UTD Unscripted: Remembering my dad
You know what I love?
That makes me happy. I’ll talk to anyone and everyone about that. I never get sick of it. It’s a nice thing that people remember him because you're going back 30 years ago or more to remember the games he played, but people still remember them like they were yesterday.
Even if people aren’t already aware that I’m Les Sealey’s son, when they find out, there are two things that virtually everybody says to me when they realise. They either say: “Oh, he’s the goalie they dropped Jim Leighton for,” or “I was in Rotterdam.” It’s always one or the other. Both are great!
I’ve got a few more memories than that, and a lot of them centre around United. To be honest, United is the first club I can remember him playing for. I don't really remember him playing for Luton and I was two months old when he left Coventry. The first time I remember my dad playing football was at Old Trafford, and that's probably why I’m a United fan – I spent all my younger years watching potentially the best team in the world, certainly in the country. I think he was maybe a bit famous playing for Luton, but after he’d joined United I'd be walking down the street or going to school and everyone knew who my dad was. Anywhere you went, you became more recognisable; it was a bigger deal than before.
That was especially the case after the 1990 FA Cup final replay between United and Palace.
Prior to the first final, when Jim Leighton started, dad had only played two games all season. He wasn’t even on the bench in the first game, if I recall correctly, he was watching the first game from behind the goal with the photographers, and he was happy to just do that. He’d been on loan from Luton and it had actually expired the day before the final.
After the game finished 3-3, the manager decided that he was going to play dad in the replay and renewed his loan for another month so he could play.
We’ll never know what would have happened if that had never happened. The journalist who’s currently turning my dad’s memoirs into a book has spoken to people around it at the time, and everyone believes that if United had lost, Steve Coppell was being lined up as a potential future United manager, so that’s a completely different history. There’s no telling what would have happened, football history in England would have been completely different.
Luckily, doing what a great manager does, Alex Ferguson got it right. He picked my dad.
From the first minute, it was clear it was going to be an eventful night. Someone did him in the first minute - Mark Bright, I think – but dad told me later on that Bright had hardly touched him. He dived with that one and he was quite happy that he got him booked! You can’t blame Palace for targeting him – he’d hardly played all season, so if I was Crystal Palace, I’d be saying: stick the ball in the box, see what’s happening here.
They did, but he withstood everything, kept a clean sheet and United won 1-0. That was the first trophy of Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford and it was a massive point in time for Fergie, my dad and English football.
He joined United late in his career, so he enjoyed taking everything he could out of that experience. He probably never thought he would have had that opportunity because he’d fallen out with the manager at Luton and hadn’t played for the previous year. He went from not playing for Luton Town and being the outcast of the club to playing for Man United in cup finals.
There were two more of them in that second season. The first one was the League Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday, which United lost, and my dad got a badly gashed knee towards the end of the game, but he refused to go off. People remember him shouting at Jim McGregor, the United physio, who ended up just strapping him up on the pitch and letting him play until the end.
At the time, there were no goalies on the bench, plus my dad was quite hard on the pitch. He wanted to win. He wanted to experience it. He didn’t want to go off in a cup final because he didn’t know how many more he’d have. I don't think you'll ever see that again, with that type of injury, anyone doing anything like that. Nowadays if you get a knock on the head you can’t play for two weeks, so it was a different era, different time.
When dad was stitched up afterwards, there was dirt in the wound. That turned it septic, and he ended up collapsing at the airport after the game and had to be taken to Middlesex Hospital, which turned out to be a blessing because the doctors said that if he’d have gotten on the plane he’d have lost his leg or died.
That injury nearly finished his career there and then because it was it was a really bad one. Dad being dad, and I don't know how he managed to do it, he ended up playing again less than four weeks later in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Barcelona. He was he was in a really bad way in the run-up to the game but he recognised that he was never gonna get the chance to play in a game like that again, he felt lucky to have a sniff of an opportunity to play in Rotterdam, so he did everything he could to be fit for it.
Including going to see a faith healer and taking me with him. Yeah, that’s a night I remember!
The swelling was gone in three days and he was able to play in Rotterdam. United won 2-1, a big upset against a huge team and somehow my dad played the whole game.
Is it any wonder Fergie regarded dad as a lucky charm?
After the Cup Winners’ Cup, United signed Peter Schmeichel and my dad went to Aston Villa for the 1991/92 season. They only won the League Cup and lost the league to Leeds after seemingly having it in the bag, so Fergie re-signed him to bring good luck back to the club.
