If you mention the name Les Sealey to any Manchester United supporter who followed the team during 1990 and 1991, then they’ll immediately have a huge amount of respect and admiration for this man and what he achieved at that time for Manchester United. 2011 will mark the 10th anniversary of his shock death from a heart attack at the age of only 43 years of age. A sad loss to the world of football.
Born in London in 1957, Sealey had already had a decent top flight career in English football with Coventry City and Luton Town, with the only major downside being that he missed Luton’s 1988 League Cup Final victory over Arsenal at Wembley due to injury. Sealey got his chance at Wembley the following season, as Luton returned there to defend their trophy. Unfortunately for Luton and Sealey, they were facing a great Nottingham Forest side that day, managed by Brian Clough, so lost the match.
As the following season started, Sealey lost his place in the Luton 1st team. At the time, Manchester United only really had one fit 1st team goalkeeper, Jim Leighton, as number 2 choice Gary Walsh was struggling with injuries. Mark Bosnich was playing for the Reserves and was being seen as a definite future regular 1st team keeper, but not yet ready in case of an injury. As a result, United decided to take Les Sealey on loan for the remainder of the 1989-90 season as cover, in case Leighton got injured. This season was obviously best remembered for United’s brilliant FA Cup run and as this went on, Sealey must have been a very interested observer but must not really have expected to play much of a part, if any.
Following United’s victory over Oldham, in the semi-final replay, Sealey was given a place in goal in the next 2 matches – an away victory at QPR and then the impressive 2-0 victory over Aston Villa. At the time, Villa were major title contenders with Liverpool, so this victory ruined Villa’s chances of the title. Not that much attention was really paid to Sealey at the time though, as the player grabbing the headlines was a young striker called Mark Robins. After the Villa match, Leighton returned to the team after being rested and played in the remainder of the league matches, apart from a night match against Wimbledon at Old Trafford where Mark Bosnich was given his debut in a dull 0-0 draw. Although Leighton was back in the team criticism was growing for him, as he wasn’t playing well. 2 matches that stood out for Leighton’s poor form were the FA Cup semi-final where United drew 3-3 against Oldham and then the shocking 4-0 defeat away at Nottingham Forest, where United were 4 down after just over 20 minutes of the game played. Despite his poor form, Jim Leighton would start in goal against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup Final.
The FA Cup Final in May 1990 was a must win match for Alex Ferguson and the pressure was on him and his players that day. Although Crystal Palace were newly promoted to the top division and had lost 9-0 to Liverpool that season, they were a strong team and had beaten Liverpool in a brilliant semi-final, so it wasn’t seen as an easy task for United. They had 2 prolific strikers at the time- Mark Bright and, returning from injury, Ian Wright. It turned out to be an entertaining 3-3 match, but was a very stressful match for all us United fans in the stadium that day and for everyone watching around the world on TV. Mark Hughes’ late equaliser in injury time to make it 3-3, was such a relief to us all. It meant a replay on the following Thursday, as FA Cup Finals then didn’t go straight to penalty shoot outs after extra time.
Jim Leighton had a poor Cup Final, but when it was announced that Les Sealey would start in the replay there was still some surprise, after only 2 starts in goal for the club. The decision to play Sealey turned out to be a brilliant one by Ferguson, as Sealey put in a truly heroic performance that night, making a series of brilliant saves to keep Crystal Palace out. In addition Sealey, took a battering from the Palace players especially Mark Bright, as they were clearly under instructions to unsettle Sealey who they saw as being shaky due to a lack of matches. Sealey was having none of this though. After every nasty challenge he just kept getting up and it only made him more determined. A truly legendary performance. Lee Martin is remembered for scoring the winning goal, in a 1-0 win, but for me watching Sealey that night – he was the main reason why we won the match. He fired up the team with his bravery and determination, which gave our team the boost it needed. He did not let the pressure affect him at all. It was only during the celebrations afterwards that it finally caught up with Sealey, as during the lap of honour he had to stop midway through for a break. Once he got back to the dressing room, Sealey did the ultimate gesture for me – giving his winners’ medal to Jim Leighton, who had played in all the other FA Cup matches. Sealey didn’t realise at the time that as Leighton had played in the 1st Final, he automatically would receive a medal. So, it meant that Sealey got his winners’ medal too. Also, as his loan was now up with Manchester United and Luton were releasing him, Sealey was rewarded with a contract at United for the following season. It was very well deserved in my opinion.
The 1990-91 Season started with Les Sealey as 1st choice goalkeeper and Jim Leighton as number 2. In fact Leighton would only ever make 1 more appearance for United – away at Halifax Town at The Shay in September 1990 in a League Cup match. Sealey was 1st choice all season and put in lots of great performances as United improved their league position and reached the finals of the League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. It would be in those 2 finals where Les Sealey’s heroic status would grow even more in the eyes of all United fans. In the League Cup Final in April 1991 – United faced Sheffield Wednesday, managed by Ron Atkinson, their former manager. Sadly, United lost the match 1-0 to a goal by a boyhood United supporter John Sheridan. However, what is most remembered by United fans that day is the incredible bravery of Les Sealey again. During the 2nd half Sealey suffered a really bad cut to his knee off the boot of a Sheffield Wednesday player. The cut was so deep that you could actually see the bone in his knee. United’s physio Jim McGregor immediately said to Sealey that there was no way that he would be able to carry on in the match, as he needed urgent medical treatment at a hospital. At the time, they did not have substitute goalkeepers, which would have meant that one of our outfield players would have had to go in goal for the rest of the match. So, Sealey refused straight away and ended up having a huge argument on the pitch with McGregor. Sealey, of course, won the argument and McGregor bandaged his knee up as best that he could. Sealey deserves a huge amount of credit for that as he was prepared to risk further injury to his knee so that he didn’t let his team mates down. Although United lost, they didn’t concede any more goals and Sealey played his part in that.
