He was the very first “Fergie Fledgling” and without doubt the unluckiest. He was arguably the most daring pick by Alex Ferguson, but he was definitely the sign of things to come from our new manager…
In December 1986, Gary Walsh was an 18 year old rookie ‘keeper, plying his trade in the United reserves. He’d signed a professional contract only that previous summer, and less than 2 years before that he was playing as a striker for Wigan Athletic’s youth team. It was only a chance game in goal, watched by a United scout, that prompted Ron Atkinson to offer him an apprenticeship at United.
New boss Alex Ferguson had barely been in his new role five weeks, when he started to fix the cracks and dropped the inconsistent Chris Turner from between the sticks.
Gary Bailey had been injured for a number of months, and Fergie showed maybe the first sign of the ‘courage’ that he mentions so frequently nowadays by making Walsh a surprise inclusion in the starting line up at Aston Villa on 13th December.
Despite three goals from United at Villa Park (two from Peter Davenport and one from Norman Whiteside), United conceded three as well, but Walsh earned great reviews that day and kept his place for the next game against Leicester City at home. His Old Trafford debut saw him give another fantastic display against another midland outfit, and Walsh kept his first clean sheet for the reds in a 2-0 victory.
Another clean sheet the following week at Anfield saw United beat Liverpool 1-0 and gain their first away win of the season, and the young stopper was starting to become a well regarded first team regular, accepted by his team mates and supporters alike.
Just after Christmas, injury to Walsh saw Chris Turner regain the number 1 temporarily, until Gary Bailey returned for five matches in March of 1987. Unfortunately for Bailey, his problems then surfaced again, so much so it meant he had to call time on his United career.
But Bailey’s misfortune was Walsh’s gain, and he returned to the side, keeping his place until the end of that season, clocking up 14 games in his first campaign for the first team.
Still only 19 years old, he started the following season as United’s number one, being ever present in the League for the opening 16 games. He suffered a knock to the head in the 4-2 away win against Sheffield Wednesday but played on with concussion to complete the full 90 minutes. However it would be another head injury – where Walsh took a heavy kick to the head during a mid season friendly in Bermuda – that would prove to be so serious, it would end Walsh’s season, and the promising youngster would not go on to be the clubs first choice stopper again.
Ferguson returned to Aberdeen the following summer to bring in Jim Leighton, his trusted goalkeeper who’d served him so well north of the border.
Walsh would make a few appearances for United again over the next seven years, but further injuries made it impossible for him to be considered for the number 1 jersey, especially after Peter Schmeichel had been bought in 1991. In 1995, and after 50 games for the reds he joined his former captain Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough.
We don’t really look back on Gary Walsh now and think that he was the start of a revolution that Ferguson was to put in place at the club. That seems to be reserved for the likes of Mark Robins, Russell Beardsmore, David Wilson and Tony Gill. We usually remember the unlucky side to Walsh. The injury that took him out of his run in the side when things looked so promising. The keeper we always liked, and were pleased to see making the odd appearance in the Coca-Cola cup for all he’d been through. The guy who returned to United with Bradford City or Middlesbrough, and we were always pleased to see.
But that day in 1986, by picking Walsh at the expense of the experienced Turner, it ticked the box and gave Ferguson the green light to start bringing other youngsters in to the team over the next few years.
Who knows what might have happened had Walsh not been a success? Would the boss have lost some faith in his youth policy? Would he have been berated for bringing in such a young player when United were having their worst season for many years?
Would he not have had the courage to give Robins, Beardsmore, Wilson, Gill and Deniol Graham a run in the side?
Would he not have risked the class of 96?
So for me Gary Walsh firmly earns his place as an unsung hero in United’s history for paying back the faith Ferguson showed in him as a youngster in Fergie’s early days. He proved to him and the rest of us that youth could be given a chance, and could do a job for the biggest club in the world.
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