Giuliano Maiorana: Man United’s Next, Next Big Thing

Ryan Baldi’s book Next Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind seeks to shine a light on why some of the game’s outstanding talents never quite live up to their potential, why talent and desire alone often aren’t enough to ‘make it’, and what happens when the stars don’t align for these young men.

Fifteen such players – some long retired, some still playing – have shared their stories in Next Next Big Thing, each detailing their own unique path to unfulfilment, and exposing the many different factors – such as injuries, relationships with coaching staff, personal problems, timing and plain luck – that can affect a young footballer’s development.

First we brought you Ben Thornley and now this is an extract from the book’s chapter on Giuliano Maiorana, who was plucked from non-league obscurity as a teenager and thrust straight the Manchester United first team. Despite a dream start, Mairorana’s story has no fairy-tale ending, however, as a fractious relationship with Alex Ferguson saw him banished to the reserves before a knee injury effectively ended his career.

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Jinking around his kitchen floor, dropping a shoulder as he saunters by the fridge, feet flashing, betraying the embers of a talent long dormant, he’s right back there, at Manchester United’s old training ground, The Cliff. I sit at the table, just a few feet away, but it’s Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside he sees. His stubble may be flecked with silver, his joints creaking almost audibly, but he still knows how to sell a dummy, spin on a sixpence and misdirect.

Now in his late forties, Giuliano Maiorana’s football career is almost three decades back in the rear-view mirror, but his power of recall is impressive. The memories of his playing days are still vivid, and how couldn’t they be? Plucked as a teenager playing part-time football in the tenth tier of the English game and thrust into the limelight at Manchester United, he went from selling designer Italian clothes at a Cambridge high-street outlet to sharing a changing room with household names, players he’d watched star in an FA Cup final just a few years previously. His life had suddenly begun to mirror countless fictitious stories of rags-to-riches sporting glory, from television, movies and literature. This was real life, yet it seemed scarcely believable.

“I remember the ball going out and over the line and I was there and I back-heeled it,” Maiorana says, recalling an early training session with United following his move from lowly, non-league Histon, re-enacting the scene as though to convince himself of its authenticity, “Steve Bruce has run that way, and then I back-heeled it again,” he pivots once more, “and he was like that [mimics a flummoxed look]. I’d only been there three weeks, from Histon. Everyone was laughing and I felt embarrassed. I did it without thinking. In a way, I thought, “I shouldn’t have done that.””

The drastic rise in ability levels of his new team-mates, compared to the part-timers he’d lined up alongside before, who would cram twice-weekly training sessions around day jobs and family lives, was a culture chock to Maiorana. “I remember training with Bryan Robson. They’d be feeding him balls and he’d just be whacking it to the left, whacking it to the right. The level was ridiculous.”

And the impressionable youngster couldn’t help but feel a little star struck: “I’ve seen him in FA Cup finals and now I’m just walking past him,” he remembered of his first encounter with Norman Whiteside in a corridor at The Cliff. “Even in the canteen at The Cliff, you’d get a plate and it would have a little Man United logo it. You didn’t get that at Histon.” But the teenage winger, as Bruce would have attested after being spun inside out, held his own.

Indeed, Maiorana impressed sufficiently during his maiden match in a United shirt, a friendly fixture against Birmingham City in November 1988 – a game organised to raise funds for Blues midfielder Ian Handysides, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour earlier that year, from which he would tragically die in 1990 at the age of 27 – that he was brought off at half-time and immediately offered a four-year professional contract.

“I remember walking on to the pitch and there were thousands of people. I was used to playing in front of fifty people – Histon’s a really small village. I remember seeing Trevor Francis running towards me. It was surreal. I didn’t do too bad in the game; I won a penalty.

“I remember the ball going out for a goal kick for them, and I went to get the ball. Their ground had a race track around it and there was a medical bed on the track, and the ball got stuck underneath this bed. I was on my hands and knees trying to get this ball. I got it and threw in back to the keeper. The keeper looked at me really weird: “Cheers, mate.” There were ball boys there!

“I was just a kid. It happened that fast for me…it was ridiculous. It was a rollercoaster.”

‘That was one of the best displays I have ever seen from a trialist,’ Ferguson wrote in a column for the New Straits Times the following month. ‘The player marking him, Ray Ranson, is an exceptionally experienced full-back – but Maiorana gave him all kinds of problems.’

Culture shock notwithstanding, Maiorana’s week-long trial with United couldn’t have gone any better. However, this was not a gifted prodigy reared in the academy of an elite club, accustomed to the accepted behaviours and inherent subjugation that are part and parcel of life as an emerging player at a big club; this was a young man whose extraordinary talent had long gone unnoticed, who, at 19, no longer harboured ambitions of a top-level professional football career.

In the late ‘80s the scouting process and recruitment of young players was not quite the arms race it is today, when a player rarely gets beyond the age of ten without having been scrutinised and either inculcated in an academy or deemed surplus. But still, few saw their first shot at joining a professional club arrive beyond their 18th birthday.

The same rough edges and idiosyncrasies that compelled him to drop to his belly to try and fish the ball from underneath a stretcher against Birmingham, and that rendered him awestruck and unsure of whether he had contravened an unwritten rule when skilfully outwitting a veteran defender in training, Maiorana feels, sat uneasily with United manager Alex Ferguson.

