Greatest Transfers: Gary Pallister – ‘Dolly’…or was he ‘Daisy’?!

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: Middlesbrough, August 1989 for £2,300,000 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Centre-Back
Appearances (Goals): 437 (15) between August 1989 & July 1998.

Honours:

F.A. Premier League Winner (4): 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997.
F.A. Cup Winner (3): 1990 (1-0 (replay after 3-3 draw) vs. Crystal Palace);
1994 (4-0 vs. Chelsea);
1996 (1-0 vs. Liverpool).
League Cup Winner: 1992 (1-0 vs. Nottingham Forest).
U.E.F.A. European Cup Winners’ Cup Winner: 1991 (2-1 vs. Barcelona)

Individual Honours:

P.F.A. ‘Players’ Player of the Year’: 1992.
Sir Matt Busby ‘Player of the Year’: 1990.

Alongside Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister became one half of one of the most celebrated centre-back pairings in the history of English football whilst at Manchester United….but you wouldn’t have foreseen that scenario if you’d witnessed his performance in the first game of his career at Old Trafford. To say the big man from Teesside had to endure something of an indifferent beginning to his United career in August 1989 would be something of an understatement, as he gave a creditable impersonation of a giraffe after 30 pints of Guinness as Norwich City left Manchester with a 2-0 win!

Born in Ramsgate, Kent, but raised in Middlesbrough, Pallister was a huge fan of the ‘Boro’ as a kid, and after starting his career at non-league Billingham Town, found himself at Ayresome Park (Middlesbrough’s former home before they moved to the Riverside Stadium) as a 19-year-old in 1984.

Times had not been kind to Middlesbrough, and when Pallister arrived the club were marooned in the old Division 2 of the Football League, desperately needing some stability. As an inexperienced young defender, he couldn’t bring that to them, and they suffered relegation to the Third Division and fell into administration with severe financial difficulties shortly afterwards, but after being taken over by a consortium led by current owner Steve Gibson, somehow rallied despite all the problems to clinch a return to Division 2 in 1987. Incredibly, Middlesbrough secured promotion to Division 1 just a year later, overcoming Chelsea 2-1 in a two-legged play-off final.

However, the squad was simply not strong enough to compete in the top flight, and despite some excellent displays for his boyhood club that season from Pallister, he suffered a second relegation with Boro as they won only 9 games out of the 38 played. Despite relegation, the rumours of interest from several top clubs in Gary’s signature rumbled along all summer, and indeed he had started the new season of 1989-90 playing in Middlesbrough’s first few Division 2 fixtures before Alex Ferguson stepped in with a cheque for a whopping £2.3 million to take him to Old Trafford on 29th August, the record fee for a defender at that time. As with nearly every player that will feature in this ‘Greatest Transfers’ series, that seemingly large fee for Pallister ended up looking like “chicken feed” by the end of his glory-filled era as a United player!

Pallister arrived to find a United side in very poor form, and after that forgettable debut in the home defeat to Norwich City, he endured another poor result with a 3-2 loss at Everton. However, he had a reliable centre-half partner in Steve Bruce, and also benefited from what can only be described as a frankly phenomenal record of injury-free runs in the 1st team; put simply, Gary Pallister virtually NEVER suffered injuries. This was aided in no small way by the strict weight-training regime he was required to undertake after arriving at the club, with Alex Ferguson apparently shocked by how skinny his new 6′ 4″ tall centre-half actually was.

By now, Ferguson was under growing pressure, some fans calling for his head. He’d signed several big names that summer, including Neil Webb for £1.5 million from Nottingham Forest, but had shown the door to crowd favourites Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, and the fans were not amused by the team’s indifferent start to the campaign. Things reached rock-bottom with a calamitous 5-1 defeat at Manchester City on 23rd September, and instead of putting up a title challenge it seemed United were more likely to feature in that season’s relegation battle.

After a very poor Christmas period, United arrived at The City Ground, Nottingham for the F.A. Cup 3rd Round clash with Brian Clough’s Forest knowing this was the ‘last chance saloon’ for any silverware that season, and indeed many pundits felt that Ferguson would not survive the season if Cloughie’s team triumphed that day… step forward Mark Robins!

Throughout all this turmoil, Pallister was ever-present. He represented one of very few players Ferguson could rely on to consistently put in a performance worthy of the shirt on his back. Alongside him, Bruce was similar; however, they were surrounded by a cast that changed on a weekly basis, the club rocked by an ongoing injury crisis that robbed them of key players like Robson and Webb for lengthy periods. Others simply weren’t good enough. Whilst the F.A. Cup run continued (which, to be honest, was more due to United facing none of the top sides who might have ended their interest in the competition than for any brilliant performances by the team, though they did beat Newcastle United 3-2 at St. James’ Park), the league season never got far from utter calamity, with United ending up in lowly 13th position, only a small number of points above the relegation places.

