Gary Pallister enjoyed a lavish career at the top of the game, but it’s his time at Middlesbrough which he relished. One encounter with Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, however, helped shape his future, as Sports Writer Andy Richardson reports.

GARY Pallister, a legend for both Middlesbrough and Manchester United, recalls a scene from his life as a professional footballer that he describes as “the crossroads of my entire career”.

It’s a bitterly cold January evening in 1991 and Manchester United are entertaining Queens Park Rangers in an FA Cup thirdround tie.

After taking an early lead, United concede an equaliser shortly before half-time and the players race back to the dressing room for a cuppa to take the sting from the chill Manchester air.

Waiting for them is Alex Ferguson and he is livid at what he regards as spineless first-half performance. The United boss has singled out one player to receive the infamous ‘hairdryer’ treatment.

This is no half-time team talk. Fergie, raised in the Govan district of Glasgow, goes at his players like an enraged pitbull.

It’s Pallister’s second season at Old Trafford, after moving from Boro for a then record fee between British clubs of £2.3m. But he’s struggling to win over some fans who’ve told him he’s ‘not fit to wear the United shirt’.

At half-time Ferguson calls Pallister a ‘wimp’. The big centre-half, as Boro fans will testify, a usually levelledheaded individual, reacts with fury. Insults are traded between player and manager as Pallister defends himself in the face of Ferguson’s bitter invective.

“I’m 6ft 4in and he’s a lot shorter and more than 20 years older, but I don’t have the slightest doubt that, fleetingly at least, he was bent on lamping me,” recalls Pallister, in his autobiography – ‘Pally’, recently published by Know the Score Books.

“For long periods at Middlesbrough I’d been at loggerheads with Bruce Rioch and now it flashed across my mind that, whatever the consequences, I couldn’t let it happen again, so I was ready to fight back with all I had,”

he recalls.

As the coaching staff try to restrain the pair, the verbal insults become more personal and Ferguson roars: “You’re not going out second half, you’re a joke, you’re a disgrace.”

“I wouldn’t ******* play for you anyway,” is Pallister’s retort as the atmosphere in the dressing room becomes super-charged. The pair lunge at one another – United skipper Bryan Robson and assistant manager Bryan Kidd struggle to prevent the verbal battle descending into an allout brawl.

Meanwhile, out on the terraces, 60,000 fans await the restart, no doubt hoping that Fergie is geeing his team up for the second half.

But in the changing rooms the scene is chaotic. Pallister rips off his boots, convinced that his game and, in all probability, his Old Trafford career is over after a single season.

But Fergie won’t let the defender quit. “You’re not getting away with it that easily. Get back out on that pitch for the second half,”

demands the Scot.

“Am I ****. No chance am I playing for you. You can **** off.” Is Pallister’s less than eloquent response.

But after encouraging words from team-mates and coach Archie Knox, the Teessider is persuaded to ‘do it for the lads’ and duly helps secure a 2-1 victory and a place in the fourth-round draw.

There is a remarkable epilogue to this tale.

Back on the training ground a couple of days later, Pallister is summoned to the gaffer’s office. Steeling himself for a second bout of verbal sparring or, as he fears, confirmation that he’ll be kicked out of the club, Pallister received “the biggest bombshell I could have imagined”.

From behind his desk, Ferguson delivers his assessment.

“I want to apologise for what I said as half-time in the game. I went too far. I said things that I should never have said. It was wrong.”

It was vintage Ferguson – at once wrong-footing the player while diffusing any lingering animosity between the pair.

He sends Pallister out of the room with renewed respect for his boss and a resolution to prove that he’s worthy of retaining the United jersey.

That Pallister went on the enjoy nine trophyfilled seasons at Old Trafford, before moving back to his beloved Boro in 1998, suggests Ferguson’s verbal skills had the desired impact.

PALLISTER’S life story throws up a number of surprises – though few are as colourful as his clash with the United boss.

Describing himself as “a Teessider through and through”, Pallister was actually born in Ramsgate, Kent, when his father’s job as a fitter temporarily relocated the family to the south-east from their Billingham roots.

And despite being a passionate Boro fan, who was attending games at Ayresome Park with his uncle Malcolm from the age of six, he admits to a boyhood fondness for Don Revie’s 1970s Leeds United side. Billy Bremner and Peter Lorimier were idolised by the young Pally as much as John Hickton and Alan Foggon.

As a budding central defender, he took inspiration from the formidable Boro defensive quartet of John Craggs, Stuart Boam, Willie Maddren and Frank Spraggon.

Like his hero Maddren, later to be Pallister’s mentor, the young defender’s height initially saw him play as a centre-forward at Frederick Nattrass school in Norton, before moving to centre-half when he lined up for Blakeston Comprehensive.

But after spells with Barmoor and Stockton Buffs, the future England centreback had failed to attract the notice of any professional clubs and was earning £25 per week on a Youth Training Scheme linked to ICI.

At the age of 18, with dreams of professional football fading, he remembers being told by his mates: “Pally, it’s not going to happen. If you were going to be picked up by a professional club then it would have happened when you were 16 or even earlier.”

This was many years before Boro made the shrewd investment in their Academy and began nurturing talented local players from their early teens.

But after a spell with Billingham Town he impressed on trial with Boro, after spurning a chance to join the club due to a lack of fitness – a charge that dogged him throughout his career.

Willie Maddren, in charge after Malcolm Allison’s colourful reign at Ayresome Park, saw something of himself in Pallister, and with the club in desperate financial straits, eventually offered him a deal worth £50 per week.

After a loan spell with Darlington, Pallister began to form an impressive partnership with Tony Mowbray at the heart of Boro’s back four.

Initially, the current West Brom boss wasn’t overly impressed by his new defensive partner. He said: “There was no real coordination to his movements, he hadn’t really grown into his body, he was like a young colt – but the raw talent was obvious for all to see.”

But after Boro faced a Wimbledon side renowned for their uncompromising, physical approach, Mowbray became convinced the youngster would make the grade.

Handed the unenviable task of marking the fearsome John Fashanu, Mowbray recalled: “Pally out-jumped him, out-ran him, outmuscled him, out-thought him and out-skilled him. I knew then that he could go all the way.”

Mowbray enjoyed his role as senior partner and kept the younger player in check.

He recalls the day when the pair received their sponsored club cars.

“I got a sparkling black XRi, which was the smart car at that time, and Pally got a little Citreon. Oh he wasn’t happy about that!”

But while Pallister’s playing career was on an upward curve – winning the first of 22 England caps – clashes with the Boro’s manager led to him becoming disillusioned with life on Teesside.

His fall out with Rioch, who publicly castigated the player for refusing to play for the club, hurt Pallister a great deal and he regarded his return to Teesside in 1998 as a chance to build bridges with Boro fans.

After making over 300 appearances for Manchester United, where his honours included three FA Cups and four Premier League titles, the Boro team he came back to was a far cry from the cash-strapped outfit he’d left who’d given Billingham Town a set of strips as their share of Pallister’s £2.3m fee.

Managed by ex-United team-mate Robson, and housed in a state-of-the-art stadium, chairman Steve Gibson’s millions had brought Fabrizio Ravenelli, Juninho and Emerson to a Middlebrough that was resurgent both on and off the pitch.

Some Boro fans viewed Pally with suspicion, angry with a player who’d given his best years to United.

But he contributed to three seasons of success for the side as they became an established top-flight team.

As he confirms in his book: “Let me get this straight; I’ll always love Middlesbrough FC.”