From Nowhere to Dreamland and Back Again

The Story of Manchester United's 'New George Best' Giuliano Maiorana

By Sam Pilger

September 15, 2016

Bleacher Report

There is a picture of Giuliano Maiorana standing between Alex Ferguson and the England captain Bryan Robson in 1988.

It captures one of Maiorana's first days at Manchester United after he had arrived for his surprise trial, and whenever he sees it now he always laughs at the look of sheer terror spread across his face.

"I remember taking that picture, and to be honest, I was absolutely crapping myself," he says. "I was so scared and so nervous."

Only a week earlier, the 19-year-old Maiorana had been working in a clothes shop in Cambridge and playing for Histon each weekend in front of crowds of no more than 50 people in the Eastern Counties Football League.

This was the hidden depths of the game, the 10th tier of English football, six leagues below the old Fourth Division, where players had long since abandoned hope of having a professional career.

But on an evening in November 1988, after playing in a match for Histon, Maiorana was told Manchester United were interested in him. He dismissed it as a joke until three days later, when the club formally invited him for a trial.

And a mere six weeks after that he was wearing a Manchester United shirt and playing in a First Division match alongside Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce and Brian McClair at Old Trafford.

This completed his incredible rise in the game: from Histon to Manchester United in precisely 45 days.

No one can recall it happening so quickly in the modern era, and it hasn't happened since. It makes Jamie Vardy's rise—from higher up the football ladder—seem like a long, hard slog.

Twenty-eight years on, Maiorana's name is only vaguely recognised in football, and as he acknowledges himself, "Ninety-nine per cent of United fans will probably have never heard of me."

For unlike Vardy, his story did not have the same happy ending.

Ferguson, Maiorana and Robson pictured at United's training ground, the Cliff, in December 1988.

Sitting opposite me over his kitchen table at home on the outskirts of Cambridge, the charming and highly likeable Maiorana smiles a lot and projects joy, wonderment and a dose of fleeting anger as he reflects on his unprecedented journey from Histon to Manchester—and back again.

Though Maiorana is now 47 and the father of two teenage children, he remains in remarkably good shape and has maintained the same natural athletic frame from when he played for United. A handsome man, he still has the same black curls, now lightly flecked with grey at the temples.

Born in Cambridge to Italian parents, by the time he was 18 years old Maiorana had reluctantly come to accept he was never going to be a professional footballer.

A talented local player, he had already been rejected by Cambridge United as too small and not good enough when he was 14.

Only a week earlier, the 19-year-old Maiorana had been working in a clothes shop in Cambridge and playing for Histon each weekend in front of crowds of no more than 50 people in the Eastern Counties Football League.

"I never even played for my county," he says. "I was always told scouts would come knocking at my door, but it never happened."

Maiorana left school at 16 and acknowledges he was "lazy, cheeky and couldn't be bothered with anything." He first worked for his father in the family upholstery business, then became a hairdresser, earning £27 a week at a salon, before he got a job working behind the counter in a boutique in Cambridge.

"I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "I was just drifting, going from job to job, with no real ambition."

On the weekends, football was his release.

"I just played your normal run-of-the-mill Sunday football that anyone plays," he says. "It wasn't at any level at all—not semi-pro, county, nothing like that. It was just Sunday football in the park."

Maiorana shows off his skills at United's training ground in December 1988.

At the start of 1988, Maiorana competed in a local five-a-side tournament at Histon to mark the opening of the club's new artificial-turf pitch. He was spotted by Histon's manager, Alan Doyle.

"I wasn't there to scout anyone; I was just walking by this new pitch. But Giuliano immediately caught my eye," Doyle recalls. "I stayed to watch and couldn't believe how good he was. He was running rings around everyone. We had to have him."

Maiorana started in the Histon reserves and played around 18 games for their first team, but Doyle knew he would not stay at that level for long and sent letters recommending him to Norwich City, Millwall, Tottenham and Manchester United.

But United already had a scout called Ray Medwell following Maiorana's progress, and in November 1988, Medwell changed Maiorana's life forever.

