Ian Herbert: The sad story of Giuliano Maiorana's brush with fame under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford sums up the fickle nature of football
The journey from Histon to the Manchester United first team had taken six weeks and within a further two months Maiorana found himself starting against Arsenal
Giuliano Maiorana is too busy delivering upholstered furniture around Cambridgeshire to feel angry, after all these years, about the injustice that can be attached to a career in football. But it is a measure of his experience that he wishes he had never possessed the skills that gave him a glimpse of the big time.
His name will trigger a flicker of recognition to those who have followed Manchester United for long enough, because briefly in the late 1980s he was all the rage. The world was a smaller place back then, Alex Ferguson was looking for young players to deliver him from some of his darkest days as United manager, and so it was that Maiorana, the son of Italian parents, was spotted by one of the manager’s scouts, Ray Medwell, playing for Histon, six divisions below the Football League in Cambridgeshire.
He was 19, had been deemed too small by Cambridge United and, when finally persuaded that the call for a trial at United was not a wind-up, was horrified to hear that they wanted to see him immediately. He was glad the traffic made him late when he travelled across with Histon’s manager, Alan Doyle, because he thought that might get him off the hook. He was appalled to discover that Brian Kidd had delayed the training session for him.
A full account of what happened next is captured for the first time in a book I alluded to here last week, Fergie’s Fledglings (Vertical Editions, £14.99) by the United historian Wayne Barton, published next week. Though that first training session was only slightly less than frightening, with 17-year-old defenders harder to shake off than glue, Ferguson gave the young winger a chance in a testimonial match at Birmingham and then put him on the Old Trafford bench for Millwall’s arrival at Old Trafford in January 1989. The journey from Histon to the United first team had taken six weeks and within a further two months Maiorana found himself starting against Arsenal at Old Trafford.
One of the beautiful aspects of Maiorana’s testimony is his ability to explain how it was to play on the Old Trafford pitch in a way that you and I can really understand. “I was running down the wing and it was a strange experience,” he says. “It kept feeling like my ears were blocking and unblocking through breathing heavily. I just heard... ‘United’, ‘United’, ‘United’ fading in and out of my ears...”
But then football’s outrageous fortune began to reveal itself. He and Ferguson just did not get on. Maiorana wore his hair long and, because of the Italianate look that he liked to cultivate, he did not always shave. Ferguson disapproved, kept telling him to cut his hair, and Maiorana’s disinclination to do so did not please the manager. “It was all about respect for him,” Maiorana told me last week when we picked up some of the threads of the story. “He bawled at me, blanked me and he belittled me a few times in front of people. I was my own man. I had come fresh out of nowhere and that made me who I was, whereas most of the others had come out of digs.”
Perhaps Maiorana’s individualism meant his relationship with Ferguson was doomed. His story of how he went down to the bar for an orange juice, during an overnight stay in Dumfries after a game to commemorate the Lockerbie disaster, and was confronted by Ferguson suggests so. Barton’s book certainly reflects the manager’s hugely uncompromising streak. But a modicum of hope that Maiorana would make it back into the first team existed until he was tackled by Dwight Yorke in a reserve team game against Aston Villa and suffered irreparable knee ligament damage. He was 21.
The book’s subtle, but searing, tragedy is located in the succession of Fergie’s fledglings who suffered the same fate. Tony Gill was well on the way to establishing himself when, with assistant manager Archie Knox’s orders to “make sure you get plenty of tackles in” duly “ringing in my head” as he puts it, he suffered a leg injury from which there was no return. The forward Deiniol Graham had just received a pass from Ryan Giggs in a reserve team game against Bury in January 1989 when he broke his arm, an injury which had irreversible complications. Ben Thornley did make it back after suffering serious knee ligament damage in 1994 but the injury prohibited him from fulfilling his potential. Here, laid bare, is football’s casual injustice. Its ever-present risks are a sobering riposte to those who believe that young footballers should not be rewarded handsomely.
Maiorana’s contract expired and he moved to Sweden to play for Ljungskile, though it was no good. His knee was shot. His retirement at 24 brought a dreadful kind of reality, trying to forget football when “your brain is conditioned to it”, as he puts it. He would deny being the person people in the street thought he was and hated the idea of going back to where it all began – the family upholstery business.
He did not watch football for seven years. Gradually he has come to terms with life. “Learning to appreciate the simple things,” as he defines it. “Putting dinner on the table. Paying the bills. Just you and your family and friends.”
McGovern’s ‘Hillsborough’ shows truth worth repeating
Jimmy McGovern’s film, Hillsborough, is freely available on YouTube, and watching it again, ahead of today’s 25th anniversary of the disaster, was a reminder of how the writer stands tall among those who have kept the search for justice alive all these years. With the passing of those years, the demand has grown in the media for a creative output which creates instant gratification. Achieving the most hits and the most views are what supposedly matter in journalism now. Those who can tell things in 140 characters prosper.
McGovern still lives on Merseyside and still fights for those causes which pass the modern media by. The victims of the arcane legal doctrine of joint enterprise, which allows groups of people to be charged with murder, even if only one person delivered the fatal blow, have struggled to be heard for years, largely because they are young black men. McGovern heard the pleas of families affected. His drama, Common, centring on the subject, will secure a 9pm slot on BBC 1 later this year.
McGovern said when Hillsborough was first screened in 1996 that “I can now die knowing my life was worth something”.
On this of all days, his work invites us to forget the currency of page impressions on websites and pursue the causes that really matter.
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