The legend of Les Sealey: The goalkeeper who made Sir Alex Ferguson


When the story of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United turning point is told, most tend to credit Mark Robins with the starring role in the 1990 FA Cup triumph which saved the Scotsman from the sack.

The striker’s winner in the third-round clash with Nottingham Forest has been relived long and loud by United fans and historians for its role in keeping Ferguson in a job long enough to become the legend that would eventually rack up 13 league titles and two European crowns.

But while Robins’ goal launched United’s cup run in the right direction, the job was completed by a man who was cast aside by Luton Town a matter of months before and who personified the unofficial job description that you ‘don’t have to be mad to be a goalkeeper, but it helps’.

Les Sealey’s career had reached a crossroads. Having made over 400 appearances in a 14-year career split between Coventry City and Luton, the custodian found himself no longer needed at Kenilworth Road and, at the age of 32, couldn’t be sure too many offers would be forthcoming.

With United’s second-choice keeper Gary Walsh having suffered niggling injuries and youngster Mark Bosnich considered too raw to be relied upon as a regular back-up to Jim Leighton, Ferguson decided to take Sealey on loan as the Scotland international’s No.2 for the remainder of the 1989-90 season.

A stumbling United outfit finished the Division One campaign in 13th place, but two of their wins in the run-in had come when Sealey replaced the injured Leighton soon after the two FA Cup semi-final clashes with Oldham.

When United arrived at Wembley to face Crystal Palace on May 12 as heavy favourites, they were given an almighty scare by Steve Coppell’s south London outfit. Having already overcome Liverpool in a 4-3 thriller in the last four, Palace earned a 3-3 draw beneath the famous twin towers and booked a replay date for the following Thursday.



Although many had questioned the role of Leighton in Palace’s goals in the final, few could have foreseen the incredible team selection that followed five days later. Ferguson dropped his mainstay in favour of loanee Sealey, causing quite the furore among the goalkeepers’ union and stunning many within United’s supporter base.

“Was he a better keeper than Jim? No, but he thought he was, and that can sometimes be important,” said Ferguson of his decision some years later. “Les Sealey was cocky and sometimes downright arrogant, so I did not foresee a failure of his nerve at Wembley.”

Gary Pallister told Goal of his own surprise at Ferguson's decision.

“I had came off in the first tie with a sore ankle and spent a full week of treatment, which caused me to miss the start of the team meeting," said the defender. "I walked in and the whole place was like a morgue, while I was buzzing because I knew I had won my race to be fit for the replay.
"Jim, Brian McClair and myself used to drive in to training together so we were close. I asked Brucey [Steve Bruce] why everyone was so glum and he told me that he had left Jim out. It was a hell of a shock because he had played all season."

Palace, understandably, attempted to pepper Sealey's goal whenever possible. The decision to test the nerves of a man with just two games under his belt and playing in such exceptional circumstances was an easy one to make, but Sealey stood strong despite a physical bombardment.

In fact, his demeanour looked much like that of a man revelling in the extensive inquisition. And, from a gibbering wreck the previous Saturday, United’s defence had been injected with far greater belief and organisation as the London-born goalkeeper walked tall behind them.


Lee Martin’s strike early in the second half edged United ahead and even though Palace quickly introduced Ian Wright, a two-goal hero in the first game, the Red Devils rarely looked likely to be breached thanks largely to Sealey’s impact. 

"It was a brave decision, but Les came in and made a couple of key saves," adds Pallister. "By nature Les was a confident lad. A typical cocky Cockney. He lapped it all up and won himself an FA Cup winners’ medal."

With the 1-0 victory, Ferguson finally had his first piece of silverware in England after four years of trying, and Sealey celebrated in style, endlessly entertaining supporters with his antics as the cup was paraded around the Wembley track in front of the success-starved fans.

But within minutes he was showing fantastic humility in private. Upon returning to the dressing room, the loanee made a bee-line for Leighton, offering the Scot his winner’s medal in recognition of the work he had done to help United reach the final in the first place. Leighton refused, and would later receive a medal of his own due to his involvement in the original match, but Sealey hadn’t known that and his show of comradeship was rightly lauded after the game.

Although Sealey’s loan ended with the full-time whistle at Wembley, and his contract at Luton was also up, Ferguson offered him a permanent one-year deal and installed him as his first-choice keeper ahead of the 1990-91 season. A year on from his FA Cup heroics he was a winner in Europe too, donning the gloves in Rotterdam as United beat Barcelona to earn the European Cup Winners’ Cup and hand Fergie a first continental crown in Manchester.


He had come close to missing that final due to a horrific gash on his knee that was sustained during the League Cup final defeat by Sheffield Wednesday, but even then he showed his magnetic and combustible character. After being told by physio Jim McGregor that the injury would force him to leave the field, he began to physically battle with the medic in a bid to prove his fitness. After McGregor relented Sealey played on, but the victory over Barcelona three weeks later would be his only other appearance for United before his contract expired.

With the arrival of Peter Schmeichel at Old Trafford, Sealey’s dreamlike experience had come to an end, and although he briefly returned to United as back-up to the Great Dane in 1993-94, his career entered a journeyman period. His final professional game came, fittingly, at the Theatre of Dreams as a West Ham player on the same day Eric Cantona waved farewell to the game in May 1997.

Four years on, Sealey was still in football as West Ham’s goalkeeping coach until fate stepped in the way. On August 19, 2001 he suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered, passing away at the age of 43. His legacy in the game is extensive.

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Stephen Bywater, who was coached by Sealey at West Ham and has worn number 43 at a string of clubs to commemorate his former tutor’s life, says that United’s hero of 1990 remains a guiding light in his career.

“You either liked him or hated him really,” Bywater once said of Sealey. “But he was like a second dad to me. He taught me about life. He told me, ‘Lose 1-0 and you’ve conceded a goal, 2-0 OK, three goals and you have to start looking at yourself and four goals you are not doing your job.’”

The job Sealey did in keeping out Crystal Palace in that final 26 years ago will forever be remembered as a key moment in Manchester United’s history. And if United are to win another FA Cup at the expense of the Eagles on Saturday, their matchwinner will take his place in club folklore alongside one of the most mad, manic and memorable members of the goalkeepers’ union English football has ever seen.

“Everybody thinks goalkeeping’s really easy,” Sealey once said in a TV interview mid-way through a training session at United’s mud-ridden Cliff training ground. “Look at me! Would I rather be a plumber? Would I rather be an electrician? You’re kidding!”