Brian McClair is musing over his new image and the confusion it can cause people when they encounter him these days.
‘It happens an awful lot more than I ever imagined it would, particularly the fact I’m covered in this lovely grey stuff that’s growing out of my face,’ he says.
‘It’s entertaining listening. Sometimes I’ve been in situations where my name has cropped up and they’ve no idea it’s me, which is pretty bizarre.
‘What I tend to say now when they ask if I’m Brian McClair is “I used to be”, which is quite flummoxing for a lot of people. How can you used to be? Who are you now? What are you now?’ Musing is what McClair does. He has his own podcast, Life With Brian, which has run for two years and 35 episodes.
Launching it in lockdown, the man nicknamed Choccy (it’s a McClair/eclair pun) throughout a football career scoring goals for Manchester United and Celtic playfully introduced himself as Chocrates ‘because I’m a philosopher now’.
Former Man United and Celtic star Brian McClair is unrecognisable from his playing days
McClair (R) was part of four Premier League title-winning sides during his time at Old Trafford
Maybe that explains the new look. Not so much Homer as homeless, it might be said.
Typically, McClair can see the funny side. When he joined a 30th year reunion of United’s 1993 title-winning team at the Lowry Theatre last weekend, he reassured the audience that he had somewhere to stay for the night.
It’s certainly a departure from the clean-shaven image so familiar during his playing days. With a thick, grey beard reaching down to his chest and long hair falling onto his shoulders, McClair is barely recognisable.
When he was pictured with a fan in the Gold Cup pub in Manchester last month, the photo of the 59-year-old former United star went viral on social media.
McClair seems equally happy to engage with the public or just sit on his own. ‘I’ve always been pretty good at avoiding people,’ he says.
‘I don’t have to particularly participate in any conversations, but I can listen and watch and I find that energising. I’ve always been a people watcher. Every day I see things that amuse me.
‘It’s always been a positive experience. I haven’t had many people wanting to ask me outside for what is colloquially known in Scotland as ‘a square go’ or castigating me. I feel blessed in that.’
Speaking on the popular podcast, he recalls an encounter in the Saracen Head pub in Glasgow with an older man who simply refused to believe it was him despite searching for a photo on his phone and holding it up to McClair’s face.
McClair (C) was nicknamed ‘Choccy’ and was a cult hero at both Celtic and the Red Devils
After retirement, McClair’s exploits included spending 13 years on the coaching staff at United
On another occasion, a number of years earlier, someone who heard Brian McClair was in the bar mistakenly approached the player’s friend and asked him for an autograph.
‘My mate looks nothing like me and is comfortably three stones heavier for a start,’ chuckles McClair. ‘He pointed at me and the guy said, “no that’s not Brian McClair”.
‘My mate handed me a bit of paper and I signed it. The guy was totally disgusted and turned to my mate and said: “What kind of f*****g person are you? Can’t you even f*****g sign an autograph?”
‘He was away telling all his friends that that Brian McClair is a d**k. Maybe he’s still wandering around cursing me for being too arrogant to sign my own autographs!’
Another nugget is the story of how McClair came to own a copy of an Oasis demo tape from the days when the Gallagher brothers washed the players’ cars at United and City.
He isn’t short of stories or opinions, and not just on his own show either. Speaking to the Football Social Daily podcast last month, McClair was in forthright mood.
Take this appraisal of Sir Alex Ferguson: ‘Fergie was a lucky b*****d. You look at Barcelona ‘99, we got absolutely hammered and he came away with the Champions League trophy. That is nothing to do with tactics.’
On Roy Keane: ‘What I admire most about Roy is overcoming his demons with alcohol. That’s incredible he’s managed to do that. At some point it was a potential threat to his football career.’
McClair is relishing his new appearance and has his own successful podcast – ‘Life with Brian’
He joked Sir Alex Ferguson was ‘a lucky b*****d’ when United won the 1999 Champions League
And on a young David Beckham: ‘All he seemed to want to do was hit the ball 60 yards from right to left, often straight out the pitch. I got frustrated about this. If Preston could have scraped up the money, I think United would have sold him.’
McClair has always seemed different to your average footballer. The title of his 1998 autobiography Odd Man Out feels like it is more than just a reference to him frequenting the substitutes’ bench towards the end of his career at Old Trafford.
In it, he describes cutting short a degree in maths, physics and statistics at Glasgow University to turn professional with Celtic, and a passage on the links between heading a football and dementia points to a player way ahead of his time.
At United, he became the team’s PFA representative and was even asked by Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt to sit with them during contract negotiations.
There has always been a quirky side to McClair too, as readers of Choccy’s Diary in the United magazine from the 1990s will know.
‘I have a wicked sense of humour, and that’s only got more pronounced the older I’ve got,’ he told The Scotsman in 2018.
McClair became something of a cult hero at United and Celtic. The week before his appearance at The Lowry last month, he was at the Greenock branch of the Celtic Supporters’ Club for An Evening with Brian McClair. He will travel to Dubai and Las Vegas in the spring for events involving his old clubs.
He scored 126 goals in 204 games at Parkhead, and 127 in 471 for United, most notably becoming the first player at the club since George Best to reach 20 league goals in a season.
One of Ferguson’s first signings in 1987, he played at Old Trafford for 11 years. If Eric Cantona was the spark for Ferguson’s success, then McClair was the slow-burner who filled a number of roles across different teams that won 14 trophies.
McClair scored 127 goals in 471 games for United and was most notable for becoming the first player at the club since George Best to reach 20 league goals in a season
Some fans recognise McClair (R), but many others fail to believe the man with the thick grey beard and long hair is him
After a brief spell as assistant to Ferguson’s old No.2 Brian Kidd at Blackburn, he returned to United where he spent another 13 years on the coaching staff, eventually as director of the youth academy.
McClair left in 2015 to become director of performance at the Scottish FA, but he wasn’t suited to the politics of the job and quit 17 months later admitting he was ‘deeply disappointed I couldn’t make a significant difference’.
The role meant moving back to Scotland where he spent lockdown in Edinburgh.. His son Liam, a former United trainee who is the youngest of McClair’s three children with ex-wife Maureen, persuaded him to do the podcast and also composes the music for it.
The guests have been as varied as chef Michel Roux jnr, ‘Whispering Bob’ Harris and his old Arsenal sparring partner Nigel Winterburn.
McClair has since returned to the Manchester area and settled back in Cheshire where he is often spotted dressed down as usual, sometimes wearing an Alice band to make the long hair look a little less unkempt.
Some people may recognise him, others never will. And that, you suspect, is just how he likes it.
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