Ultimate United Articles
David May Heroes, Villains & Legends
A look back at the career of a player who was much more than just the man who hogged the limelight following Manchester United’s historic Treble win in 1999.
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
“…got more medals than Shearer!” He has indeed. When you think of some of the great Manchester United centre backs down the years, David May might not be the first one that creeps into your mind. May, himself, would probably agree, especially when you think of the likes of Bruce, Pallister, Stam, Johnsen, Vidic and Ferdinand. Nevertheless, in the mid to late 1990’s, he was actually a key player for the Red Devils – more so than he will ever probably be given credit for.
He began his career at Blackburn Rovers, making his debut in 1988 for the then-Division 2 side. When Jack Walker bought the club outright in 1991 (after bankrolling a new stand a few years earlier), several expensive additions were made in order to realise Walkers dream of making Blackburn into champions of England happen.
May was partnered with Scotland international Colin Hendry, and together they made a quality pairing. This was clearly not lost on United manager Alex Ferguson, and in the 1993 – 94 season, with Alan Shearer firing in the goals upfront, May and Hendry were keeping them out at the other end. Towards the end of that season, it looked like the Red Devils had completely blown the title when they lost 2 – 0 at Ewood Park. With Cantona suspended, David May did a superb man-marking job on Mark Hughes, and didn’t give him a kick all game.
Clearly, May was not at all distracted by his ongoing contract situation, and if he was, he didn’t let it show on the pitch. This was before the Bosman Ruling, and clubs still held a players’ registration even when their contract ran out, which May’s did in the summer of 1994. United acted swiftly, acquiring the Blackburn centre half for £1.25 million, needing English players in preparation for the following season’s Champions League – the UEFA three foreigner rule still very much a handicap to English clubs back then.
Initially, Mays early displays were not encouraging, as he deputised for the injured Paul Parker at right back. In November 1994, Manchester United travelled to Gothenburg, needing to win at the Ullevi stadium. A 4 – 0 humiliation by Barcelona in the Nou Camp a few weeks earlier had left United’s hopes of qualification from the group hanging by a thread. Within eight minutes, the Reds were a goal down and May, once again out of position at right back, was tormented all night by a future team mate – Jesper Blomqvist probably still affords himself the occasional chuckle at how easy it was that night.
May was replaced after a hour by Gary Neville, who had made a few appearances that season already – and kept hold of the right back slot for more than a decade. If you had asked any United fan at that moment, they probably would have said that they never wanted to see May in a Red shirt again. But that was unfair, anyway, as he hadn’t been played in his natural position. May was not the paciest of players, which is essential for a full back, but was hard in the tackle, a good reader of the game and excellent in the air – the classic hall marks of a good centre half.
He was given the chance to make amends straight away, filling in for Steve Bruce in the next match against Arsenal at Highbury, May put in a Man of the Match performance in a 0 – 0 draw best remembered for Mark Hughes being shown a red card. May’s first season at United never really got going, as he suffered with several injuries. Even his first Premier League goal for United was overshadowed by Cantona’s Bruce Lee impression on a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park (the game finished 1 – 1, for those that don’t remember). He also scored a crucial winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday towards the end of the season, as United kept the Premiership title race going until the final day. It was a race which they were ultimately to lose to May’s old club Blackburn, whose fans loved it. If only they’d known at the time that the smug looks would be wiped off their faces four years later, when a 0 – 0 draw with United relegated them.
May’s second season began in similar vein, with injuries hampering his progress in the early part of the campaign. When he got his chance in the final few months of the season, however, his form meant that there was no place for club captain Steve Bruce, who departed at the end of that campaign. May sealed an impressive second half of the campaign by scoring United’s opening goal in the 3 – 0 win at Middlesbrough that wrapped up the 1995 – 96 Premier League title. He added an FA Cup winners medal to his collection a week later in the 1 – 0 win over Liverpool.
The 1996 – 97 season was undoubtedly his finest for the club, as he played 41 times, scored 4 goals (he was always a threat from corners, his heading ability was second to none). It was probably the only time he stayed injury free for the whole campaign, usually partnering Gary Pallister or Ronny Johnsen in defence. United comfortably retained their title, and May’s form towards the end of that season earned him a call up to the England squad for a friendly with Mexico, although he did not actually get on the pitch, missing his only chance to win an England cap.