However, when Robins again came to the rescue with an extra-time winner in the F.A. Cup Semi-Final replay win over Oldham Athletic at Maine Road, Pallister had a date at Wembley in his first season to look forward to…and that too went to a replay against Crystal Palace after United keeper Jim Leighton unknowingly made his last appearance for the club with a shockingly poor game in the 3-3 draw. Left-back Lee Martin scored the only goal in the replayed Final, and Pallister finished the season with his first winners’ medal; it was a bright lining to a black cloud of a first season, though the award of the Sir Matt Busby “Player of the Year” to Pallister left no-one in any doubt about how highly he was regarded at United already!

The summer witnessed the arrival of Irish full-back Denis Irwin, who would bring another layer of stability to United’s rear-guard, but the progress in terms of league results going into 1990-91 was slow, with the team unable to get any kind of consistency going until late October, by which time they were well out of the running for a title challenge. Pallister had formed a very good partnership with Bruce, and with Irwin able to play at either full-back position, Clayton Blackmore playing at left-back and Les Sealey taking over the keeper’s gloves, Alex Ferguson had the beginnings of a settled defence for the first time in his tenure at Old Trafford- these five players featured in over 30 of the Division 1 fixtures each. United eventually finished in a much improved 6th place, despite only winning 16 of the 38 league fixtures.

Further good news arrived in the form of U.E.F.A. allowing English clubs to return to European competition following the Heysel stadium ban of 1985, so United competed in the Cup Winners’ Cup competition, and quickly found it to their liking, though favourable draws against such ‘giants’ as Pecsi Munkas of Hungary and Welsh side Wrexham also helped! The League Cup competition also provided a ‘break’ from the drudgery of the league campaign, and the team went on a superb run of victories which included a 3-1 win over Liverpool and a 6-2 thrashing of Arsenal at Highbury, during which young winger Lee Sharpe grabbed a hat-trick.

Gary Pallister was the only ever-present player during the season, playing in all 58 games. In the end, he suffered the heartbreak of losing a Wembley final for the first time, as United surprisingly fell to Ron Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup Final, losing 1-0 to a John Sheridan goal….it wouldn’t be the last time Big Ron upset his former employers in a cup final.

However, less than a month later Pallister added another winners’ medal to his collection as he helped United beat Barcelona 2-1 in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Rotterdam, Mark Hughes scoring both goals for the Red Devils.

Summer brought the arrival of giant Danish keeper Peter Schmeichel and tidy right-back Paul Parker, both of whom added yet more stability to a defence which now looked formidable. Once again, Gary Pallister was virtually ever-present, continuing a remarkable record of staying free of injury, especially as by now the big man was universally regarded as one of the best defenders in England, pacy over the ground and virtually unbeatable in the air. He’d won his first full cap at senior level for England while still at Middlesbrough, and was perhaps a bit unlucky to not win more than the 22 caps he eventually accumulated, playing during a period when England were blessed with an abundance of top quality centre-halves.

United started the 1991-92 domestic season in top gear, unbeaten in their first 12 games before falling 2-3 at Sheffield Wednesday, having only conceded 4 goals until that day. By then it was clear that two Yorkshire clubs, Wednesday and Leeds United, would provide the main obstacles to United finally claiming another league crown after a 25-year wait. Having just lost 0-3 at Atletico Madrid with the 2nd leg still to come, it was also clear that United would not be successfully defending their European trophy.

Pallister was, yet again, an absolute rock at the heart of the United defence alongside his mate Steve Bruce, and so stable was their relationship in front of Schmeichel that they came to be known on the training ground as ‘Dolly and Daisy’, though who was which ‘character’ was never made clear by Sir Alex in later years! For his part, Pallister played the ‘quiet, cool’ one during games, rarely seeming ruffled, leaving Bruce and Schmeichel to scream abuse at each other for any perceived mistake by the other- it bordered on the comical at times!

The season brought good news before a tragic ending for Pallister and United. Revenge for the previous season’s loss of the League Cup arrived in the shape of a 1-0 victory over Brian Clough’s youthful Nottingham Forest side in this year’s Final, Brian McClair claiming the solitary goal. However, Forest gained their revenge only 8 days later, inflicting a 2-1 home defeat on United, a loss which precipitated a three-game losing streak at just the wrong time; by the time they left Anfield to a chorus of laughter and jeers from the home supporters having lost 2-0 to Liverpool on 26th April, United had conspired to allow bitter rivals Leeds United to climb above them and clinch the last ever Division 1 league championship. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and would represent the lowest point in Gary Pallister’s United career. Even winning that season’s coveted Professional Footballers’ Association “Players’ Player of the Year” award was poor consolation as he, along with United fans everywhere, looked on in abject misery as Howard Wilkinson’s men celebrated with the league championship trophy at Leeds City Hall.

