Once seen as a jinx, David May became something of a mascot at Manchester United as he all but vanished from sight except for trophy ceremonies, as Chris Taylor remembers
“Who the hell is that?” asked my dad. “David May,” I told him. May had just come on as a 90th-minute substitute for Ruud van Nistelrooy at Anfield. With the score 2-1, Sir Alex had decided enough was enough and it was time to shut up shop completely.
“Who?” asked my dad, thoroughly confused. “You know. David May. Signed him from Blackburn about nine years ago. Hardly ever plays.” My dad stared blankly back at me. Even ignoring the creeping onset of old age, my dad’s reaction was understandable; the last time I could remember May playing was in 1997.
May cost Manchester United £1.2 million back in the summer of 1994. He was Sir Alex’s only major signing after winning the double the previous season. Steve Bruce was getting on and it was thought that May would be his long-term replacement. As it was, May spent the best part of the 1995 season playing at right-back. Anyone who saw him there would probably admit it was not his strongest position. I imagine that he still has nightmares over his performance against IFK Gothenburg in the Champions League. I know I do. Having finished runner-up at Blackburn the previous season, May had to make do with second best again.
At the time it was claimed he was a curse. A hex. It was obvious to anyone who paid attention – if you had May in the team, you were destined to finish as runners-up. Luckily for Manchester United fans around the globe, Alex Ferguson is a strong-willed individual with no time for witchcraft. In 1996 he stuck May in the centre of defence and Manchester United won the League and FA Cup double again.
The next season was May’s year. Steve Bruce had been put out to pasture in the lower leagues and May was first-choice centre-back. Playing in his strongest position, May matured into an excellent defender and was eventually called up to Glenn Hoddle’s England squad for Le Tournoi de France. It didn’t seem to matter that he withdrew through injury as he was bound to get another chance in no time. But he didn’t.
I don’t remember any specific instances of his playing in 1998. This may be a trauma-related amnesia after Arsenal won the league that year. It could be that I was too busy preparing to take my A levels and working behind the cheese counter in Gateways. But the fact remains that between getting called up for the England squad and being released this summer, May did very little for Manchester United.
While Fergie and the boys were on the beach in Brazil – or working hard in inhospitable conditions, I forget which is the current party line – for the World Club Championship, May was left at home in England and sent on loan to Huddersfield Town. After just one match, he got injured and returned to Old Trafford.
And that’s about it. After signing for Burnley recently, May reportedly said: “Everyone thinks I’ve been injured for the past few years, but I haven’t, the manager just didn’t play me.” In nine years as a Manchester United player, May made just 118 appearances. He picked up two League Championship medals, two FA Cup winners’ medals and a European Cup winners’ medal. That’s a pretty impressive trophy haul for any player (four more than Alan Shearer), let alone one who spent so long on the fringes of the first team.
But of course I couldn’t write about May and not mention his greatest moment in a United shirt. Even though he was an unused substitute (stupidly, the manager decided to send on Sheringham and Solskjaer instead), May will forever be remembered for his actions at the European Cup final in Barcelona. After the trophy presentation, he took it upon himself to lead the celebrations and become, depending on your view point, the master of ceremonies or the most brazen of gatecrashers. With tens of thousands of United fans singing and dancing in the ground, May walked out to the centre circle with the trophy, held a finger to his lips and silenced the entire crowd. There, one by one, he called the United players forward for their turn to lift the trophy and receive their praise from the fans. It was an amazing sight, and one that no one who was there will forget. Mainly because he made sure he was there, in the background of every single photograph taken that night.
From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month