‘United have progressed but it isn’t enough… any more is going to cost a LOT of money’: Old Trafford and San Siro hero Joe Jordan on his old clubs, why he was nicknamed The Shark in Italy and THAT time he was almost headbutted by Gattuso
- Not many can claim to be revered by both Man United and AC Milan supporters
- But Joe Jordan belongs to that list despite both clubs rebuilding during his time
- Jordan had been a key part of Dave Sexton’s United team before moving to Italy
- Now he is backing his two former sides to return to the top in their leagues
It doesn’t matter what Joe Jordan does in life. For Italians, he will always be Lo Squalo. The Shark. ‘I’ve been called a lot worse than that,’ deadpans Jordan, speaking after training with Bournemouth last week. At 69, he’s back in the game working as a coach with Jonathan Woodgate at the Championship club.
For those too young to know, this week might bring home to some of his new charges just how illustrious their coach’s career was at its peak. Manchester United welcome AC Milan to Old Trafford, an A-list European fixture more suited to the Champions League than a Thursday night Europa League date.
Not many can claim to be revered by both of those great clubs. The late Ray Wilkins and Jaap Stam can, and David Beckham had a brief spell at the San Siro at the end of his career. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is now back at Milan and had his brief yet significant spell at Old Trafford. But Jordan was an iconic player for both sets of supporters, even though the clubs were in reconstruction mode when the unmistakeable centre-forward represented their chief goal threat.
Joe Jordan was an iconic player for AC Milan (above) and Manchester United in his career
Not many players past or present can claim to be revered by both of those great clubs
Probably it’s due to the honesty and bravery with which he led the line. Certainly, the fact that he was missing two front teeth meant he was an unforgettable presence. It also made him seem scarier than he actually is in real life. And it meant that nickname would stick to him for life.
‘When the Jaws film [called Lo Squalo in Italy] came out, they put it all together,’ he says, recalling his nickname. ‘It was affectionate and when I come across Italians now and eventually the penny drops and the find out I am who I am, they say: ‘Oh, Lo Squalo!’
Jordan was a pioneer. With Liam Brady (Juventus) and Kevin Keegan (Hamburg), he was one of the first to venture overseas in his era. There had been an earlier wave of migration to Italy, led by John Charles and including Gerry Hitchens, Denis Law, Joe Baker and Jimmy Greaves, before the Italians had introduced restrictions on foreign imports. Those were only easing when Jordan arrived.
He had wanted to join Bayern Munich in 1975 but Leeds blocked that. When the chance came to play abroad again, he wouldn’t be denied.
He’s back in the game working as a coach with Jonathan Woodgate at Bournemouth
With Liam Brady at Juventus, Jordan was one of the first to venture overseas in his era
Jordan recalls: ‘The year Liam went to Juventus  was when they opened up the market to foreigners again. The extra bit of pressure [going there in 1981] was being the only foreigner. You felt like you had extra responsibility.
‘I had no idea of what money my team-mates were on. I was on a lot more money than I was at Man United, which wasn’t difficult. But when you’re chosen in that one slot? There were other players Milan were interested in but they chose me. That’s where the extra pressure comes from.’
Jordan had been a key part of Dave Sexton’s Manchester United team and the greatest Scotland national team since the Twenties, playing and scoring in three successive World Cup finals in 1974, 1978 and 1982. But little did he know, a young Italian youth team coach from AC Milan was tracking his progress, which would pave the way for his life-changing move. His name? Fabio Capello.
‘I think he had come and watched me at Man United or Scotland, that was one of his tasks at the time. He was being groomed to be a manager. And I got to know him quite well at Milan.’
Don Revie gave Jordan his big break, taking the robust centre-forward in the old-fashioned mould from Greenock Morton to Elland Road in 1970. And it was the Leeds years, during which Jordan won the league and played in the 1975 European Cup final alongside the likes of Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Johnny Giles, that would stand him in good stead when the move to Milan came.
Jordan had been a key part of Dave Sexton’s Manchester United team before moving to Italy
‘There was pressure at Milan,’ he says. ‘But if you could play with Leeds and handle what went on there with the players I had around me … they were hard on their team-mates. Took no prisoners. You had to stand your corner. They were big personalities, great pros, who had an opinion, who stood up and were counted, whether verbally or on the pitch.
‘You had the Leeds jersey on every week, you lived or died by that. There was a pressure at Leeds and that was something you had to handle. That was preparation for going to Man United, arguably the biggest club in the world, and to AC Milan, a huge club. I was going from Old Trafford, maybe 55-60,000 fans, to the San Siro and 80,000. It was brilliant, but tough.’
Indeed, the early days were tough. AC Milan had just come up from Serie B, having been relegated the season previously as punishment for their part in a bribery scandal. They were expected to restore former glories in Serie A. It didn’t turn out that way.
‘It was a difficult time for the club which didn’t make it any easier for me. I went over and it was one manager [Massimo Giacomini] but by the time I had signed it was another [Luigi Radice] and by Christmas there was another [Italo Galbiati]. It was very hard and an eye-opener on and off the field.’
But little did he know, a young Fabio Capello from AC Milan was tracking his progress
AC Milan found themselves in a relegation battle and Jordan was struggling to score, though he had earned himself some credit with a headed goal in a 2-2 draw at the San Siro against city rivals Inter.
‘They played two weeks ago, my daughter sent me a picture. There was no one in the stadium, of course, but there were 30,000 outside. It’s an incredible football city with two colossal clubs. In that city, there’s nothing more important in the world than that game. And I was lucky enough to score in my first one. ‘
That though was a rare highlight in that first season which ended in relegation. Jordan stayed for the challenge of Serie B. He had bonded with team-mates, made friends and fallen in love with the country. Roberto Antonelli, the attacking midfielder, became godfather to Jordan’s son, Thomas, who would grow up to have a distinguished career in non-League football.
