The example of Steve Bruce, May's predecessor in the Manchester United team, loomed. Bruce was one of the key figures in United's 1990s revival but he came no closer to England recognition than a belated admission by Bobby Robson that he should have capped him and one by Graham Taylor that he was unlucky not to have won 20 to 30 caps.
May is still to actually play for England - but the 26-year-old has at least made the squad, after being called up on Sunday as the injury toll rose. "A lot of people have been saying it is about time I was called up," May said at England's Bisham Abbey training camp yesterday. "I was just concentrating on doing well for Manchester United. I knew if I did that the chance would come.
"It is remarkable that Brucie was never called up for England given what he has done for United. It was unfortunate for him."
May, however, is used to waiting for his chance. It took him two years to dislodge Bruce in the United team after signing from Blackburn in the summer of 1994. In that time he saw his old team win the Premiership and himself pilloried for a series of poor performances when played out of position at right-back.
Already softly spoken, May's voice dropped and his body language grew defensive as he recalled those times. "I never regretted the move, I never doubted my ability, but it was a difficult period. I was not happy with my form and I felt a bit overawed. I'd come from Blackburn, which is not as big as United.
"At right-back I was a fish out of water but it was a learning experience. It showed to myself what sort of character I was and what type of friends I have got. You get to know your real friends when things are going badly for you and my friends and my family stood by me.
"My family said `don't worry, you'll pull through it'. The other players were brilliant and so was the manager. That's the type of club it is, everybody rallies around you.
"Now I'm back at centre-half I'm enjoying it more than ever. I prefer centre-back, I've played there all my career."
Even in the dark days there were indications of the player he could be. The turning point was in late November 1994. Three days after being substituted during United's ignominious defeat in Gothenburg - after having a nightmare at right-back - May replaced the suspended Bruce at centre-back at Highbury. In a goalless draw he was solid and accomplished: a point had been made.
With Bruce outstanding further chances were rare but, by the end of last season, May was in the team, scoring the opening goal in the championship denouement at Middlesbrough, and keeping his place for the FA Cup final. This year United's European challenge has brought the best out of him. The Porto tie -when he continued his knack of scoring key goals in the first leg, and then made that tackle on Jardel in the second- brought him to prominence, but he had been playing well for some time.
"It's a different game in Europe, I feel comfortable in it. It's a lot slower. You have to be patient, there's a lot more build up, but when the ball gets in the box it is quick. You have to be aware of everything around you."
"Europe has brought the best out of him," Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, said. "It always was the stepping stone for international football and it's brought him on no end. He's also enjoyed being at an exceptional club."
The fans have noticed his improvement. The chant "David May, Superstar; He's won more medals than Shea-rer" has become the new sound of Old Trafford. It has also been heard a few times on the team bus. May, though not one to seek the spotlight, is clearly tickled by this recognition. "It puts a smile on my face. The team take the mick but it's all a bit of banter," he said.
So far the medal count is 4-1 in May's favour, by the end of this season he could be even further ahead.Reuse content