like France, something’s got to give and we can’t go too attacking. But certainly against Scotland he had to start. The next game, for me, should be one for Grealish to start in.

You can still play Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling; you just need to drop either Kalvin Phillips or Declan Rice and drop Mount into a midfield three with one of those two and Grealish alongside them.

Grealish definitely has to start that game for me. You saw in the half an hour he was on the pitch, he’s so comfortable on the ball and he draws players in and forces fouls. He invites knocks. For me, he looks like the one who can carry the weight of the expectation.

But as well as that, he wins us free-kicks. If you look at the last tournament, we were so successful from set-pieces, and Grealish draws in so many fouls around the edge of the box. With Harry Maguire coming back from injury, we’ve got a really powerful team from set-pieces.

I’m a football lad through and through; I was brought up playing football the right way. But if someone said to me you can win a tournament by scoring a few goals from set pieces, I’d take it all day long. There are a few different reasons why Grealish should be a starter for me, and that is absolutely one of them.

My starting XI v Czech Republic

I can’t see Gareth Southgate changing too much for the game against Czech Republic. I think Harry Maguire comes in now, despite how well we’ve done defensively, I just think it makes sense to give Harry an hour in the last group game to get him back into the swing of things for the knockouts.

Even though I thought Kalvin Phillips has done well, I see him being dropped in favour of a more attacking option, and that’s probably where Jack Grealish comes in. I think Gareth will go back to Kyle Walker at right-back; I don’t think Reece James had the best of games.

Luke Shaw still has more to offer this team; I couldn’t understand why Kieran Trippier starting that opening game as left-back. He either plays as right-back or he doesn’t play at all. Luke Shaw has been the best left-back in the Premier League this season. He’s the out-and-out starter, for me. With him and Walker in the full-back roles, getting Maguire back alongside John Stones, all of a sudden you’re looking at a really solid back four.

Gareth Southgate is in a tricky position

The Scotland game felt completely lacklustre, a bit of an anti-climax and we just lacked real edge.

For me, it just felt like we didn’t have any class in midfield; anyone to go and create chances. We were lacking energy, creativity, it was pretty much everything the first game wasn’t.

Gareth Southgate is in a tricky position, because if you put a team out – as he did against Croatia – who do well and win a game, it’s hard to really make too many changes, so I understand why Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice both played.

Going forward in the tournament, we have to change things up a bit depending on who we’re playing. But the main thing is that we’ve got four points from two games, which means we’re probably going to qualify, so we’ve ticked that first box.

The best way you can look at it is by thinking that this team are on a journey, and the current focus is to get out of this group. Forget the game against Scotland; those derby games used to do my head in when I was playing. I used to love playing in them, obviously, but there’s so much that goes on in the build-up, but at the end of the day it’s three points you’re playing for.

Take your head away from the rivalry with Scotland, we’ve played two games and we’ve got four points. We look pretty nailed on to qualify. We’re more than capable of beating Czech Republic. We’ve got to take it one step at a time, and while I get that the fans are frustrated because we didn’t play well, we’ve as good as qualified for the knockouts, so it’s job done on that front.

Southgate was right to bring Kane off; he could be out of a job if England don’t do well

I think bringing off Harry Kane was the right thing to do; I know it’s 0-0 and he’s the main striker against one of their biggest rivals, but we’ve got a lot of options on the bench that are equally top players. People go through bad spells; if you see someone’s not in form, you’ve got to bring them off.

Gareth Southgate’s job could be on the line if they don’t do well in this tournament, so he’s got to do what’s right for himself, his team and the country. If Kane’s not on his game, he’s got to be subbed.

If we get knocked out by a strong team like France at an early stage, then there’s not much you can do, as long as they’ve given it a good go. Don’t be getting beat by being negative.

We’re not the best team in the world by any stretch of the imagination. But if we can put on a good display against Czech Republic, all of a sudden everyone in England is going to bed happy and there’s another change in spirits, we’ve got seven points and we’re sailing through.

Success for England here is reaching at least the semi-finals. But if that’s not meant to be, then success has to be measured by looking at the likes of Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jack Grealish, all of these young players who are going to be much better in two years from now.

Biggest regret of my career

The chances are in football, there’s always going to be a better team out there than you, and for me, I think back to the game against Brazil in 2002, in the quarter-final of the World Cup.

We went and watched Brazil play against Belgium in their first knockout game, and we weren’t too scared about them. We knew they were far superior than us, but we knew we had a solid team, and we felt positive. Ronaldo and Rivaldo lit the lights up, but fundamentally, we had a really strong team. We had an unbelievably solid goalkeeper in David Seaman. Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand was the best partnership in the tournament. Michael Owen could score goals up-front, David Beckham could create chances. We had so many good players and a real team ethos.

The disappointment for me in that tournament is that when we went 1-0 up against Brazil, we ended up letting them score before half-time. Even though they then go 2-1 up, they get a man sent off with over half an hour to go, and we didn’t go on and really challenge them in the game.

That was the biggest disappointment in my career, if I’m honest with you. We had a chance to beat the mighty Brazil and go on to a World Cup semi-final. We panicked; it was as simple as that. The nation were right to be disappointed in us, because we should’ve got through that game.

There’s a reason we’ve gone so long without winning anything it’s because we don’t finish games off. We don’t have a killer instinct. We have to find a killer instinct where we believe in ourselves against the big teams. We just don’t have the belief to go and finish tournaments off.

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