It really doesn’t seem ten years to the day that United fans, and football supporters nationwide were shocked to learn of the untimely and far too early passing of Les Sealey.
The man who was loved, adored and worshipped at every club he played for, died on August 19th 2001, and it seems like yesterday that I picked up the newspaper and read the column with disbelief that one of our heroes had passed away after suffering a heart attack. He was only 43.
For those lucky enough to see Les Sealey play for United, they’ll know that he was one of the last real characters of football. He had a relationship with the supporters that I don’t think we’ve seen since he was playing. A crazy guy, hard as nails, a loveable rogue, and a well rounded, feet on the earth kind of guy – all rolled in to one.
And it’s often forgotten that he was pretty damn good between the sticks too.
The story of Les Sealey’s heroic status is etched on to most people’s minds, and if you were around back then it’s an unforgettable one.
Sealey joined us late in the 1989/1990 on loan from Luton Town as cover for Jim Leighton. Whilst the Scottish ‘keeper was out injured, he played two league games for the reds in that ended in victories. Leighton resumed the number one jersey for the rest of the season, helping United to the FA Cup final in the process.
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But Leighton’s form and confidence had blighted him that season. It continued with a very shaky performance in the cup final against Crystal Palace, gifting them two of their three goals in a 3-3 draw and there were calls for Ferguson to do the somewhat unthinkable to a player, and drop him for the replay.
But Fergie did. And in stepped Les. It was exciting, yet nerve-wracking – surely it was too big a game to bring Les Sealey in to?
He was roughed up by Andy Gray and Mark Bright of Palace early on in the game, but this was nothing for the big man in goal. Some astounding saves kept United from going behind as the Eagles bombarded the United box, and United went on to win the cup with a solitary goal from Lee Martin. Sealey received all the plaudits, accolades and as he danced round Wembley with the cup in his hands and a silly hat on his head, the fans thought he was barmy! A nutter. Completely crazy. But we loved him and he was one of us.
But it doesn’t stop there. Neil Hepworth from Wakefield remembers the other side to the crazy guy: “Back in the changing room after the game, while the players were celebrating their win, Les had been presented with a winner’s medal but he gave it to Jim Leighton. He felt Jim deserved it as he’d played throughout the cup run that year. Leighton wouldn’t accept it, but you can’t describe in words how generous a thing that is. Fast forward to 2011 and I don’t know of any player in the Premier League now who would have the grace and character to make such a terrific gesture. It’s something beyond the parameters of sport and actually reflects something of the man himself. Top class.”
Further proof, if it were needed, of the wild and humane side of Les Sealey is former United second choice ‘keeper Kevin Pilkington. A young ‘keeper at the club at the time, he told Red Flag Flying High: “Les was a lovely man. Crazy but lovely! He was a massive character around the club, a bit like ‘Delboy’ really…he had his hands in all sorts of pies!”
Crazy is a term used in reference to a lot of ‘keepers…maybe Sealey was the most suited to it though.
After being rewarded with a contract, and becoming United’s no.1 in the 1990/1991 season, his spats with Steve Bruce, the head long lunges at the feet of oncoming freight train size strikers, and the love and worship he gave out to the Stretford End became legendary…he was forever going to be in our hearts.
At the end of that season, United reached the final of the Rumbelows Cup (the Football League cup as it is now) and we played Sheffield Wednesday. Neil Hepworth tells us: “We played a decent Wednesday side who beat us 1-0 to lift the cup. Late on there was a well documented clash between Sealey and a Wednesday attacker as he slid out to grab a loose ball. The attackers boot gashed Les straight through the flesh of his knee and gouged down to the bone. Jim McGregor wanted to bring Les off, but he was having none of it. As McGregor tried to grab the ‘keeper to his feet, Les, once again, went mental! This time lashing out at McGregor, pushing him away, no doubt using choice language to tell him where he could put his expert medical recommendation of coming off the pitch . The man’s determination and courage were beyond words. Les just wanted a bandage, the magic sponge, then back on the park. Game on. Still taking goal kicks and diving about. No problem. Awesome.”
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We wouldn’t see Sealey again until the European Cup Winners Cup Final of ‘91 in Rotterdam because of that injury. Here he entered the fray with a heavily bandaged knee, and we all wondered if he could actually bend his leg. But once again, Sealey came up trumps, and helped us beat Barcelona 2-1, with a brace coming from Mark Hughes.
Peter Schmeichel arrived from Brondby that summer, and Sealey signed for Aston Villa on a free transfer, but came back to us in the 1993-1994 as back up to the Great Dane. He wasn’t a focal point in the team, at this stage in his career, but certainly had banter with the fans alright. There was a mutual love and adulation, and respect. None more so when I remember him signing autographs at the training ground, and he went all the way up and down the barrier, then did it again asking “has everyone got one?” Not all the players did that.
It was during this spell at the club that I recall my fondest memory of Sealey. It was at an away game on a Loftus Road against QPR, and I had a seat right on the front row, behind the goal. Sealey was sub, and was warming up before the game with, I think, Mike Phelan taking shots at him. “England’s number one. England’s, England’s number one…” the crowd chanted. With that, Sealey turned round, and with a wry look on his face shouted back “Are you taking the fucking piss??” We were in hysterics, and “Sealey, Sealey, Sealey” bellowed from our lungs. Sealey returned the acknowledgement by lifting his shorts and baring his buttocks at us.
Justin Mottershed said: “My fondest memory of Sealey was meeting him at the Cliff back in 1993. He was no longer our first choice but still immensely popular with the fans. The 1993/4 team poster had Sealey with a particularly grim look on his face, I took it to the Cliff and had a few players sign it- this was back in the days when you could actually meet players after training in the car park. Sealey appeared and I tentatively handed him the poster to sign, half expecting him to rip it to pieces and batter me to death such was the fear he could instil in any man, let alone a young teenager.
He looked at it and smiled “don’t we look like villains?” he noted in his southern accent.
“Ha ha!” I laughed, along with my mate (I wasn’t about to approach Sealy on my own now was I) relieved that we were still standing. Sealey signed my poster and posed for a photo.
For a player who hadn’t played for United regularly for over 2 years to be so popular with the fans, shows what a great character he was. Not only was he a top class keeper- he was hard as nails and commanded his box like doorman at a strip club.
After United he had a few clubs such as Blackpool, West Ham and Leyton Orient. He went back to West Ham once more, and made his final appearance in football as a sub for Ludek Miklosko, at Old Trafford, in front of the Stretford End. A standing ovation for the man who we loved, and he lapped it up with an over dramatised, arms wide gesture.
He became West Ham’s player goalkeeping coach, and was with the Hammers in that role when he suddenly died. For a man who had so much life in him to be taken early is sad at anytime. But he was loved by thousands, and ten years later it’s still a shock to realise he’s no longer here.
In all, Sealey played for Coventry City (twice), Luton Town, Plymouth Argyle, Manchester United (twice), Birmingham City, Blackpool, West Ham United (twice) and Leyton Orient.
A cult hero wherever he was, and a decent bloke to boot. Kevin Pilkington best sums up what Les Sealey was all about: “Les was a fantastic help to me as a young keeper learning the game. Always giving me little bits of advice when he thought it necessary. Just watching him train and play was a big help and what stood out most was his enthusiasm for the game which he loved. It was a big shock when I learnt of his death and he is a massive loss to the game. He was such a kind and genuine man.”
Leslie Jesse Sealey. 29 September 1957 – 19 August 2001. Rest in peace.
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