Signed from: Celtic (£850,000), July 1987
Debut: 2-2 draw vs Southampton, August 15th 1987.
League Record: 296 games (+59 as sub), 88 goals
Sold to: Motherwell (free transfer) summer of 1998
I think I’m right in saying that of the 11 players who started the first game of the 1988/89 season (a 0-0 draw against QPR), and indeed every player across the campaign, McClair was the last to leave United. By that point he was a good four years over the hill and some believed he was only being kept on because his diary in the official club magazine was always good for a chuckle.
Initially, though, Brian McClair was a very effective striker snapped up by Fergie in his first summer in charge. Though he’d scored goals for fun North of the Border, there may have been some worries about the last freescoring Celtic striker to ply his trade in England: Charlie Nicholas, who would go the opposite direction to McClair after several frustrating years at Arsenal enlivened only by scoring both their goals in their 2-1 victory against Liverpool in the 1987 League Cup final.
"Choccy", however, hit the ground running and played a big part in us being runners-up in the 87/88 League Championship, including being the first United player to score 20 league goals in a season since George Best. Despite that, most fans’ abiding memory of McClair from that season is a penalty he booted into orbit in a FA Cup game at Arsenal, ensuring defeat, after which he was chased around by a gloating Nigel Winterburn.
It was around this time he began his perculiar post-goalscoring habit, if the game was still in the balance, of rushing to pick the ball up from the net and running back to the place the ball for the restart. He would do this even if there was plenty of time left. Quite endearing, in a way, though Mark Bright gave him a sly kick when he did this at Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day 1992. Ever since then, I've thought of Bright as nothing but a total fuckwit.
Come the autumn of 1990 and the visit of Arsenal to Old Trafford, Winterburn made a bad tackle on Dennis Irwin. With his nemesis still on the ground, McClair decided to was a good time to show actions speak louder than words, wading in and booting the Arse left back several times with no little vigour. In turn, this sparked a series of pushing and shoving in which every player bar their keeper got involved to some level. We were deducted a point and Arsenal two for bringing the game into disrepute, not that it meant much to them as they coasted to the Championship.
The incident seems a bit odd, in hindsight, as McClair always comes across a fairly mild-mannered type – certainly more intelligent than the majority of his peers and more likely to read the NME than the Sun. Certainly he is a man with no shortage of wit and smarts. Perhaps the clichéd berserk Scotsman hidden beneath finally had to be unleashed.
Going back to his first season, it would prove to be a false dawn of sorts. With the arrival of Mark Hughes, McClair never really hit the same kind of goal scoring form again, with the exception of the 1991/92 season. Through 1989/90 season, his record in front of goal got particularly bad, with only five goals in 37 league games, only one of which between November and the end of the season. The crowd, perhaps understandably, were on his back and it’s a sign of how much faith Ferguson had in his man that he wasn’t dropped: he was repaid with vital winning goals in FA Cup ties at Newcastle and Sheffield United and another in the Semi Final replay against Oldham.
Perhaps with the lift of his first winners medal at the end of that cup run, he picked up his form again the next year, scoring in every round bar the final of our victorious European Cup Winners Cup run. The year after, he scored the only goal of the 1-0 League Cup final victory against Nottingham Forest.
By the time we were Premier League champions for the first time in 1993, Choccy had been moved back into a midfield role, though his ability to act as cover up front as well saw him become a regular on the subs bench when he was pushed from being a regular starter in the first eleven. It was from this role that he tapped in the final goal of our 4-0 drubbing of Chelsea in the 1994 FA Cup final.
After that, he was kept on presumably as a kind of mentor/role model to some of the younger lads he may have played alongside in the Reserve team: an idea that makes sense given his current job as Director of the Youth Academy at United.