By Dan Poole
Premiership football in the mid-Nineties was played upon hallowed turf. It was a time of glorious convergence, when TV money and foreign flair hadn’t yet saturated the English game with a tsunami of cynicism but, rather, added a subtle sheen to a sport still rooted in Bovril and bobbly pitches. Players’ shirts were still baggy, football boots were black and advertising hoardings were analogue. Players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola and Juninho were rubbing shoulders with Darren Peacock, Neil Ruddock and Carlton Palmer; like pineapple and cheese on a stick, it was a clash of tastes but by God it was delicious.
In 1994 I was 12 and a Manchester United fan. I entered a competition (in the Funday Times, I think) to win a signed Manchester United review book of the season just gone; like United in those salad days, I was victorious. When it dropped through the letterbox I was giddy with the prospect of opening it up and seeing who had put pen to paper. Flipping to the appropriate page, I could see that the first name was definitely Paul but the surname was a less-identifiable squiggle. However, it definitely wasn’t Paul Parker, our right-back at the time, so it had to be Ince, the central midfielder and only other player in the first team called Paul.
After reading it from cover to cover I thought no more about the book for the next 20 years. I’d glance at it every now and again, primarily when moving house in the process of packing it in a box, but for the most part it sat on a shelf gathering dust. But that all changed in 2014 thanks to the badgering of my bastard little inner 12-year-old.
There I was, admiring my book (having recently moved house, naturally), when I realised something fairly crucial: the signature in it wasn’t Paul Ince’s signature at all. For 20 years I’d been living a lie but it was only with the benefit of hindsight and furrowed brow that I finally identified the player responsible for the scrawl: Paul Scholes.
Scholes is arguably one of the greatest midfielders to have ever kicked a football so 32-year-old me wasn’t disappointed – but niggly little inner 12-year-old was. The thing is, in 1994 this was a shit signature to get by way of a prize: Scholes didn’t make his debut for the first team until the following season. What a jip! So inner 12-year-old piped up. “Wouldn’t it be, like, so great if you got, like, Paul Ince’s signature as well?” I asked my inner 12-year-old if he honestly felt that this was a reasonable representation of how 12-year-olds speak or just a bit of a lazy and cobbled-together stereotype but he was on a roll now. “That would be so awesome and cool and wicked, like coming full circle. What would be even more dope and sick would be getting Paul Parker as well and then you’ve got all the Pauls! Rad, man. OHMYGOD. I’ve totally got it: like, get the signatures of the entire 1993-’94 first-team squad! That would be insane! Oh please dude, you have to. Pleasepleaseplease, like, pleasepleasepleaseplease…”
Thus I find myself, two-and-a-half years later, in the process of getting a Manchester United 1993-’94 season-review book signed by said season’s entire first-team squad. Before I started I knew that if I was to approach these fine men for their autographs I needed a more convincing reason than “my inner 12-year-old really, really wants you to”. As I began to compile the list of names I’d need to tick off, the way forward presented itself: this would all be in honour of Les Sealey.
Sealey was United’s reserve goalkeeper by the time of the 1993-’94 season but he famously came to the fore for the club when he was drafted in by Alex Ferguson to replace then first-choice Jim Leighton for the 1990 FA Cup Final replay. Tragically, Sealey died of a heart attack in 2001 aged just 43. As such, once I’ve got all 31 other squad members to sign, I’ll be asking his sons Joe and George to be the final signatories (hence the clever name of my project: 33 Signatures). Then I’ll auction the book off to the highest bidder and give all the proceeds to the British Heart Foundation.
So far 21 signatures have been secured. Tracking players down has involved various means: it’s been via their clubs if they’re now managers or coaches (Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce, for example); via journalists who have written articles about them (that’s how I got Clayton Blackmore); any media organisations they might now be working for (I got Gary Neville when he was at Sky Sports); or altogether more random institutions (I got Lee Martin via his golf club’s secretary and Bryan Robson thanks to the head of the Glamorgan and Gwent Manchester United Supporters Club). Normally I post the book off and it gets posted back but I have also managed to meet two players in person: Ben Thornley and Dion Dublin. They were both very nice.
Of the 12 signatures that are left to get there are some big names in the mix, not least Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona and some bloke called David Beckham. However, the gentleman who gives me the most cause for concern is Colin McKee. A Scotsman, he only made one appearance for United in 1993 before going on to play for clubs such as Kilmarnock, Partick Thistle, Falkirk, Queen of the South and Ross County. And I can’t find him.
So I’ll end with a plea. If you are reading this and happen to be Colin McKee, or Colin McKee’s mum, or his wife, or his best mate, or his second-best mate, or his colleague, or his ex-colleague, or his hairdresser, window cleaner, palm reader or dog, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. One source, not necessarily that reliable, gave me reason to believe that Colin lives in or around Glasgow, possibly in some sort of small village. If you can give me anything more to go on my inner 12-year-old will, like, totally think you’re boss.
To read Dan’s blog visit 33signatures.wordpress.com