Les Sealey prepares to kick the ball out.

Opinion: Why Sealey is United's best loan signing

Saturday 07 March 2020 08:00

Whenever I hear talk of Manchester United's best loan signing, and this topic will become even hotter if Odion Ighalo continues this kind of form, Henrik Larsson's name is often nominated in this category.

Perhaps it is because his was a genuine stop-gap arrival in the traditional sense of a loan, a short-term option who oozed class and quality in the attack, in 2007.

The move was an undoubted success but the Swede did only score once in the Premier League, three times in all competitions. So, in my view, there are other contenders for the accolade of United's best loan capture.

Henrik Larsson was a short-term success in the early part of 2007.

Carlos Tevez is an obvious alternative - he was fantastic for the Reds but the deal was not your typical loan, stretching over two seasons. It is also fair to say joining Manchester City at the end of it was always going to obviously lose him marks in the respect of this argument!

I remember, in my youth, Ron Atkinson signing Laurie Cunningham and Garth Crooks on loan. Both fine footballers but they never really showed their best form at Old Trafford.

Unlike Les Sealey.

Signing keepers on loan usually went under the radar, it was probably something you would only find out about in the 'News in brief' section on Teletext - a couple of lines of matter-of-fact statement. Mark Crossley, of Nottingham Forest, also had a stint with United around the same time and I think there was more focus on Mal Donaghy returning to Luton Town when Les made the move in the opposite direction.

Jim Leighton was Alex Ferguson's undisputed no.1 and it was not until mid-April of that 1989/90 season when the man from Bethnal Green got his opportunity, at the age of 32.

As is the case with Ighalo, he appeared hell-bent on grabbing it with both hands. 

Sealey played in wins over Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa (2-1 and 2-0)  before a young Mark Bosnich made his debut in a goalless home draw with Wimbledon at the end of the month. But Leighton was back in goal for the final two league matches of a disappointing Division One campaign and had played in all of the FA Cup matches en route to the final.

Les Sealey earned a permanent move after impressing in his loan stint.

Hence, it was no surprise when the Scotland international lined up against Crystal Palace at Wembley, only for the experienced campaigner's performance in the exciting 3-3 draw to prompt his manager to ponder one of the biggest decisions of his illustrious career.

As Sealey's loan was set to expire at the end of the season, the fact there was a replay meant permission had to be granted to make him available for the second game against Steve Coppell's Eagles. This was granted but there was still widespread shock when the Londoner was actually handed the gloves when the teams were announced for the big match.

After all, the keeper had been, perhaps harshly, blamed by Luton boss Ray Harford for his performance in the League Cup final defeat to Nottingham Forest, a year earlier, at the iconic stadium and dropped from the Hatters' team as a result. Not the best memory to take into this fixture, which was always going to have huge repercussions for Ferguson's tenure.

Les Sealey's character allowed him to shine on the big stage with the Reds.

Yet the manager's faith in Sealey's character and mentality proved well placed. Palace clearly tried to unsettle him with some rough-house tactics but he stood firm, making a few vital saves and keeping a clean sheet. This despite one worrying moment when the camera clearly showed him yelling at his wall 'I can't see' (expletive removed), only to block Andy Gray's free-kick with his legs.

John Motson, in commentary, remarked that the game may always be remembered as the 'Les Sealey Cup final'.

Some 30 years on, the importance of lifting that trophy can never be under-estimated when telling the story of Sir Alex's Manchester United. Sealey, who earned a permanent contract on the back of it, and helped us win the European Cup-Winners' Cup in the following season, would later to return to the club in the 1993/94 season.

Tragically, he died of a heart attack in 2001, aged only 43, which is still hard to come to terms with. 

Yet Sealey's place in our history will never be forgotten. And it will take some intervention from Ighalo to usurp him in my mind as our best loan signing. Let's hope the Nigerian does at least have the opportunity to supply his own FA Cup final heroics in May.

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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