"We had played at Chatteris Town on a Wednesday night when afterwards in the bar the Histon chairman Russell Hands pulled me aside and said a Manchester Untied scout had come to watch me," Maiorana says. "I thought it was a stupid joke, just complete nonsense, because Cambridge around the corner weren't interested in me, so there was no way United would even know about me."

He laughed it off, but then he heard a few days later United wanted him to come to Manchester for a formal trial.

"I was terrified," he says. "My initial thought was, 'Oh, God, no, I hope they want me to go up in about three or four weeks,' because I didn't think I could do it. But no, they wanted me to be up there 48 hours later at the start of the week. It was at that moment I started to take it more seriously, but I was in a complete panic, and the night before I didn't sleep at all."

Maiorana and Doyle left Cambridge at 5 a.m. but encountered heavy traffic en route to Manchester, which meant they arrived half an hour late for the start of his trial.

"I can remember being relieved we were so late," he says, "because I was nervous and tired and thought they might leave it for that day, but they had been waiting for me to start the session. Manchester United had been waiting for me!"

Doyle stood next to Ferguson as they watched the practice match together from his office overlooking the pitch.

"Giuliano shone like a diamond," Doyle says. "He had electric pace and was going past players like Lionel Messi, so it wasn't long before Sir Alex turned to me and said, 'The boy is amazing. We want him.'"

Maiorana cuts between Arsenal's Paul Davis (left) and Lee Dixon in action for Manchester United in April 1989.

The very next day Maiorana was included in the United first-team squad to play Birmingham City in Ian Handysides' testimonial.

"It was surreal," he says. "I was handed the No. 11 shirt and started the game next to Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes. I did OK. I won a penalty, but what stands out most is when the ball went off for a goal-kick and got stuck under a medical bed. I got on my hands and knees trying to dislodge it. I finally got it and chucked it back to their keeper, and he looked at me as if to say, 'Who is this idiot?' It then clicked they had ballboys to do that at this level."

At half-time, before substituting Maiorana, Ferguson there on the spot in the dressing room offered him a four-year contract. He later wrote in his column in the New Straits Times that Maiorana had produced "one of the best displays I have ever seen from a trialist."

"I was in a daze," Maiorana remembers. "A few days earlier I had been at Histon, and now I was a United player. I was in complete shock, and during the second half I saw my brother Salvatore and told him United were buying me for £30,000. He just said, 'F--k off.' But I said, 'I promise you I am not joking—I am just as surprised as you.'"

"Giuliano shone like a diamond. He had electric pace and was going past players like Lionel Messi."

Alan Doyle

Ferguson had acted quickly to ward off growing interest from Tottenham, Chelsea and Watford. In that New Straits Times column, titled "Gems from the Deep," he wrote, "Maiorana is an individualist—but I must say that I was impressed with the way he applied his skills in that testimonial match. His awareness of the game, in terms of combining with the men around him, was first class."

Within days Maiorana moved to Manchester to start his new life.

"The city felt intimidating to me. All those big Victorian buildings—it was very different to Cambridge," he says. "I was used to having my Italian food and Italian family around me, but suddenly I was thrust into this new environment."

The club put him up with 12 other youth players, including Lee Sharpe, Robbie Savage, Shaun Goater and Keith Gillespie.

"I was the eldest there, and so immediately I didn't feel like them," he says. "They had been in the system all their life, but I was a bit different."

He was, however, welcomed in the first-team dressing room.

"The big names like Robson and Bruce were wonderful to me, and so welcoming," Maiorana says. "There were no egos, just superb footballers, and humble human beings. But even there I felt different."

Maiorana had worked in an Italian boutique back home, so he dressed in designer outfits, which made him stand out.

"It isn't like now with players," he says. "Back then they just wore shell suits and tracksuits, but there I was in this smart gear. I got told Mark Hughes said, 'Who is this new player? I better watch him with my missus.'"

Maiorana had arrived at a very different Old Trafford to today. At the end of 1988, Ferguson was more than two years into his reign, but United were still struggling and only ninth in the table. It had been 21 years since they had last won the title.

A raft of injuries had forced Ferguson to give debuts to a succession of young players, and in the middle of January Maiorana was named as a substitute for the visit of Millwall to Old Trafford.

