By Simon Evans
BURNLEY, England (Reuters) – When Mike Phelan was asked if he would like to return to Manchester United and assist Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in turning the club around after the sacking of Jose Mourinho in December, he barely paused for thought before agreeing.
Having enjoyed plenty of success at Old Trafford as Alex Ferguson’s trusted right-hand man, the chance to return after a six year absence was not an opportunity the 56-year-old was going to let pass.
But while that was an instant decision, there had been plenty of contemplation during his time away from the club.
“I had a time of reflection. I felt that I needed to look back and examine the processes that were in place. Because you just don’t get the time when you are actually ‘in it’,” he told Reuters at his East Lancashire home.
Phelan wanted to look back to find out exactly how United had enjoyed such dominance and conversations with Ferguson and former United CEO David Gill formed part of that process.
But after a brief spell as manager of Hull City in the 2016-17 season, with the club poorly resourced and heading for relegation, Phelan took time away from the game and decided to extend that investigation of leadership skills.
“I thought I needed to find out more. I am quite an open-minded sort of fella and the more people you meet, the more areas of expertise you venture into, you find yourself searching for that common denominator,” he said.
Phelan talked to people in rugby and other sports and looked at American coaching and management methods as well as the world of business.
“What I found was that the simplicity in most things tends to be the most effective. We are all looking for the secret ingredient but when you start to talk to people at the elite level, the top end, you find they do the simple things better than most people,” added the former United player.
As Phelan describes the conclusions he reached, it is also evident they have been put into practise at United since December.
“The (leaders) communicate better and they actually hand over the reigns to people to get on with their jobs. You bring people into your environment, you communicate well, you express your thought process and then you hand it over and see what comes back,” he said.
A look at the technical area during games reveals that approach in action. Solskjaer is in charge but Phelan frequently is out on the touch-line guiding players and the other coaches, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, are also part of the collaboration.
“I like the idea of sharing, seeing people grow, (then) the end product,” he says.
Still, Phelan has been surprised how quickly Solskjaer was able to change the mood at the club, bringing back a sense of enjoyment.
“It was an instant response,” he says, noting the way that Solskjaer created a “breath of fresh air” around the club’s Carrington training complex.
The challenge, now that the Norwegian has been appointed the long-term manager, is to turn that ‘bounce’ into a more substantial improvement. Phelan believes they are helped by having players who still have plenty of scope for improvement, none more so than Paul Pogba.
Pogba looked unhappy and unsettled during the latter period of Mourinho’s time at the club but has shone since the change.
“I think that happened to quite a few players, they probably drew into themselves a little bit and were very cautious,” says Phelan.
“Paul had a spell where all the eyes were on him and delivery of his best wasn’t there all the time, the consistency.
“Now we are trying to apply ourselves to Paul’s game. Ole has done a terrific job at helping Paul through certain spells and he has embraced that. He is maturing all the time.
“He is not the finished deal even though everyone looks at him and sees a World Cup winner already but he is not the finished deal, there is still a lot more to come and that is the exciting bit about United.
“There are players there who haven’t achieved for the club what they need to achieve and we want to make sure that they relish that experience, embrace the opportunity to win things at Manchester United.”
Another of those players is left back Luke Shaw, who has significantly improved in recent months.
“We think that there is more to come from Luke – he is young, he is energetic and he has an attitude which is developing all the time. We feel that the world is his oyster… he is a huge player,” says Phelan.
With United facing Barcelona in a Champions League quarter-final first leg on Wednesday, there is the sense of the club being on the right path to rediscovering their glory days.
Phelan certainly doesn’t feel the past is a weight on the club nor has that success reduced his own personal hunger.
“I want these players to enjoy their own great moments for themselves but I also want to do it again – that is the drive,” he said.
“It is different this time around, of course it is. It was six years ago, but it is not impossible, definitely not impossible.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Christian Radnedge)