‘I had to get out… or I was going to blow’: In a must-read interview, Nicky Butt opens up on why he left Man United in 2021, becoming Salford City’s CEO and how Erik ten Hag’s side can still get better
The first thing Nicky Butt wants to know is if anybody had been at Wembley last Sunday.
‘I was there with my son,’ he grins. ‘It’s always amazing to win a cup, I don’t care what anybody says.’
Butt is 48 now but still very much a child of Manchester United, a graduate of the old Cliff training ground, and all it still represents, that stands less than a mile away from where we are talking.
‘I always knew I wasn’t as good as Scholesy and Giggsy and Becks,’ Butt says. ‘But I knew they couldn’t outrun me or outfight me. I was driven by that.’
Butt gave a decade of exemplary service to United as a player between 1994 and 2004. Almost 300 games, six Premier Leagues, three FA Cups, a Champions League. But his relationship with his old club has grown complicated.
Manchester United treble winner Nicky Butt, 48, sat down for an interview with Sportsmail
Butt (L) gave a decade of exemplary service to United as a player between 1994-2004, playing almost 300 games and winning six Premier Leagues, three FA Cups and a Champions League
He still feels the pull of a place he essentially grew up in. But after ten years back at Old Trafford on the coaching and technical staff, he walked away unhappy and isolated almost exactly two years ago.
‘My vision and my philosophy and what I was brought up on at Man United didn’t go with the people running the club so it was time to leave,’ he reveals. ‘I am not saying I was right all the time but I knew if I didn’t leave I was gonna blow. And that wouldn’t be good.’
And so, after all that, we are here. Sitting in a bar overlooking the pitch at Butt’s other football obsession, Salford City. Butt has part-owned the club with former United team-mates Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham since 2014 and the group have overseen its rise up the pyramid to League Two.
Now, as its recently appointed chief executive, Butt is charting the next step, towards League One and beyond.
His move from the grass to the CEO’s office came as a surprise to many and he was among them.
‘You don’t go through seven years of coaching badges to toss it off and not do it again,’ nods Butt. ‘But I got to a fork in the road and I went the other way. I wasn’t happy at United so I left. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder if I am honest.
‘I was sick of people upstairs telling me about football. If I was to tell people in the boardroom how to run a football club they would just look at me wouldn’t they?
‘But they have the right to talk about developing players? So I was pissed off about it. Eventually I left but before that I went and did a CEO course. I didn’t ever want to be one. I just wanted to be more in tune with a chief exec, to be more empathetic.
Butt (second from right) – who part-owns Salford City with ex-United team-mates Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham – is now the CEO of the League Two side
‘But then the world spins round and all of a sudden last year this job comes up and here I am. I’m enjoying it.’
Currently in the play-off positions, Salford have lofty ambitions. They recently looked at buying a bigger stadium only to learn the local council were purchasing it themselves.
‘I find it ridiculous that a council can buy a £16m stadium when there are 42 per cent of people in Salford living in poverty,’ says Butt. ‘But what can we do?’
Salford have been in League Two since 2019 and Butt admits they have ‘stagnated’. He knows that sacking managers hasn’t always helped.
‘We have been hasty at times,’ he nods. ‘Our background means we always want perfection but we have to step back and realise we are a League Two team.’
The day we meet he has been talking about the price of kits for men’s, academy and ladies teams. ‘It’s a lot,’ he smiles.
That night it’s off to Barrow – a 1-1 draw – after a weekend at Mansfield that had seen Salford win 5-2. ‘It was a good day,’ he smiles. ‘Their fans were giving us stick but we have had that all our lives at United.’
The Class of 92 have overseen the club’s rise all the way up the pyramid and into League Two
Butt has left Manchester United twice in his life. Once for Newcastle United in 2004 and again, in 2021, for the wilderness.
‘[Paul] Scholes and [Roy] Keane were better than me but I always played in the big games because we would play a three in midfield,’ he recalls. ‘So I was okay. Not always dead happy but okay.
‘But I truly couldn’t stand players who were not as good as me playing instead of me. Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba. Just because they had been bought. I couldn’t have it so I left. But it was hard. The second time, two years back, wasn’t hard because I realised I couldn’t be there anymore.’
After returning to United as a reserve team coach in 2012, Butt graduated to academy head and in 2019 was made head of first team development, reporting to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Butt left two years later and for a while life got difficult.
‘I could have stayed for 25 years and had a nice little job with my mouth shut but it’s not me,’ he says.
Butt is believed to have clashed with United’s football director John Murtough, promoted to the role shortly before he left. He soon sought a way back in to football but it was a dismal experience.
Butt (pictured lifting the Premier league trophy in 2003), left the club for Newcastle in 2004 after becoming frustrated at being knocked down the pecking order at United by new signings
‘I went to some interviews,’ he reveals. ‘The England Under 21 job, Aberdeen, Huddersfield. But I was 46 and realised I hadn’t done an interview in my life. I hated it.
‘A lot of the people who go for football interviews, it’s bullshit. You will have someone with a massive project on a screen but you can guarantee they haven’t done it themselves.
‘So I couldn’t do it. I felt sick beforehand. I would rather sit like I am with you and have a chat over a coffee. I would rather talk about my philosophy, about bringing young players through. Even though it’s not my philosophy at all, it’s what I was taught. I am just adding bits to it.
‘So I soon knew I was never going to get a job in football because I can’t talk the way people want me to. I just talk how I think is right.’
It seems strange, a waste, that so few of Butt’s generation of United players are now coaching and passing on their knowledge. Butt, Scholes, Keane, Giggs. Lost to the game.