"I came on with 12 minutes to go, and I can still remember the noise, which just surrounds you," he says. "I had never played amongst such a deafening noise before, and when I ran down the wing, my ears were blocking and unblocking, hearing the roar of 'United! United!'"

After another substitute appearance against Luton Town in late March, Maiorana was handed his first start for United a week later against Arsenal, who won the title that season, and the challenge of facing Lee Dixon.

Maiorana pictured at home in Cambridge by Jon Super for Bleacher Report.

"I thought I would make the bench," Maiorana says, "and then in the dressing room Ferguson announced, 'And No. 11 is Jules. I have to pick him, otherwise Norman [Whiteside] is refusing to play today.'"

Maiorana recalls it with a smile: "I did all right that day."

He did more than that, getting the better of Dixon, one of the game's most accomplished full-backs. At one point, Maiorana even managed to embarrass his opponent by placing the ball through his legs with a back heel.

It is worth watching the solitary YouTube video of Maiorana (above), which was lovingly put together three years ago by his then-16-year-old son Salvatore so others could appreciate his father's fleeting talent.

It might be a stretch to compare Maiorana to Cristiano Ronaldo, but there are real similarities: the long limbs, the natural balance, the inherent trickery and the ability to glide past defenders.

"I had never played amongst such a deafening noise before, and when I ran down the wing, my ears were blocking and unblocking, hearing the roar of 'United! United!'"

Maiorana was a free spirit as a player, for he had never been properly coached. He simply took to the pitch and tried to beat defenders by running at them.

"I just wanted to take players on," he says. "I was an old-fashioned winger and always tried to do something exciting. I wasn't arrogant off the pitch, but on it I would do things and stand back and think, 'Jeez, that was good.'"

After his early performances, the inevitable "New George Best" tag was attached to Maiorana, and his extended family in Italy told him he had made the front page of the leading Italian sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"It was insane," Maiorana says. "I can recall Bryan Robson saying after a game, 'You're playing like a mix between Maradona and Eusebio,' and Steve Bruce used to call me 'Houdini,' as I would go into a huddle of defenders and always escape with the ball."

"Jules seemed to appear from nowhere and immediately lit up Old Trafford," says his former team-mate and lifelong friend Deiniol Graham, who played four games for United in the late '80s. "You could see he was raw and unorthodox, but he had amazing individual skill and could do things with the ball no one else could. He was destined to make it big, because he played with no fear."

Maiorana in the workshop of his upholstery company in Cambridge. Photo by Jon Super for Bleacher Report.

It would be natural to assume Ferguson, who found Maiorana hidden in Histon, would champion him, but the truth is the pair quickly endured a difficult relationship that turned out to be the undoing of the player's career at Old Trafford.

Maiorana talks with gusto and enthusiasm about his rise, but his tone darkens when he mentions Ferguson.

"From the very beginning, it was never easy between us," he says. "He only wanted yes-men, people he could belittle and bully, people he could control, but that was never going to be me. I thought I had come to play football, not go to borstal."

Maiorana says Ferguson was used to coaching young players who had come through the club's academy and that he didn't know how to handle outsiders.

"I was constantly told to cut my hair, and it wasn't even that long," he says. "He went on at me about it for six-and-a-half years, and then not long after I left, he signed Karel Poborsky."

Maiorana says he used to wear another top beneath his match shirt to absorb the sweat, and Ferguson "used to go absolutely mental at me," shouting at him to take off the undershirt. Now, Maiorana points out, every player wears an underlay.

"When we went to an event at Old Trafford, I liked to dress up and wear designer clothes," Maiorana says, "but he would walk past me and say, 'You've always got to be f--king different, haven't you?'"

In March 1989, Manchester United took a young team to play Queen of the South at Palmerston Park for a benefit game to raise funds for the Lockerbie air disaster appeal.

After the game, Maiorana recalls being cooped up in his hotel room with Sharpe, Russell Beardsmore and several other young players. He suggested they all go down to the bar.

"All the others were shocked," he says. "'No, you can't do that. The Boss would slaughter us,' they said, but I meant to just get out and get an orange juice, so I managed to persuade them to come too.

