From refereeing drunken scraps to promoting football apps: Manchester United’s class of ’92 enjoy Hong Kong 20 years on

Scholes, Butt and Neville brothers talk about the differences between visiting the territory now and then

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 9:11pm

It’s been all about the 20th anniversary of the return to the motherland this past week, but for Manchester United’s class of ’92, reflecting on Hong Kong two decades ago may conjure up slightly different memories.

A drunken brawl in a Hong Kong hotel between two United players on a pre-season tour in 1997?

Gary Neville seemed taken aback when the Post asked if he could shed light on it. “A scrap?” he said, with an incredulous smile.

“Not on my watch, I was in bed!” added Neville with a laugh, cradling his head to his clasped hands.

It’s hard not to imagine that he was. Neville and brother Phil have always been the straight-laced pair of United’s famous class of ’92, who, minus David Beckham, visited Hong Kong last week 20 years on from that tour.

United beat South China 1-0 in a friendly on July 20, 1997, but it was the black eye sported by goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel at a pre-match press conference that took the headlines.

Schmeichel explained it away as the result of an accidental elbow received in training.

But in Roy Keane’s 2014 autobiography The Second Half, the former United captain claimed he head-butted Schmeichel during a drunken brawl at the team hotel after a night out.

Keane claimed in his book that Nicky Butt had “refereed the fight”.

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However, Butt was reluctant to discuss the incident 20 years on, sitting tight-lipped, shaking his head, saying “nope” when asked if he could remember anything like that happening.

Perhaps understandable, given Butt is now head of coaching at the United academy.

Plus, he probably learned a while ago that upsetting Keane may not be the greatest idea.

The class of ’92 enjoyed a much less turbulent time on this visit, taking part in a panel entitled “Building Winning Teams” at a famous Hong Kong members club.

They also met Hong Kong United fans at a promotional event for Now TV’s football coverage and the new interactive “Ballr” app.

Along with Beckham, the class of ’92 won the lot with United in the 1990s and early 2000s, after coming through the ranks together as schoolboys.

While the hairlines were receding and the waistlines a little less tight, some things never change about the group, such as their humility, working-class roots and sense of humour.

The quintet took the MTR around town with Gary Neville even disrupting an attempt to make a promo video on a train carriage by throwing a ball into the presenter’s face.

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Paul Scholes looked as awkward with public speaking as ever at the Now TV event when asked for his thoughts on United next season and even more so when he was asked to pronounce some Cantonese.

“He’s done a great job,” was Marco Fu Ka-chun’s assessment of Scholes’ pronunciation. He may be a bit biased though – the Hong Kong snooker star is a lifelong United fan and even put a picture of himself with Scholes on Instagram after meeting his hero.

According to Sam Jones, founder of the Ballr app, the class of ’92 are the perfect fit to promote his product.

“I spent 10 years as a headhunter in Asia, mainly in Hong Kong, moving people around investment banks,” said Jones.

“The biggest problem I noticed in banking, and I left four years ago, was ego. The banks were strangled by the amount of ego on trading floors and lack of collaboration.”

Jones had struck up a casual friendship with Giggs when he left Hong Kong to live in Eccles, greater Manchester.

“The thing I’ve noticed dealing with these guys, they don’t have an ego,” he said.

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“They’ve done all right for themselves, haven’t they. There’s a real underlying theme about being on time, the last photograph is not a problem.”

So, the guys have swapped refereeing hotel scraps for a jolly-up 20 years on, but do they actually understand the app they are promoting?

They looked on a bit bemusedly during a presentation of the app’s features at Olympian City 2 shopping mall, when Giggs’ famous FA Cup semi-final goal against Arsenal in 1999 was shown on a big screen, as the United fans in attendance whooped and cheered.

Users select players during five-minute periods of live football matches and accrue points for actions such as goals, shots, tackles, crosses, dribbles and saves, etc.

Giggs’ goal would’ve earned a whopping 100,000 points, we were told, having left a bunch of Arsenal defenders on their backsides before firing the ball into the roof of the net.

Still, the guys all looked the part in their “Ballr” shirts and stuck to the script when asked about how much they love the new app.

Players can win prizes such as football shirts and, according to the official press release, “epic experiences”. Sign me up.

Jones explained he is not interested in promoting gambling – there are no cash prizes and the app is free to us, all funded by advertising.

The players will be back in August to help promote the app again at the start of the new Premier League season.

Handover hysteria should have died down by then, at least.

“It’s interesting actually, we were driving from the airport today and saw the police motorbikes, they’re still the English motorbikes,” Gary Neville said, laughing.

“I was surprised. But from our point of view, Hong Kong’s been a big part of British history. I came over here the first time in 1996 and played a game over here with England. I’ve always enjoyed coming to the city.

“It’s a wonderful place with wonderful people. You see all the English road names, some of the buildings and architecture is English.

“But also we’re very aware it’s part of China. We respect the fact that ultimately the handover was 20 years ago.

“I know it’s a big topic over here, a discussion, not one that we’re going to get involved in, but we enjoyed coming before the handover and we’ve enjoyed coming since the handover. We’ve enjoyed it equally.”