Written by Colin Byiers
When Scotland goalkeeper Jim Leighton signed for Manchester United in the summer of 1988, it seemed the perfect move for the 29-year-old. He had won everything that there was to win at Aberdeen, including the European Cup Winners Cup, and was looking for a fresh challenge. When his former boss, Alex Ferguson, came calling, it was an easy decision to make. However, things soon turned sour, and Leighton’s dream move nearly ended is International career as well as his club career.
Alex Ferguson had always been honest with his players and employers at Aberdeen Football Club and said that only one club that would tempt him away from Pittodrie, and that was Manchester United. Fergie had been a long admirer of what Sir Matt Busby had achieved and wanted to be the man to get them to those heights once again. True to his word, Ferguson had rejected approaches from Wolves, Tottenham Hotspur and Rangers, but when Ron Atkinson was sacked in November 1986, Ferguson was their first choice and reluctantly the Aberdeen board allowed their most successful manager to leave.
The Old Trafford side had won the FA Cup twice in 3 years under Atkinson, but were still looking for their first League Championship since 1967, and more importantly, had to watch rivals Liverpool dominate the league in the 1980’s. It was Fergie’s number one priority to win the league.
After steering the club away from relegation with an 11thplaced finish in the 1986/87 season, he would take the club to a 2nd place finish behind champions Liverpool in his first full season. It seemed Fergie was making early progress in his quest to win the that coveted title. That summer, the final pieces in the championship winning puzzle seemed to be slotting firmly into place.
Mark Hughes returned after a 2-year spell at Spanish giants Barcelona, and goalkeeper Jim Leighton arrived for a record £750,000 fee. Ferguson needed an experienced goalkeeper, as 19-year-old ‘keeper Gary Walsh, who had been the number one choice for the second half of the season, following Gary Bailey’s retirement due to injury and Chris Turner being dropped from the team, was not ready for first team action.
Leighton had already told Aberdeen he wanted to leave at the end of the 1987/88 campaign and despite a fee of around £1 million pounds being agreed with a club in West Germany, under UEFA rules, Aberdeen would have only pocketed a maximum £250,000. They had no alternative but to open negotiations with Manchester United.
Following his record buy for a goalkeeper, Ferguson hailed Jim Leighton as the best ‘keeper in Britain, and believed the fee was worth every penny. Leighton said that he always had is heart set on moving to Old Trafford and felt that he and Ferguson could bring the same level of success they enjoyed at Aberdeen at his new club.
Leighton’s career at Old Trafford started well, and the Scotland International had 5 clean sheets in his first 6 matches, only conceding 1 goal in a 1-0 loss at Anfieldagainst Liverpool. Following a 2-0 win over West Ham United in late September, however, Fergie’s men would not win in the league again until the beginning of December.
United would continue to struggle, and eventually finished in 11th. Leighton, on the other hand, conceded just 35 goals in his 38 league matches and boasted 14 clean sheets. He also conceded more than two goals only once in all competitions that season, in a 3-2 defeatat Queens Park Rangers, in their last away fixture. It was the other end of the park it seemed the problems for United arose, amassing just 45 goals in the league, 30 less than champions Arsenal would score.
Pressure was mounting on Alex Ferguson to deliver a championship or even a trophy, and the pressure seemed to be lifting as United thumped champions Arsenal 4-1 on the opening day of the 1989/90 season. However, that was short lived, as defeat after defeat ensued, and to make things worse, Leighton was now conceding goals.
When United visited newly promoted city rivals, Manchester City in September, little did they know that this would end up being one of the worst defeats of the Ferguson era at the time, as the Division 1 new boys thrashed their rivals 5-1. This was the beginning of the slow end for Leighton as a United player. Some United fans blamed the stopper for the defeat and his confidence started to waver.
Loses in the league to Charlton, Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Tottenham and Aston Villa followed, the last of which on Boxing Day 1989, was a 3-0 defeat. Man. United fans were starting to turn against the manager. The dream move for Leighton, was starting to become a nightmare.
After a spell in the league where, the Red Devils, failed to win in 8 matches, Fergie was on the verge of getting the sack, and headed to Nottingham Forrest for an FA Cup match which would go a long way to saving the former Aberdeen manager his job. Mark Robins winner was the only goal of the game, and United, despite stuttering in the league, would go onto the FA Cup semi-final.
Between the 3rd round and the semi-final of the FA Cup, United won 4 out of 11 and lost 5. The pressure was mounting for Leighton, as Ferguson had brought in Les Sealey from Luton Town on loan in March for the remainder of the season. Leighton did manage back-to-back clean sheets in the two matches prior to the semi-final. Perhaps the signing of Sealey was enough to light a fire in the confidence of Leighton.