"Ferguson's assistant Archie Knox saw us and warned us to be careful, so the others quickly legged it. I stayed and got my orange juice and sat on my own. Not long after, I heard a gruff Scottish voice say, 'Hey, Maiorana.' It was Ferguson. He was sat around a table with 12 of his friends. 'Does your mother know you're still up? It is late. Get yourself to f--king bed.' It was only 8 o'clock, and all his mates laughed. I said, 'You know what? The last person to tell me to go to bed was my mum when I was 12,' and I walked away."

Maiorana outside the workshop of his upholstery company in Cambridge. Photo by Jon Super for Bleacher Report.

But given his incredible opportunity, did Maiorana not think it would be sensible to follow Ferguson's orders and not overtly challenge him?

"Maybe I could have toed the line a bit more," he says. "That is a big question, and maybe that is my biggest fault. But I respect people who respect me, and he didn't give me that."

He describes Ferguson walking past him without saying hello, without acknowledging Maiorana's greeting.

"How much can you take of that?" he says. "My feeling was if you are good enough as a footballer, then you shouldn't have to lick arse. I didn't want to do that to Ferguson."

Maiorana's friend Graham recalls Ferguson being hard on the player, also mentioning the manager's nagging about his hair length.

"But then Jules would answer back and say, 'What has my hair got to do with playing football?'" Graham says. "He could not stop himself. He had to have a pop back, and Ferguson never liked that type. He had to have the power, had to show his authority and did not like it if you ever went against him."

"He would walk past me and say, 'You've always got to be f--king different, haven't you?'"

Maiorana on his relationship with Ferguson.

Maiorana's last game for United was against Tottenham in the League Cup in October 1989, after which his increasingly fractious relationship with Ferguson left him consigned to the reserves.

"I wanted to leave as I wasn't getting a game," he says, "and Ferguson just said, 'I will never let you leave this club. Never in a million years. It has happened before with United when we've let players like David Platt and Peter Beardsley go, and we don't want to do it again.'"

Maiorana played for the reserves.

"I was stuck in limbo," he says. "There was no Bosman ruling, so you couldn't do anything. He just didn't let me leave."

Maiorana refused to go on loan to Barnsley, an idea he calls "a farce."

"He really talked them up as if they were AC Milan," he says of Ferguson. "He just wanted me to go there to help his mate Mel Machin, as they were bottom of Division Two. I stood my ground and didn't go."

Maiorana pictured in Cambridge by Jon Super for Bleacher Report.

In April 1991, Maiorana was playing for the reserves against Aston Villa at Old Trafford when he went in for a challenge with Dwight Yorke and ruptured a ligament in his knee. He would need surgery.

"That day changed everything, and spelt disaster," he says. "I knew I had done something bad. It was when doing your cruciate could finish you, and they said I would have been better breaking my leg."

Even when he had been fit, Maiorana was an outsider. So now, unable to play, his isolation at Old Trafford only increased as he watched the emerging class of 1992 overtake him.

"I got on with Ryan [Giggs], David [Beckham], Paul [Scholes]—they were great people," he says, "and I can remember the reserve team manager Brian Whitehouse telling me, 'Jules, listen. I have got this young kid coming up called Ryan Giggs,' but I believed in myself so much that it didn't bother me.

"However, when I saw that the Beckhams and the Nevilles had squad numbers and I didn't, I knew the writing was on the wall."

In May 1993, Maiorana was recovering from another operation when he received a letter from United thanking him for his service and informing him he was free to approach other clubs.

"I got a meeting with Ferguson in his office, threw the letter down on the table, pulled my jeans down to show him my scars and said, 'If I walked in to your club, would you give me a job when I look like this? No one is going to give me a contract,'" Maiorana says. "He told me to take the £25,000 insurance, but I didn't want to give up. He relented and gave me another year, walked out and patted me on the back and said sarcastically, 'I really like you, Jules.'"

Image title

Image posted on Twitter by @whitesideone of Maiorana signing for United in 1988.

Twelve months later, nothing had changed, and after only eight games over six years, Maiorana had to walk away from Old Trafford.

"I can recall saying to myself, 'Football can go f--k itself,'" he says. "I was furious. I washed my hands of the game."

