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Alan Tonge exclusive: Being Fergie's first Man Utd signing; playing for Alan Ball; now admiring Man City

Roy Keane. Rio Ferdinand. Cristiano Ronaldo. To name but a few. There is no shortage of big names Sir Alex Ferguson signed during his legendary time as manager of Manchester United. The very first player he signed, though, was a young lad called Alan Tonge.

Alan Tonge put pen to paper when still wet behind his ears and he has now released a book describing his experience while under contract with Manchester United. And while it describes both highs and lows of being under contract make no mistake; signing for "The Red Devils" was enormous.

"All our family are big Manchester United fans. My dad has been watching some of the great teams of the past with the likes of George Best, the Busby Babes and Bobby Charlton. To get that opportunity was quite amazing, really," Alan tells Tribalfootball.

"Bolton Wanderers wanted to sign me and I had a trial with Manchester City, but when Man. United offered me a schoolboy form and an apprenticeship, that was where my heart was really," he continues, while also highlighting the somewhat amazing fact, that Manchester United didn't really have a lot of scouts in the Manchester-area when Sir Alex Ferguson arrived in November 1986.

Six-a-side at The Cliff

He soon changed that, bringing in prospects like Lee Sharpe, Mark Bosnich, Darren Ferguson and Ryan Giggs but, at least in hindsight, Tonge got the feeling many youngsters were signed just to make up the numbers. Something he believes is still going on at various level these days.

"You enter Manchester United or another club with promise and potential, but the data tells us that not everybody can get through the system," says Tonge who was trying to climb the ladder leading up to the "Big Time".

"There were four teams when I was there. The B team was the first rung on the ladder, the young ones. Then you had the A team which Eric Harrison used to manage and it was a little more competitive. Then the reserves who played in the Central League. That was quite good because you used to have a mix of first team players and youth players in there, which was great. Then, obviously, you had the first team."

Tonge got to play alongside names like Viv Anderson, Norman Whiteside and Steve Bruce and has fond memories of internal tournaments at The Cliff, the old training ground before moving to Carrington.

"It wasn't unusual for Archie Knox to come down on a Monday morning and announce a massive six-a-side competition. So, you'd have all the first team lads, the reserves, the youth team and you'd all muck in together in a team. You could have a couple of youth team players, a couple of reserves and a couple of first team players in about ten different teams playing."

Sitting in the Gaffer's seat

Tonge also recalls his first taste of rubbing Alex Ferguson up the wrong way, however unintentionally.

"I was called upon to feature in an exhibition match when still only 17, so I was really nervous and a bit apprehensive when I clambered onto the coach. There I sat on a seat that had a table in front of it when Steve Bruce came on and said, 'you can't sit there, Alan. Sir Alex plays cards on that table'.

"I held my hands up and said, no problem, got up to start moving just as Ferguson got on. At that point Bruce turned around and said; 'Tonge is in your seat, he said he's not moving' and then Fergie went, 'well, you bloody F*** this and F*** that and so forth. That's a good start, isn't it?'

Tonge of course survived the incident as he also survived the various initiation rites which he looks back on with a frown.

"There's a fine line sometimes between banter and bullying and the culture was sometimes a bit strange. Not just at Man. United, but across football. Child protection, health and safety wasn't really as strong as it is today," says Tonge while recalling a particularly serious incident with the youth team manager.

"After a game, for some reason Eric Harrison gave me an almighty bollocking right in my face. It was effing this, effing that. It was not very nice because I was only 15 at the time and I remember going out of the dressing room, thinking, should I go and tell my mum and dad about it? But you had to take it."

Down but not out

Tonge eventually also had to take being released by Manchester United, surplus to requirements, which led him south to Exeter City, where a certain Alan Ball resided as a manager. A World Cup winner targeting Alan Tonge specifically.

"He said he'd seen a couple of reserve games where I'd done all right. As I always say, and there's no disrespect to Exeter people, I didn't know where it was in the country. But I packed up my car and headed down the motorway and had a really enjoyable time down there."

Unfortunately, Alan Tongue suffered a career-ending injury which led to a dark period in his life.

"For about four years I was just a little bit lost. I didn't know what to do, I'd been in football since I was young and I was still only around 23-24 at the time. So, I had a few years doing different jobs like warehouse work," Tonge tells of a time where food and drink probably wasn't as healthy as it could have been, as he alludes to in his book. Then one day a family member suggested going back to university.

"I'd never really considered it but it ended up being one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life."

Doctor Tonge at Man City

As one of few ex-footballers Alan Tonge is now able to call himself a doctor which again makes you wonder how an intelligent man like him ended up being taken to such a dark place after losing football as a career.

"Football makes up a big part of who you are. At school, you get this tag 'Alan the Footballer' which is how people see you. But when it stops abruptly and you're not a footballer anymore, if you're not careful you can start becoming a bit lost. You spend more time in pubs than you should be, perhaps you're gambling more money than you should be, your diet has gone out the window. It is tough trying to replace football."

Fortunately, Alan Tongue found himself in time to nowadays work at UCFB who, ironically, have their graduation events at the Etihad.

"Yeah, it's quite interesting being a Manchester United fan, but we have events at Old Trafford too," he chuckles. While still eager to point out his allegiance to Manchester United, he has only praise for the work Manchester City have done in the city.

"They've done fantastically well in relation to establishing the prominence in Manchester. They've built a massive arena called the Co-op Arena next door to the Etihad Stadium. That's supposed to be one of the biggest arenas now in Europe.

"I think they're increasing the capacity of the ground as well, so there are cranes around one of the back ends of the Etihad Stadium. We've got a lot to do with Manchester City", says the former Red, who came out well at the other end, despite never achieving the football-career, he dreamed about. And that's no small feat.

- Alan Tonge's book "From Red to Read" is out now on Pitch Publishing and can be purchased here

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