After winning the British Open back in July in front of a crowd of over 42,000 spectators at Royal Liverpool, Rory McIlroy put his footballing allegiances firmly on the line.
Thanking the crowd for their support, he began: “Even though I’m a Manchester United fan standing here,” the champion was interrupted by a chorus of tongue-in-cheek boos from the majority of Merseyside-based Everton and Liverpool fans in the crowd. McIlroy, however, was more than happy to play the pantomime villain.
Less than a month later he found himself back in the north-west of England in front of an even bigger, and perhaps even friendlier, audience.
The Northern Irishman smiled nervously as he brought the famous Claret Jug onto the pitch at Old Trafford before enthralling the 75,000-strong crowd with tales of his golfing success and love of football.
However, his presence failed to bring any of the ‘luck of the Irish’ to the Red Devils on the opening day of the 2014/15 season, as Louis van Gaal’s reign got off to a losing start against Swansea City.
Since then, as success followed for McIlroy at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the PGA Championship, the Race to Dubai crown and the Ryder Cup, Manchester United have found their stride, much to the delight of the 25-year-old.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the world’s No1 golfer chats about the FIFA Ballon d’Or, his admiration for George Best, and what a team talk from former FIFA Presidential Award-winner Sir Alex Ferguson is like.
It’s been a remarkable year for you, finished off with the Race to Dubai win. Ronaldo, Messi and Manuel Neuer will be looking to top off their year with the Ballon D’Or award. But who do you think deserves it most?
I don’t think there’s much between Ronaldo and Messi in terms of who’ll win. There is a wealth of other great players out there, too, but it’s no accident that Ronaldo and Messi are up there again as favourites.
They simply remain consistently good throughout the season. And that changes the outcome of games, leagues and championships.
So you’re given a blank cheque book and can sign any player in the world for your beloved Manchester United. Who would you bring to the club and why?
I’d bring back George Best! Honestly, I’m not sitting on the fence. I was watching some footage recently and Best in his prime was definitely up there with today’s greats.
He was more than just skilful; he was a thinker, on and off the ball. He knew what was going on and had great presence and influence on the pitch.
What was it like stepping out onto the hallowed turf at Old Trafford fresh from your British Open victory?
It was a great feeling. I was excited and a little nervous, of course, but I think it went down really well.
And while a win on the day would have been nice, bringing the Claret Jug to Old Trafford was more about that iconic trophy remaining on home soil this year.
Yes, they were beaten 2-1 by Swansea on that day and after a shaky start United find themselves in third place in the Premier League. Where do you think they will finish this season?
Top, I hope. It’s so hard to tell at this stage in the season but I really don’t think they’ll be too far away. Admittedly, the guys didn’t get off to a great start but they’ve definitely been showing some signs again of real class.
And with a few recent wins there definitely seems to be an increasing amount of confidence in the squad.
A real Manchester United legend in Sir Alex Ferguson gave a team talk to the European team at the Ryder Cup. How inspirational is he?
It was a fantastic talk. Without raising his voice or being dramatic, Sir Alex really made sense and the entire team – players, captain and the entire European squad – took great inspiration from it. And we’re a group of guys who don’t usually play as part of a team.
Golf’s generally just not that kind of sport, at least not often in a year. I think we left the room feeling pretty invincible and part of a singular unit.
Footballers are known for a few trips around the golf course on their days off. Why do you think footballers are so interested in your sport?
I think there’s a certain amount of guys and girls who take to golf because it’s the complete opposite to the frantic 90 minutes on a football pitch. The same amount of concentration is involved but just in a different way. There’s also a great social element to golf and I can understand the appeal of a group out together catching up for a few peaceful hours.
Justin Rose uploaded a picture on Instagram joking about your weightlifting regime. Is the banter with the other players similar to what you would expect in a footballing changing room?
Yes, we all have a bit of banter from time to time. Justin’s great fun and I am always happy to take a bit of stick because it’s meant as a laugh and I give as good as I get, too.
Even Poults (Ian Poulter) had a bit of a go at my suit when I brought the Claret Jug to Old Trafford.
He said something about one of his suits missing from his wardrobe. All the banter, whether it’s footballers, golfers, rugby guys etc, is just a bit of release from the intensity of our sports.
And finally, what do you make of Northern Ireland’s start to the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying campaign and are you confident that they can still qualify despite that defeat in Romania?
Yes, I’m confident they’ll qualify. I think the team had a good enough game in Romania but just didn’t make the best of some opportunities. But maybe the home match against Finland in the New Year will be the one
I think we missed Steven Davis, who really has been an inspirational skipper. Maybe with the injury behind him and being back in the squad, there’ll be a new focus in the next couple of games.