After a brief comeback alongside his former United team-mate David Wilson in Sweden with Ljungskile SK, Maiorana was forced to retire from football. He was only 25.

Back in Cambridge and unable to play, Maiorana worked in the family upholstery business again but struggled with his new reality. He never envisaged being back there so soon.

"I slunk home," he says. "I had come full circle and doing what I had done 10 years before. Oh, I was angry. I was so angry it had come to this. I went to some dark places. I struggled big time. I was thrown on the scrap heap. No one cared about me. I even went to see a shrink, but they actually said I was all right. I got no help from the club whatsoever."

"Six years earlier, he had left Cambridge a happy-go-lucky 19-year-old who was loving life," recalls Maiorana's older brother Salvatore, who today works with him in the family business. "Then he came back, and he had had his world ripped away from him. He had changed, and he was in a mess. He wasn't getting out of bed for work. He just didn't want to be back with us again."

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Screenshot taken of a post on Maiorana's official Twitter account.

For the next seven years, Maiorana banished football from his life. He didn't play or attend a game, and he didn't watch a game on television. He refused to even glance at a game in his local park.

"But I couldn't get rid of it entirely from my head," he says. "I would be working and then storm out upset. I would go to bed thinking about football, wake up thinking about it. Those were the demons I fought. It was so hard to forget about football."

On the few occasions he was recognised in the street, he would deny it was him.

"If I could have erased all my United memories, I would have done," he says. "Just got rid of all of them."

But in recent years Maiorana has begun to slowly make peace with his past.

"I went to some dark places. I struggled big time. I was thrown on the scrap heap. No one cared about me."

"My son encouraged me to get on Twitter, and some United fans have got in touch," he says. "A few years ago, someone told me it was 25 years ago to the day that I made my debut, but I had no idea, so I had a beer to celebrate that night. Someone also said, 'You made a bigger impact than Memphis Depay, and we paid £25 million for him.' Overall, things do feel better now. It is nice talking to you."

There are still no pictures of him playing for United on his walls at home, but occasionally Maiorana will look at his United mementoes, which are kept in a pillowcase in his loft.

But this rapprochement has yet to extend to Ferguson.

"No, I haven't made my peace with Ferguson, not at all," he says. "I would like to bump into him now I am a proper man and not just a kid."

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Post on Maiorana's official Twitter account.

Maiorana has seen Ferguson just once since he left Old Trafford. It was seven years ago at the funeral of Medwell, the United scout who had discovered him.

"A funeral was obviously the one place where I couldn't say anything," he says. "To be fair to him, he came and spoke to me, and we had a brief chat. He said, 'You're looking good, Jules.' I said, 'I am surprised I didn't lose my hair playing under you.' He said, 'You would have if you'd stayed a year longer.' He is very sharp."

Today Maiorana runs the upholstery business from a workshop next to his home in Cambridge, and even manages to play some five-a-side, though his knee can swell up.

"I try to bring out the old moves, but the legs can't do it," he laughs.

He is content now. The bitterness and sense of regret have faded. He is prepared to embrace his past and feel proud about it.

"Yes, I am proud about getting to United from Histon," he says, "but I will never be proud of what I achieved there; it wasn't that much. I am proud of the rise, but not the career."

What he achieved was something for the ages.

"Before he died, Ray Medwell said to me what I had achieved in football will probably never be done ever again," Maiorana says. "A kid from Histon, who had been playing five-a-side a few months before that, going on to play for Manchester United. That was once-in-a-lifetime stuff."

On the morning I meet Maiorana, he acknowledges he had been in his workshop and—possibly prompted by my visit—had allowed his mind to wander to thoughts of how, if things had worked out differently, he could have enjoyed the same career as Giggs or Beckham.

Still, he says, his time at United means nothing to him.

"I only played a handful of games, but the best thing about my time in Manchester is I met my wife Val there," he says, "and we have had two great kids, and that will always mean more to me than football. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart."


Original photography by Jon Super for Bleacher Report. Lead artwork by Virgo A'Raaf. Images courtesy of Getty. All quotes and information obtained firsthand except as noted.