Unfortunately for May, his injury curse (which would blight the rest of his United career) struck again the following season. When he was available for selection, he now had his former Blackburn team mate Henning Berg to compete with, as well as Johnsen and Pallister during the 1997 – 98 season, meaning he made just 11 appearances in total.
Although Pallister departed in the summer of 1998, United splashed out £10.75 million on Dutch powerhouse Jaap Stam, and with Wes Brown graduating from the youth team, May would find it almost impossible to get regular football, although injuries and suspension meant that he would get a run in the team towards the end of that historic season, including starting the 1999 FA Cup Final – a 2 – 0 victoryl over Newcastle at Wembley.
He was on the substitute’s bench for the Champions League Final win over Bayern Munich, and famously led the celebrations following that dramatic win in the Nou Camp. But this was to be the last time he would play any real part in the success that Manchester United enjoyed around that time.
Following the Champions League Final, he would stay at Manchester United for a further four seasons, but made just 12 appearances in that time, almost half of them as a substitute, such was the strength of the defensive options Fergie had at his disposal back then.
A loan spell at Huddersfield Town in the 1999 – 2000 season was cut short after picking up an injury in his one and only appearance for the club. He returned to Old Trafford, but became very much the forgotten man as he was only really used when United had a defensive crisis. He left the club in the summer of 2003.
After leaving Old Trafford, May joined Burnley, who were actually the team May made his final appearance against for United in the League Cup. He played for one season at Turf Moor and stayed injury free, although his spell with the Clarets is probably best remembered for a training ground punch up, in which May was headbutted in the chest by his manager Stan Ternent (Zidane probably thought he invented that manoeuvre).
After a spell with non-league Bacup Borough, he hung up his boots and invested some of the money he made as a player into a wine importation company. He also provides analysis for MUTV, and remains a committed fan of the club, even hosting United nights where fans get the chance to meet former players. A committed practical joker – he even had a party to celebrate United beating City, even though the match didn’t take place until the following day (Rooney’s overhead kick saw to it that we did beat them).
You wouldn’t believe it nowadays, given how pro-United he is, but May actually grew up supporting Manchester City. In an interview for “Manchester United on Video” (remember these coming out every couple of months in the mid to late Nineties?) shortly after joining the Red Devils, he admitted to having attended the 1981 FA Cup Final at Wembley. Could have been worse though, at least he didn’t support Liverpool.
So looking back at his career, it’s fair to say that he could have been one of the all-time greats, spoken of in the same breath as Bruce, Stam, Vidic and Ferdinand, if he’d had better luck with injuries. That might sound like a bold statement, but its hard think of a time when May, played in his preferred centre back position, ever let the club down. Sure, there was the odd result, such as the 5 – 0 against Newcastle, and the 6 – 3 at Southampton the following week, but several United legends like Irwin, Neville and Pallister also played in those games. And nobody ever talked of a defensive “crisis” when May was in the team (except, perhaps, when he was playing at right back).
One might, if being harsh, point to our 40 year unbeaten record at Old Trafford in European competition, which was ended when Elvir Bolić of Fenerbahçe struck in 1996, about how May should have tackled him. It’s a point, but not a very accurate one. Bolić was going nowhere, was around 30 yards from goal and there seemed to be no danger when he took a shot, which went in off May’s backside. It is unlikely Bruce or Pallister would have done any different. It was just one of those things.
He was also a little unlucky that he didn’t get more than just one call up to the England squad, but given some of the centre backs the national team had at its disposal back then, it was always going to be hard to get in ahead of people like Adams, Campbell, Southgate, Keown, to name just a few. Pallister, despite all the trophies he won at Old Trafford, didn’t even play 25 games for England. Bruce, incredibly didn’t even get a call up, at least May managed that.
May will never be forgotten by United fans, indeed, it would be hard to forget someone who appears in pretty much every picture taken on the night we beat Bayern Munich in 1999. It’s just a shame that injuries robbed him of the chance to be remembered for so much more than photo bombing.
Added by Philip Meese on 21/08/2017 20:14:31