Leighton of course played in the semi-final against Oldham but conceded 3 goals as the match ended 3-3 after extra time. Joe Royle’s men scored late on in both the 90 minutes and extra time to send it to a replay. In the replay, Oldham again scored late to send this tie into extra time, however, it was Fergie’s men who scored late on through Mark Robins in extra time to win the tie. Leighton and Manchester United were heading to Wembley.
Ferguson finally made the decision to drop the Scotland ‘keeper in the next match, as Les Sealey was handed his debut against Queen’s Park Rangers. Sealey also played the next game at home to Aston Villa and kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win. Leighton was devastated. With Italia ’90 just round the corner, to be dropped because of the lose of form, this was not ideal preparation. Andy Roxburgh, the Scotland manager, knew his number one needed to be playing and playing well heading into the World Cup.
Ferguson brought back his number one for the next game, a trip to White Hart Lane, however, the home side would take the win 2-1, and again, Leighton found himself out of the team for the home game with Wimbledon, where an 18-year-old Mark Bosnich made his debut. The Aussie ‘keeper was in fine form and stopped the away side scoring in a 0-0 draw.
With the FA Cup final looming, United had two matches in the league against Nottingham Forrest and relegated Charlton Athletic to play. Would Ferguson stick with his number one in these matches and hope to build his confidence for the final or play either Sealey or Bosnich who both performed admirably when called upon. It was Leighton who got the nod for the game against Forrest, but United lost 4-0, their biggest defeat since the 5-1 lose to City. This was hardly the confidence booster needed before a cup final.
3 days later, United picked up a 1-0 win over Charlton, with Leighton getting his first clean sheet in 2 months. The performance wasn’t great against an already relegated side, but the maximum points and no goals conceded was what the United boss was looking for one week before the biggest game of his career.
Ferguson stuck with his fellow Scot for the final, which for the neutral, turned out to be on of the most entertaining finals. For Leighton, this was to be his penultimate game for United. Conceding 3 goals in a final, was the final straw for Fergie, and Leighton was dropped for the replay 5 days later. Sealey was the only change to the line-up and produced a number of saves as United would go on to win the cup 1-0. Leighton’s dream of winning trophies with United was over.
After the game, Sealey handed Leighton his winners medal, but the Scot would later return it to Sealey’s pocket. The two ‘keepers would remain close friends over the years due to the respect they had for each other. Leighton was so disappointed, that when he received a medal from the club due to his appearance on the first match, he returned that too.
The relationship between Leighton and his manager deteriorated so badly that the two would no longer be on speaking terms. It was the nail in the coffin for Leighton at Manchester United and although he played one more time in a league cup tie at Halifax Town, he would find himself 4th choice behind Sealey, who signed on a permanent in the summer in 1990, Gary Walsh and Mark Bosnich. It was a massive drop for a man who was once a record signing for a goalkeeper.
Leighton still had 2 years left on his contract and was loaned to Arsenal in March 1991 but failed to make an appearance. The Gunners would go on to win the league that season. United, with new number one Sealey, would finish 6th in the league, get to the League Cup final and beat Barcelona 2-1 in the UEFA Cup-Winners-Cup final. Two trophies in two seasons for Fergie saw the pressure lift on him. Leighton had become the forgotten man at United.
At the start of the 1991/92 campaign, Leighton was again 4th choice as Danish international Peter Schmeichel replaced the departed Les Sealey and was installed as number one ahead of Walsh and youngster Ian Wilkinson. Leighton was loaned to 3rd tier Reading and eventually sold to Scottish Division 1 side Dundee for a fee of £200,000 in March 1992.
A dream move that promised so much was done, and Leighton’s nightmare time at Old Trafford was finally over. International too, it seemed his career was over, as he failed to make the Scotland squad for Euro ’92.
Leighton did manage to revive his career after leaving United at Hibs, where he spent 4 seasons at Easter Road and missed only one match for the Hibees. He was also back in the International fold and was in the squad for Euro ’96. Leighton then returned to Aberdeen in 1997, where he would see out his career and retired in 2000, just shy of his 42nd birthday.
With his relationship with a friend in tatters and his career spiralling to obscurity, Jim Leighton could look back at his time at Manchester United as the worst move of his career. However, that 3-and-a-half-year spell at Old Trafford is just a blip in what was a pretty successful career for Jim Leighton. His time at Manchester United won’t be the most memorable one, but it was at a significant and transitional point in the history of the club, and many may not even know he played for one of the most successful club sides in the World.