Late flowering of May

Simon O'Hagan meets a United man now accepted as a defender of the faith; Porto will find it difficult to pass a solid stopper who took time to win over the Old Trafford appreciation society
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The Independent Online
"David May - Superstar!" The tune is Andrew Lloyd Webber's, the voice is Phil Neville's, the scene is the entrance to Manchester United's training ground one lunchtime last week. The fans - about 100 of them - are kept at a discreet distance, but if you are a friend or a reporter or you've got a photograph that needs signing for a charity auction, this is where to catch the players as they make the short walk to their sumptuous cars.

You can guess the names of those who are most in demand. May isn't one of them. Or rather, he wasn't. All of a sudden, people want to know about him, and as May disappears to film an interview for Sky Television, Neville can't resist calling after him with a quick burst of musical banter.

May isn't a superstar, and probably never will be. Unusually among the United team, he is a non-international, a distinction, if that is the word, that seems to have been passed on to him by Steve Bruce, whose place in the team May, 27, has taken. In an environment in which players are judged not just by their footballing skills but by their potential for shifting teen magazines and replica shirts, "cool" doesn't readily attach to the tall, ginger-haired central defender.

But then it took a while for Old Trafford to appreciate him as a footballer. When he started at the club, having joined them from Blackburn Rovers in June 1994, he looked awkward and brittle. He was played out of position at right-back, and it showed. He endured a particularly wretched time in a Champions' League defeat in Gothenburg. The crowd got at him. He began to doubt whether he should ever have left Ewood Park. It got worse before it got better because of all the fitness problems he suffered. There were two hernias and an ankle operation, a pulled hamstring and any number of other niggling injuries.

This season, however, May has at last flowered. With Bruce's departure to Birmingham last summer, he has started to hold down a regular first- team place, and established a partnership with Gary Pallister in the position to which he is best suited. "I'm not made for overlapping runs," he says, sitting in his Mercedes in the training ground car park. "It's never been part of my game."

Instead May has been able to concentrate on what he excels at - reading the game, getting into position, winning the ball in the air, hardly ever making a mistake. "At centre-half you know what your job is," he says. "To stop the opposition scoring. If you've done that you can say you've had a good game."

None has been better than the first leg of the European Cup quarter-final against Porto, which was a watershed for May personally just as it was for the club as a whole. He emerged from a towering defensive display with his stature immeasurably enhanced, and with the added gloss of having scored the goal that set United on their way. "I honestly cannot explain how it felt," he says of that moment. "But it's something that you'd definitely like to experience again."

Wednesday's second leg "will be a strange situation", May says. "We know we haven't got to chase the game or go out there and risk things. But I don't think we just want to sit back. It'll be important to keep everything in front of us. But it's a weird feeling. You're 4-0 up but you know you're not through by a long way." May is relishing the prospect of the inevitable onslaught from a Porto side he thinks are quite English in their approach. "They're the sort of games you like."

From his childhood home in Middleton, a northern suburb of Manchester, May has made one of the longest five-mile journeys in football. His father was a policeman, and there are two brothers who play a bit of Sunday League football. While the rest of the family were "Reds", David grew up supporting Manchester City, "just to be awkward, I suppose". He argued with his careers officer at school when he said he wanted to be a footballer. "Be serious," May was told. He had trials at City, didn't like it, and then joined Blackburn.

May is in the interesting and rare position of having been managed by English football's two most successful managers of the modern era, Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish. The difference, he says, is in their response to defeat. "Fergie comes over more as wanting to win. You didn't see Kenny explode as much as Fergie. He would have a right go at you sometimes. But the players look up to him so much. He's got their respect, and it's important that he keeps it. I prefer Fergie's way because you know where you stand."

That's important to May, who is the solid, dependable type, with a streak of stubbornness, but he likes his little jokes too. For this interview he tricked me into getting into David Beckham's Mercedes before we reached his own, and the look of indignation on Beckham's face showed what an effective jest it was. May has taken a lot in his time at United. He is enjoying giving it back.