Sealey’s injury was a severe one, made worse by a bad reaction on the flight back home from London to Manchester that evening and it seemed certain that his season was over. Gary Walsh, whose own injury problems had cleared up and was now 2nd choice goalkeeper, ahead of Jim Leighton, played in the remaining league matches and in the 2nd Leg of the Cup Winners’ Cup Semi-final against Legia Warsaw. However, when it came to the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final against Barcelona in the middle of May, Sealey would again show his immense bravery by declaring himself fit to play.
Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona in Rotterdam in the Cup Winner’s Cup Final is best remembered for the 2 goals by Mark Hughes, the clearance off the line by Clayton Blackmore near the end of the match to stop a Barcelona equaliser and for the amazing atmosphere created by the United fans that night who outnumbered and outsung the Barcelona fans. However, it should also be remembered for Sealey playing so well despite a heavily bandaged up knee, less than a month after it had been cut open to the bone at Wembley. It was another well deserved winners’ medal for Sealey that night and his legendary status to United fans grew even more.
Behind the scenes though – there were problems with Sealey’s contract negotiations for the following season. In the end the club and him couldn’t reach an agreement, meaning Sealey left the club to join Aston Villa, where he would start the season as their 1st choice goalkeeper. Manchester United announced that Les Sealey’s replacement would be a Danish international goalkeeper named Peter Schmeichel. Except for followers of international football, Schmeichel was not well known at the time, but he soon would be. Gary Walsh would be United’s 2nd choice goalkeeper, as Mark Bosnich had also left the club after failing to obtain a work permit. As 1991-92 went on Peter Schmeichel would prove what a world class keeper he was. Sealey, at Villa, was in and out of the team, competing with Nigel Spink for a 1st team place.
When the 1992-93 season started, it was with the introduction of The FA Premier League in place of the First Division. Amongst the changes, it was announced that clubs could now name a substitute goalkeeper in case of an injury or bad performance by their starting goalkeeper. At Aston Villa, Sealey was now 3rd choice goalkeeper behind Nigel Spink and Mark Bosnich who had resolved his work permit problems by marrying an English woman. As a result, Sealey was sent out on loan to Birmingham City at the start of the season for a few months. Meanwhile at United, Schmeichel was number 1 keeper, but Gary Walsh was having injury problems at the time. As a short term measure, former United apprentice Fraser Digby was brought in on loan as substitute goalkeeper. As Sealey was out of favour at Villa, Ferguson brought him back to the club in early 1993 on a free transfer. Although it was only as a clear Number 2 to Schmeichel, this move was very popular with United fans and to Sealey aswell. Although he didn’t play in any of the matches for the remainder of the season, he was a reliable back-up to Schmeichel and a great character to have in the dressing room and on the training ground. United ended the season as Premier League champions and although Sealey didn’t get a medal he was included in the celebrations as the club lifted the trophy at Old Trafford in May 1993.
Peter Schmeichel started every match of the 1993-94 season up until March 1994, but Sealey remained a very popular figure with the players and also the fans, especially at away games where we would chant ‘SEA-LEY, SEA-LEY, SEA-LEY’ lots during the warm up. In the FA Cup Quarter Final match at home to Charlton, Sealey would get his chance in the 1st team again. Schmeichel was sent off in the 1st half after commiting a clumsy foul outside the penalty box. Paul Parker was immediately substituted, so that Sealey could go in goal and this created a huge cheer from the crowd. The match ended in a 3-1 United win and it was Sealey’s 1st United appearance for 34 months. The sending off of Schmeichel also meant that he would be suspended for the League Cup Final against Aston Villa at the end of the month. It meant another Wembley start for Les Sealey at Manchester United. Sadly, this match wouldn’t turn out to be a legendary one for Sealey or Manchester United. Villa won 3-1 and it would turn out to be Sealey’s final appearance for United. Gary Walsh’s injury problems had now cleared up again and from then on he was seen as the Number 2 keeper behind Schmeichel. When Peter Schmeichel got injured at Ipswich at the start of May, it was Walsh that came on as substitute. Walsh also played in the remaining two Premier League matches and was named as substitute goalkeeper at Wembley for the FA Cup Final against Chelsea. As United did their lap of honour at Wembley after beating Chelsea 4-0, amongst the celebrations, there was a big cheer for 2 legendary players who were making their way back to the dressing room, behind the goal where the United fans were. The 2 players were Les Sealey and Bryan Robson and they both had their Cup Final suits on, as they had not been selected as substitutes by Alex Ferguson. As we applauded them, we knew that it was their last day representing the club as Manchester United players.
In the summer of 1994, Sealey joined Blackpool on a free transfer. This was only a short term move, as he then returned to West Ham as number 2 goalkeeper to Ludek Miklosko. Sealey’s West Ham debut was typically memorable. At the time 3 substitutes could be named and as a result of an injury to an outfield player, Sealey was West Ham’s remaining substitute, so was brought on as an outfield player in an away match at Arsenal. At the end of the 1994-95 Season, when United drew at West Ham at the end of the season and missed out on the League, I remember Sealey, who was on the West Ham end of season lap of honour, walking over to us, as we were locked in the ground and applauding us all. He understood our disappointment that day.
Les Sealey’s final match as a player was typically memorable too. He came on as substitute goalkeeper in the final league match of the 1996-97 season for West Ham at Old Trafford against Manchester United. I remember that he received an amazing reception that day from our fans who remembered all that he did for our club.
Sealey remained at West Ham as their goalkeeping coach right until his death in 2001. For all United fans and football fans in general that remembered him playing, it is his courage and his great character that we’ll remember the most. A very sad loss and still missed by all of us that remember him.