‘It is sad and a loss to us as well because we are football people,’ he nods. ‘But we are opinionated people and have a belief of how things should run. The football side has to be fundamentally driven by football people.
‘Who can tell Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher what’s right for Manchester United? ‘But they do so sometimes you have to die on your sword.
‘Maybe I was a bit of a dick [at United]. But I have a massive bug about people who don’t know what it takes to be a footballer or do coaching badges.’
Part of what Butt left behind at United did their bit in beating Newcastle last Sunday. Marcus Rashford, for example, came through the system on Butt’s watch.
‘For out and out football talent, he is as good as anyone in the world at what he does,’ says Butt. ‘He just has to believe that himself.
‘But none of that success is on me. That’s part of what really got to me at the club. Nothing is ever down to one person, right?
‘Marcus and the others started with United at seven. But all those people who worked with them on Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings never get a mention.
‘For me, when people sit there and go: ‘We have done such a great job by getting players X, Y and Z through’ it isn’t right.
‘To get that boy from aged eight to the first team probably takes 50 people.’
Butt (right) was in charge of Man United’s academy when Rashford (left) burst on to the scene
However, the United treble winner insists he deserves no credit for the emergence of Rashford
Butt also worked with Mason Greenwood, currently suspended from United after allegations of attempted rape and assault, no longer being pursued by the CPS, were made against him.
Butt does not discuss what United should do next but has no reservations about the talents of a player Jose Mourinho actually wanted for the first team when he was just 15.
‘Jose was like: “Get him” but I told him he was still at school and there were laws,’ smiles Butt.
‘I said to Ryan [Giggs] recently that Mason is the only one that I have seen who could have come anywhere near him at 17. Cos he was that good. Ridiculous.
‘We played Liverpool away in the academy. We were getting beat 2-0 and he came on. He scored left foot free-kick, right foot volley, a header and then a right foot free-kick. And you are looking at him thinking: ‘How can this boy not be the next big thing?’. Big, strong, quick.
‘I don’t know where the club go on this but as a footballer, yeh….’
Butt’s favourite United team was the double winning side of 1994. Bruce, Pallister, Robson, Hughes, Cantona. He loved their ability but also their team ethic, their fight.
He doesn’t believe he sees enough toughness in some of those emerging from the academy system these days. When he was at United, he invited circus tumblers in to show a generation of young lads reared on a diet of TV and PlayStations how to fall.
He and Scholes used to take the bus to training at the Cliff but he says now: ‘It’s very difficult because life has changed hasn’t it? My lad has my Uber account so I can’t preach to these lads here can I? The trick is how to get a germ of a reality check in to these young people in such a weird world.
‘Getting kids through the gates at somewhere like United is the easy part. If you can kick a football these days you get a chance at an academy.
‘But once you get through the door it’s how you stay in there that matters and the football is only 60 per cent of that. 40 per cent is how you behave and work. You can always get better at football. It’s not as easy to get better at your personality.’
He left United in 2021 after reportedly clashing with United’s football director John Murtough
United are at Anfield on Sunday and lead their great rivals Liverpool in the Premier League by 10 points and three places. It’s been a while and Butt thinks it’s significant.
‘United have gone past them football wise,’ he says. ‘Liverpool have a big job on their hands in the summer.’ In term of the long-term picture, Butt is less sure.
He sees and welcomes and the obvious improvement under Erik ten Hag but feels United are trying to push their way back through a crowed, and wealthy, field. For a moment he has his CEO’s head on.
‘United could win the league, really,’ he says. ‘They could go in the back door. But I wouldn’t say United are back. Not a chance.
‘What Ten Hag is doing is great. He seems to be the man, not taking any crap. He seems to have the respect of people above him to let him make decisions. But they have to kick on and get better. Being fourth is not Man United. We used to finish second and were told if it happened again the next season we would be sold. Sold!
‘That was the mentality of the club back then. if you were gonna finish second you may as well finish seventh. The recruitment team has a big job on its hands to get to the next level and if you have a team like [Manchester] City that keeps spending it’s very difficult to catch up with them.
Despite being pleased at United’s progress, Butt claimed that the club is not ‘back’ just yet
He also hailed the no-nonsense approach Erik ten Hag has brought with him to Old Trafford
‘People keep saying how well United are doing but if they are going like that [places his arm at an angle] then if you think City and Chelsea aren’t going like that in the background as well then you are wrong. There is still some catching up to do for United and I hope they can do it.’
Butt always thought he would work at Salford one day. It was part of the long-term plan, maybe just not at this time and not in this role. On Saturday Salford are at home to Newport and the long-haul to the League Two finish line has begun.
‘We have staff here who are unbelievable and I couldn’t run a football club without them,’ he says. ‘But I am learning. I am getting better with the finances for example. It’s a group thing here. But I am the CEO and if things go wrong it falls at my feet.’
As for Sunday, he will be tuned in to events at Anfield. Butt has been gone two years now and it has not been easy. I ask if sometimes he has felt resentful.
‘Sometimes I think certain people there will get credit and I can’t stand that,’ he says. ‘But fundamentally I go back to being 15 and right the way through to being 29 or 30 when I left. It’s my football club. It always has been. I love it.. It’s engrained in me. My son was there.
‘The more you grow up and move away from it the more you realise you are not letting some bloke who has been there three minutes affect my feelings about my football club. So no is the answer to that. I did a couple of times. As you say, it’s human nature. Quite a lot of lads would say the same but ultimately that’s gone now. That bit’s gone.’