‘We had the Christening at my home and the players all came,’ recalls Jordan. He had no Italian when he arrived. ‘But I got there in the end through hard work and perseverance.
‘The second year was a lot better. Another manager came in, Ilario Castagner, who was a bit more tranquil and we came straight back up.’ And something was stirring at AC Milan. Franco Baresi was emerging as a young central defender. ‘When I came in he was maybe 21 and had already won Serie A. He was a good player even then and became a great player, a very humble guy.’
And the core of the great team that would be built by Arrigo Sacchi and taken on by Capello, which would dominate Serie A and Europe from 1988 to 1996, when they won five scudetto and the European Cup three times, was emerging.
Franco Baresi was emerging as a young central defender as things began to happen at Milan
‘Serie B was tough. A lot of players moved on but they allowed the youth to come through. Mauro Tassotti was in the team that year, he was young  and he went on to win everything.
‘There was a guy called Alberico Evani. He was a winger who scored the winning goal in the World Club Cup against Atletico Nacional. There was Sergio Battistini, who played for AC Milan and Inter. They were kids, both 19, and they had fantastic careers.
‘Then Silvio Berlusconi [the media mogul and future Italian Prime Minister] bought the club in 1986, Sacchi came and they go and buy Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. The young Paolo Maldini comes through the academy and you’re talking about five or six world-class players…’
Though he left at the end of the 1983 season, he stayed in Italy, moving to Verona. A life-long bond with Italy had formed. ‘When I was at Verona, my wife and I had three kids at the time. We would go to Venice, which was an hour and 15 minutes away, park my car, go on the traghetto [ferry] and go into one of the squares in Venice. Unbelievable. Fantastic.
‘I’ve seen a lot of Italy, and my daughter, Caroline, studied modern languages, went to Bologna University for a year, went back to work there, met her husband in Milan and lives there and has a little girl.
Jordan admits he goes back to the club and the San Siro when he can and is still recognised
‘When we can, we go there. I go to the San Siro and Milan are terrific, as are Verona. Milan fans love their football so there are a few who still recognise me and I still have football friends out there.’
His most-recent notable moment at the San Siro came with Tottenham, where he and Harry Redknapp engineered a famous win in the last-16 of the Champions League in 2011 during a heated tie, which saw Gennaro Gattuso aim a head butt at Jordan in an extraordinary confrontation with the Spurs bench.
‘I think he had got booked, which kept him out of the game at White Hart Lane and he lost it. Whether he thought the decision went against him, I don’t know. Or he blamed me. I would have said a few things. A couple of phrases in Italian would come out. But he lost it.
‘I was quite composed about it. Maybe if I had been a player or a little bit younger, it may have been different. I’m not saying you mellow. But I think you get a little bit more tuned in and see what the possible outcome might be. There was no way, at that stage of my career, I was in any way going to react to that. I’ve met him since at the San Siro and he’s alright. I’ve no grudges at all.’
Gennaro Gattuso aimed a head butt at Jordan in a confrontation with the Spurs bench in 2011
As for now, AC Milan’s fate has been similar to Manchester United’s in recent years. They haven’t won a major trophy since winning the league in 2011. A succession of managers, many legendary former players, including Gattuso, failed to revive the club.
Berlusconi sold to ill-fated Chinese investors in 2017, whose inability to meet loan payments meant the club fell into the hands of US hedge fund, Elliott Management in 2019. They appointed former Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis and, after a shaky start, seem to be on track. Though Inter have a six-point lead at the top of Serie A, which is intolerable for AC Milan fans, they are at last in the title race for the first time in almost a decade.
Jordan says: ‘Milan have done great and a lot of it has to do with Ibrahimovic. Not just him as player but, from what I’ve read in the papers, his presence in the dressing room. He’s 39 but the man’s a winner and I think he’s brought that with him. It’s a huge miss that he won’t be fit for United.
‘When I went out there it was because I knew AC Milan. They were one of the big names: Milan, Inter, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Benfica — these clubs are huge. I think clubs like that, once they get it right — once Manchester United get it right — it’s in their DNA. And sometimes they don’t get it right for a number of years and you think: “Why’s that?”‘
United face a derby on Sunday which could propel Manchester City to a fourth league title since United last won it themselves in 2013. Jordan is moderately optimistic. ‘I think United are making progress but I don’t think it’s enough. Their record in the derby is good in recent years. But, consistency wise, you have to give it to Man City.’
Jordan believes Milan have done great and a lot of it has to do with Zlatan Ibrahimovic
There is disappointment with how the season has panned out. ‘I thought it was going to be such an open league because everyone was slipping up. And then City got it right and the rest of them haven’t.
‘You don’t know what you’re going to get from United. I think they do need another forward. Edinson Cavani is a quality player, and sets standards for the younger players. He looks as sharp as a tack, his work rate is good. But he’s 34. You cannot get away from that.
‘I just think they have to get someone else for the squad and for the team. It’s going to cost a lot of money and all clubs, other than Man City and Paris Saint-Germain, will find it difficult to come up with the money. They have to look very carefully at players because you can’t make a mistake with money that’s being asked nowadays.’
As for Jordan, a rare week without a midweek game for Bournemouth means he’ll be able to settle down to watch on Thursday, enjoying two of his former clubs and be cheered whoever prevails. ‘I do like the games that bring you back to the past a wee bit,’ he says.
He believes Man United have to get a striker for their squad due to Edinson Cavani’s age
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