Jack Butland is the latest left-field signing to serve as a stand-in for Manchester United’s No.1. Here are five more, with one becoming a cup-winning hero…
Nobody could have predicted what would happen when Sir Alex Ferguson signed the 32-year-old back-up keeper on loan from Luton Town in December 1989. It was the same month that the infamous ‘Three years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie’ banner was unfurled on the Stretford End. Six months later, after only two First Division appearances, Sealey was thrust into the spotlight for the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace after Ferguson dropped Jim Leighton.
Palace players thought this new keeper could be rattled. They gave him plenty of stick in the tunnel – “Being a profound and deep-thinking person, I told them to f*** off,” said Sealey – and tried to break him, literally, on the pitch. It didn’t work. Sealey was flawless in victory and Ferguson was off and running.
Sealey kept his place the following season, when he kept goal during United’s 2-1 win over Barcelona in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. He played in Rotterdam with a heavily strapped knee after receiving a deep cut during the League Cup final a few weeks before. It penetrated through to the bone but Sealey made it absolutely clear to the physio and everyone at Wembley he wasn’t going off. He hobbled through the last 12 minutes before collapsing at the airport heading back to Manchester. The wound had become infected and, had he got on the plane, doctors believe he would have lost his leg and perhaps even his life.
Sealey left United upon Peter Schmeichel’s arrival but he returned to Old Trafford barely a year later to offer cover again, winning a couple of Premier League titles and the FA Cup as substitute. He made only a couple of first-team appearances during that second spell, meaning his final four games for United were a League Cup final, European Cup Winners’ Cup final, FA Cup quarter-final, and another League Cup final.
Rangers legend Goram told the story in his autobiography of how he joined United from Motherwell in March 2001 on a three-month loan.
“When I had three months of my contract left, they let it be known that I wouldn’t be offered another one. I was knackered. Miriam and I were together at the time and she was driving me to training one day when my phone rang. Coisty. It was 9.30am and I thought he must be coming in from a night on the batter. Ally never phones you in the morning. We blethered, and I shrugged it off and went into training.
“At lunchtime on the way home the phone rang again. Walter Smith. He was manager of Everton at the time and warned me to keep my phone on because someone was going to ring me. ‘What is it, gaffer? You got a job for me?’ I asked. ‘Just keep your f*cking phone on,’ he growled. Now I was starting to wonder what was going on. I suspected I was about to get the piss taken out of me.
‘Two minutes later, the phone rang again. ‘Goalie, it’s Alex Ferguson here. We’ve got Bayern Munich on Wednesday and Liverpool at the weekend. Fabian Barthez is injured and Raimond van der Gouw is struggling. I need you to come down on loan until the end of the season.’
‘I said: ‘Coisty, f*** off’. And put the phone down. Ally could do Sir Alex perfectly. I wasn’t falling for that old one. The phone rang again and I told Miriam to answer it this time. ‘Miriam, this is Alex Ferguson, and you can tell that fat b*stard he’s got ten seconds to say aye or naw.’’
That fat b*stard never featured against Bayern or Liverpool but the 37-year-old did play two games during United’s run-in.
The keeper best known for over 420 games for Swindon started his career as an apprentice at United before leaving for the County Ground as a 19-year-old.
He was back six years later, however, when United needed cover for Peter Schmeichel so Digby, who had been dropped by Glenn Hoddle at Swindon, was asked to return to Old Trafford. “I said, ‘I’ll start walking now!’,” Digby recalled with The Washbag. “You go from rock bottom and being dropped to then having the opportunity to go up to United and work with the players there. Working with Peter Schmeichel was probably the best two months I’ve had in my whole career. It helped me out in a phenomenal way.”
Digby was one of two signings United made in November 1992. The other: Eric Cantona.
Lisandro Martinez and Angel Di Maria took the number of players to have won the World Cup and represented Manchester United up to 14. One of them is Valdes, though the ex-Spain keeper wasn’t treated much like global star during his time at Old Trafford.
Valdes joined United in January 2015, reuniting with Louis van Gaal after the pair worked together at Barcelona. The keeper had left Barcelona the previous summer upon the expiry of his contract. He was due to join Monaco but a knee injury scuppered that prospect, leaving him free for United half a season later.
Van Gaal signed Valdes to serve as back-up to David De Gea, who then still seemed likely to end up at Real Madrid so it didn’t appear far-fetched to envisage the ex-Barca star taking the gloves from his countryman. Valdes waited for his first-team debut, which came when De Gea was injured in the penultimate game of the season against Arsenal. His first start followed a week later at Hull where he kept a clean sheet and was generally the only positive on a day better remembered for Di Maria skulking off on his final appearance for the club.
But, like Di Maria, Valdes never played for United again. The keeper was never one to keep a lid on things and while other United players were moaning behind Van Gaal’s back, Valdes took the manager to task in front of his team-mates, for which he was punished by being exiled from the squad.
“He is not selected because he doesn’t follow our philosophy and there is no place for someone like that,” Van Gaal explained in July 2015. “Philosophy is how you play football and how you maintain your match rhythm. For example, last year, he refused to play in the second team.”
Van Gaal went further, instructing that his locker be cleared and depriving him of the chance to train even with the Under-21s. Valdes kept his head down and grafted on his own with one of the academy goalkeeping coaches. He eventually escaped to Standard Liege on loan before joining Boro at the start of the 2016-17 season.
Does he hold a grudge against Van Gaal or United? Apparently not. “I don’t have any bad words for Van Gaal or Manchester United,” he said upon leaving. “They helped me through my injury and the manager gave me my chance as a footballer at Barcelona and then again at United. He’s like a father figure to me. I don’t want to remember the last six months in a bad way. For me he is in the top. We are still friends and there is no problem between us.”
Prior to signing for Stoke as cover for United’s latest left-field goalie, Grant had spent the previous 14 years in the Football League, primarily bobbing around the Championship with the likes of Derby, Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley. But Butland’s injury gave the veteran a shot at the big time which he grabbed and held with both hands.
He was the Potters’ Player of the Season in 2016-17 before Butland returned to take his place. With Grant on the bench, Stoke were relegated back to the Championship.
But Grant didn’t go with them. A man-of-the-match performance at Old Trafford two seasons previously presumably stuck in United’s memory and they signed the then 35-year-old to serve as one of Jose Mourinho’s back-up stoppers alongside career stand-in Sergio Romero.
After two appearances over the span of his original two-year contract, Grant was offered another deal. And then a year later, another one. He didn’t play a competitive game during those last two contracts but he collected cones and brewed up like a champion.