'Sir Alex stared at me - and told me to buy my parents a present'

9th August 2017

It was probably 10 seconds, yet it felt like half an hour. And 16 years on, Alan Tate has not forgotten what it was like to face football’s fiercest stare.

Tate was 19 at the time. Sat opposite him was arguably the greatest manager British football has ever seen.

Yet typically, Tate was not afraid to stand up for himself as he talked terms with Sir Alex Ferguson.

“I was on my own – I didn’t have an agent as we weren’t allowed them,” Tate remembers.

“I was coming to the end of my first pro contract at Manchester United and they wanted me to go to Antwerp on loan.

“I said I would love to go and play first-team football but that I wasn’t going without signing a new contract.

“The reserve-team manager, Mick Phelan, said the manager wanted to speak to me.

“I went in and sat down with him. I told him I wanted to sign a new contract. He said I will give you a two-and-a-half year contract. There were no negotiations – he told me what I was going to earn.

“Then he said are you happy with that. I said yeah I am happy, but I want a signing-on fee.

“He looked at me. He stared at me for what felt like half an hour.

“He asked me why I deserved a signing-on fee. I said that a lot of the lads had played for England and gone to Lilleshall and they’d all had signing-on fees.

“I said I have come in full-time here, I was the first one to get in the reserves, I got young player of the year last year and I feel like I deserve a signing-on fee.

“He stared at me again for what felt like an eternity and he just said you know what, you are right.

“I will give you X amount per year, but make sure you buy your mam and dad something. That was the deal.”

Fortunately, the young Tate took Sir Alex’s advice.

Armed with some extra cash in his back pocket, he bought his parents the “newest, best telly on the market”.

A few months later, after the loan spell in Belgium, Tate was back in United’s reserves.

“I’d come back from Antwerp and we had a game against Wolves,” he says.

“My dad was there to watch. He had a tap on the shoulder and it was Sir Alex. ‘What did he buy you?’ he asked.”

Classic Ferguson – and classic Tate.

Not long after getting his first taste of senior football at United’s Belgian feeder club, Tate would pitch up at Vetch Field.

He was a novice, a player with promise hoping to make a mark in professional football.

Yet in his first interview as a Swans loanee, Tate spoke with remarkable confidence about the task in front of him.

And having talked the talk he walked the walk, helping the Swans avoid the very real threat of relegation to the Conference.

The Swans have Brian Flynn – an old mate of Sir Alex – to thank for Tate’s contribution to their cause over the last decade and a half.

Tate remembers “clear as day” the moment he discovered he would be heading to Wales on loan.

“I had just come in from training and was in the jacuzzi at Carrington,” he says.

“I had a tap on the shoulder. It was Ryan Giggs. He said ‘get some clothes on and come upstairs because Brian Flynn is here and he wants to see you’.

“Giggsy was waiting for me outside the changing room and he took me up to introduce me to Brian.

“We all sat down. Brian asked Giggsy to tell me how good he was as a player. He talked me through a header he had scored for Wales!

“Giggsy said it would be good for me to go and play some first-team football at Swansea.

“Flynny also took me into see Sir Alex Ferguson. He said he had agreed for me to go and that it would be a good move for me.

“The next day the club gave me a train ticket and I was on my way.”

Tate had not realised how long the journey would be.

“I thought Wales was 40 minutes from Manchester,” he says. “I slowly realised that was North Wales.”

Some four-and-a-half hours after rolling out of Manchester Piccadilly, Tate was met at Swansea Station by Flynn’s assistant, Kevin Reeves.

His first port of call was the old Ramada Jarvis Hotel in Llansamlet.

Tate was a 20-year-old who knew nobody and knew nothing about the place he was in, but he was unconcerned.

“I wasn’t thinking about where I was, I was just thinking first-team football,” he says.

“I could have been in the middle of Beirut and it wouldn’t have bothered me – not that I am saying Swansea is like Beirut!

“Football was king to me. I just wanted to play.

“But I soon grew to love the place.”

A couple of days later, Tate was making his Swans debut at Scunthorpe United.

Alongside him were the likes of Jason Smith, Michael Howard and Kristian O’Leary, as well as Roger Freestone and James Thomas.

The Swans, who were struggling badly at the foot of the fourth tier, were beaten 2-0.

Thankfully, there were happier times to come.

In the early days, Tate’s target was to go back to Old Trafford and try to make the first-team breakthrough.

But gradually, Tate grew more and more attached to Swansea and its football club.

Having played 27 Swans games in 2002-03, he returned the following autumn and spent two more months on loan.

It was at the end of that second spell that he famously unveiled the ‘Once a Jack, Always a Jack’ T-shirt which cemented what were already strong bonds with those on the North Bank.

“That was the idea of a couple of lads I had got friendly with down here, Darren Thomas and Darren Jones,” Tate explains.

“Nobody knew if I would ever be back again. I appreciated what the fans had been like with me and the T-shirt, which I still have in my house, was just a way of saying thanks.

“Maybe not many players would have done that after being on loan, but then not many players would have made local friends like I did.

“Swansea was just like the place where I grew up. There was no difference that I could see apart from one place is in the North East and one is in South West Wales.”

It was only a couple of months after that fond farewell that Tate returned for a third stint as a Swan. And this time, it was on a permanent deal.

Flynn soon departed, but Tate made himself an important figure under Kenny Jackett.

The same was true when Roberto Martinez and then Paulo Sousa took over, before Tate’s best days in the Swans shirt came during Brendan Rodgers’s reign.

“I think the Championship play-off final and the first Premier League game, at Manchester City, would be my two proudest moments,” he says.

“Being captain of Swansea in the first game in the Premier League is something nobody else can do. It’s a little bit of history.

“You look back at that now and it gives you goose bumps.”

If the pinnacle of Tate’s time as a Swans player came in 2011, there were numerous happy times along the way.

He is one of a handful of players who were key figures throughout the club’s remarkable rise through the divisions.

“I am not generally one for looking back but when you do, you just think ‘how’s that happened?’,” Tate says.

“From beating Hull 4-2 to stay up to beating Reading 4-2 to get to the Premier League inside eight years. It’s amazing.

“There were a few of us who were involved all the way through the divisions.

“The way I see it is that we all played a small part in something that got really big. It snowballed from the Hull game onwards.

“For three lads (Tate, Leon Britton and Garry Monk) to feature in all four divisions together is crazy really. Then you chuck in Ash (Williams) and Angel (Rangel) who joined in League One.

“What are the chances of five lads doing that?”