It is not often considered, but the relationship a young player enjoys with his manager can be crucial to his development; earning the trust and confidence of the gaffer will lead inevitably to opportunities, opening doors that for others may remain closed. Despite a rip-roaring start to life at Old Trafford, making a handful of senior appearances in the First Division after penning his four-year deal with the club – including a virtuoso display on the left wing against Arsenal, in which he twisted the blood of England full-back Lee Dixon – Maiorana soon found himself on the margins, banished to the reserves without a route back.

“Most of the players, if not all of them at that club, had gone to the Lilleshall School of Excellence at 14 and been moulded into being a player,” Maiorana explained to me when I first interviewed him, for FourFourTwo in 2016. “I hadn’t been moulded into a footballer – I was different. It’s not as if I was rude or disrespectful – I never have been – but it gets to a stage when somebody’s always having a go at you, and you think, “Is it worth it?””

He expanded on his issues with Ferguson when I met him at his house to interview him for this book: “From day one it was okay. It’s just that [Ferguson] wanted to mould me into something that I wasn’t.

“He wanted me to shave. My beard wasn’t even that long; I’m Italian for God’s sake, it was just a five o’clock shadow. And “cut your hair”, when it wasn’t even that long.

“When I went there I had been working in an Italian boutique shop. I was wearing Timberland while they were all wearing Adidas and tracksuits. I never used to wear tracksuits. I used to wear jeans, turned up, with Timberlands and no socks – that was the fashion back then. He walked past and said, “Get some fucking socks on your feet! And have a fucking shave!” Just grinding at me all the time. And then I wasn’t in the first team and he’d walk past me, blanking me. When I injured my knee, I used to be in the gym on my own. He used to walk in, and as I was about to say hello, he’d walk off.

“I wasn’t a “yes man”. I look back and think I’m glad I didn’t sell my soul, because a lot of people do.”

“I remember him coming, remember seeing him, then he just disappeared off the radar,” says Jim White of The Telegraph, echoing many fans’ memories of Maiorana at the time, this player who burst on to the scene before inexplicably vanishing from the first-team picture. Some are aware of the cruciate knee ligament injury which he picked up in a reserve match in 1993, and point to that as the likely reason for his demise, yet that doesn’t account for the fact his last first-team appearance came in the 1989-90 season.

Debuting two years earlier than the Welshman, who was still a highly touted adolescent at the time, the teenage Maiorana, wearing the No.11 shirt, with his floppy dark hair rippling in the breeze and a dazzling ability to swerve between and beyond multiple defenders at once, was in many ways Ryan Giggs before Ryan Giggs.

“Other people have said that: “You look like Giggs.” And sometimes they didn’t even know I used to play for United,” Maiorana says. “I couldn’t get away from it.

“It was body feints. I used to try these flicks. I used to have a defender on my back and I’d get the ball, dink it and then go like that [demonstrates flicking the ball up and back-heeling it over his head], and the defender wouldn’t know where it was. That’s how I used to like to play football: being three, four, five steps in front of the defender.

“Like with Lee Dixon, if someone’s up your arse and you do a back-heel, before they even know where it’s gone you’ve turned.”

Such skills inevitably fostered a degree of hype around Maiorana, who quickly endeared himself to a support base with a long-held appreciation of fine wing play, dating back to the days of George Best and, earlier still, Billy Meredith and Johnny Berry.

“I remember being very excited by him,” White recalls. “And there was this kind of promise that United were going to rebuild with young players. There was a whole flurry of guys who were called the ‘Fergie Fledglings’; he was on the back of that.

“There was a kind of buzz around him. There always is with junior wingers coming through the ranks. I don’t think anyone ever bestowed on him the ‘new George Best’ line that most of them have to suffer, but there definitely was a bit of buzz about him.”

Alan Tonge was an apprentice at United when Maiorana arrived, and would later appear regularly with him in the second string. I asked Tonge, discounting the factors largely beyond his control that ultimately saw him ostracised, whether Maiorana was talented enough to make a lasting impact for United at first-team level.

“Oh, definitely, yeah,” began Tonge’s unequivocal reply. “I think it was quite a quick transition for Jules. It wasn’t one of those scenarios where they thought, “We’ll get Giuliano when he’s 18 or 19 and we’ll have to wait until he’s 23 to get a first-team appearance out of him.” I think he played in the reserves, then got his opportunity quite early.

“The club at the time was still in a bit of a transition, because Fergie came in in ‘86 and he was still finding his way a little bit. He didn’t win a trophy until 1990, which was the FA Cup win. In that four years, I don’t think we were performing very well. It was a funny time.

“I think Fergie was still laying his foundations in a way. There was quite a bit of pressure on the players back then, because we weren’t in the momentum of winning trophies. It was a strange one. There was certainly pressure on Sir Alex, but there was a bit of pressure on the players to perform as well.

“[Maiorana] played in Ian Handysides’s testimonial. He must have had a really good game because I think they offered him a two-year deal or a three-year deal after that. It was a poor pitch – Old Trafford was a bit of a mess back then – and I think there had been a lot of rain in the Arsenal fixture; it was a bit muddy, a bit sloppy on there, but he did well. He gave Dixon a little bit of trouble, something to think about.”

Such promise, yet Maiorana only ever made eight first-team appearances for United, the final two coming from the bench in October 1989, less than a year after the excited half-time offer of a four-year contract that followed his fearless 45 minutes on trial against Birmingham.

Ryan Baldi

If you’d like to read Maiorana’s story in full, along with the stories of other lost wonderkids from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, Ajax, Inter Milan and more, order your copy of Next Next Big Thing here.