They went on to win the Premier League the next year, the Double the year after.
So, in his mid-30s, dad got another experience of United, behind the goalie I perceive to be the best ever, or one of, and as part of one of the most incredible United squads ever. I was a bit older at that stage, so I remember watching them play and thinking: What is this? It was like nothing I’d ever seen. It was unreal on the pitch and off the pitch, just electric. The wingers, Giggs and Kanchelskis, they were phenomenal. Incey, Robbo, Keano running around. They became such a good, physical team. Everyone had an edge to them, and it was the right type of football for that period. I was at probably every game that season and it was just amazing.
Dad loved being around the place at that time. He’d had a falling out at Villa and wanted to come back to United – I bet he couldn’t believe his luck – he got back in and was part of one of the most successful teams in the history of football at the time. And, again, it's who you meet, the people around you, experiences, you're getting treated like royalty. You're flying everywhere you go, why wouldn't you go back at that period of your career?
He must have known he wasn’t playing when Schmeichel was there, so he was going back to fight as number two with Gary Walsh; he must have known that. Better going and doing that than going and playing at another club, you know?
In the end he played 56 games for Man United. When I went to the Old Trafford museum the other week and saw the appearances rankings on the wall, I saw he played three more games than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one game less than Shinji Kagawa, and I hadn’t realised that.
It’s nice to see him up there on the wall, among all those names because, like I say, it’s great to keep his memory alive because unfortunately dad’s not with us anymore.
This week it’s the 20th anniversary of his death and, of course, that’s a day I won’t forget.
He didn't die from being unwell, so he was fine in the morning. He’d retired from football and wasn’t doing a lot, he’d just bought some property down towards Southend and he’d gone there to do some renovations.
We got a phone call in the afternoon. I answered the phone. It was Southend Hospital, asking if they could speak to my mum. At the time, as I’d been on West Ham’s books, I had Glen Johnson and another West Ham player, Ronnie Fletcher, together with me. I passed the phone to my mum, she said: “I’ve got to go to the hospital and you’ve got to come with me.”
We got in the car, drove to Southend, went into the hospital, went to reception, and they took us into a side room and told us he’d had a heart attack and died.
What transpired is that, during the heart attack, dad had managed to drive himself to the hospital. He never tried to ring an ambulance. Apart from that knee injury at Wembley, I’d never known my dad go to a hospital, he wouldn’t go to a doctor, he just got on with things. He never tried to ring an ambulance, he just drove himself there instead and parked the car on the curb outside A&E, but getting out of the car killed him. With any movement you do, your heart beats a little quicker to make you move. Getting off that seat and shutting the car door killed him. He probably would have died anyway, for the severity of a heart attack that he’d had. It was the same sort of heart attack as Fabrice Muamba and Marc-Vivien Foe. His heart was that big, it exploded, basically. It wasn’t hereditary, there was no illness, he’d had checks the previous year for insurance, it was a fluke. A billion to one chance, the doctors said.
Now, I’m able to remember the good things about my dad.
He was a good dad. Quite strict, but very straight, didn’t really like going out, wasn’t a big socialiser. He was a bit different, really – quieter than people will presume, especially if they saw him shouting on the pitch. He was always up for a laugh, always up for playing football, going down the park, taking me and my brother to get sweets, he was what I consider to be a good dad.
I don't think he was that bothered by the fame that came with being a United player. He never went to film premieres, wouldn't do magazines, wouldn’t do newspaper interviews, hardly did anything like that. He’d rather come home, get away from it, have a cup of a tea or a coffee, sit on the sofa and watch telly. He used to like tinkering with cars – there was always a car out front that he was taking apart, or he’d be washing it. If he wasn’t on the sofa watching telly or doing something with his kids then he was doing something with his car.
Growing up with a dad that plays football, you don't realise how lucky you are. He was always at home. I finished school at three o'clock, came home and my dad was indoors. I wasn't used to him coming home at seven or later, like other kids. That way I probably spent a lot more time with my dad than most people growing up.
Now, I’m a father to three kids myself and I like to think some of my dad’s traits come out in my parenting. When something happens, I do often wonder what my dad would think of it. No-one gets it right all the time, and one thing he did always instilled into me is always apologise if you're in the wrong. I try to live by that, if I'm in the wrong, I say sorry, and move forward and try to pass that to the kids. I just try to be the best dad I can be.
Life is busy now with various things I’ve got going on around me. I’ve always got a lot going on and I’m always busy, but I’ve always got time for my family. And I’m never, ever too busy to chat about my dad.