The following season, with the introduction of the Premier League, saw United make an awful start to the campaign, bottom after two opening defeats. However, by now, the defence pretty much picked itself, with Schmeichel behind a back four of Parker (right-back), Irwin (left-back), Bruce and Pallister, and that counted for an awful lot as the campaign wore on. The defence conceded only 9 league goals between 19th August and Boxing Day, and it was easy to see that United’s problems lay at the opposite end of the pitch, as numerous points were lost to an inability to turn draws into wins…. Two successive 0-1 defeats in late autumn seemed to signal that Alex Ferguson’s side were going to stutter to a standstill….then a Frenchman called Eric Cantona arrived from Leeds United in November, and the spark he provided fired the United ‘rocket’ into the stratosphere!

Despite disappointing results in both domestic cup competitions, United only lost twice more in the Premier League that season, as fierce challenges from Norwich City and particularly Aston Villa were held at bay so the Old Trafford club could welcome rivals Blackburn Rovers to their ground on 3rd May 1993, having already secured the league title due to Villa’s loss to Oldham Athletic the previous afternoon. Another excellent display in front of 40,000 partying fans saw the new Champions approach full-time leading 2-1; then they were awarded a free-kick just outside the penalty area in front of the Stretford End, and to the amazement of everyone present, including Alex Ferguson himself, up stepped Gary Pallister to slot a 25-yard shot into the bottom corner of the Rovers net, and a perfect league season had its ‘fairy-tale’ moment! As the only regular 1st team squad player not to have scored a goal that season, the other lads had encouraged ‘Pally’ to step forward and have a crack at the free-kick…. It would be the goal he is best remembered for scoring, despite it’s having little or no bearing on the actual title triumph.

Whilst the attacking players, and Cantona in particular, were showered with most of the adulation, compliments and plaudits for securing United’s first title since the days of Charlton, Best and Law in 1967, no-one could deny just how fundamental the mean-spirited defence provided by Pallister and his back-line colleagues had been. They conceded a miserly 31 goals over the 42 league games played, and 6 of those had come in just two games (an early 0-3 defeat to Everton and a 3-3 draw at Sheffield Wednesday).

All that said, Alex Ferguson did have some disciplinary issues with Pallister, who he had found out had a VERY ‘sweet tooth’! Alex, as he was known to do occasionally, had surprised Pallister by calling at his home one evening, and found the big man chomping on Mars bars and crisps, for which he was “grilled” and given extra duties in the gym the following morning!

The following season was, if anything, even more impressive as United reclaimed their domestic title with relative ease, the signing of Roy Keane to play alongside Paul Ince helping to ensure that the midfield gave the rock-steady defence a superb degree of protection. It must have been a daunting prospect to face that United side, knowing that if by some miracle you managed to make it past Ince and Keane in the middle of the park, you had to get past Pallister and Bruce before even having a chance to test the virtually unbeatable Schmeichel! By the end of the league campaign, only three teams had beaten United (Chelsea, ironically, did the ‘double’, beating the Red Devils 1-0 both home and away) as the Champions posted a 27-11-4 win-draw-loss record.

Revenge over Chelsea for those league defeats came in the form of a 4-0 thrashing in the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley, with a 1st half Gavin Peacock shot against the crossbar the only moment of panic for Pallister, Bruce and company on the day as the Red Devils won their first ever ‘Double’. Gary finished the season having played in 60 of the 62 games Alex Ferguson’s men competed in, his only disappointment being a poor display in a weak overall team effort against Aston Villa in the League Cup Final, as Ron Atkinson stole the trophy from United’s grasp at the final hurdle for the second time in four years, the late Dalian Atkinson scoring one of Villa’s three goals that day.

The arrival of David May from Blackburn Rovers in the summer of 1994 was the first indication that Alex Ferguson had any concerns about the continuity of his trusted centre-back partnership of Pallister and Steve Bruce, and as it turns out, it was Bruce who worried the boss, not Gary Pallister…and his concerns were for Steve’s increasing injury-proneness with age, not his ability as a defender. Pallister continued to operate like a Rolls Royce with a Honda engine at the back (that is, smooth, unruffled and never, ever breaking down!), whether he was partnered by Bruce or May.

Whether the disruption to the Pallister-Bruce partnership had any bearing on what followed in 1994-95 is open to debate, but it proved to be a hugely frustrating and ultimately very disappointing season for all connected with the Champions. It started brightly enough, United only losing three games before traveling to Barcelona in early November to face the Catalans in the Champions League Group phase game, having drawn 2-2 with them earlier at Old Trafford. However, for possibly the only time in their careers together, the duo of Pallister and Bruce (but without Schmeichel, who Ferguson had had to ‘drop’ for Gary Walsh, due to U.E.F.A.’s ludicrous ‘three foreigner’ rule which was in force at the time) were utterly destroyed (as was the rest of the team) as a Romario and Hristo Stoichkov-inspired home team crushed United 4-0 in front of 115,000 delirious Catalans.

United seemed to recover from that mauling, and ended the year battling for top spot in the league with cash-rich Blackburn Rovers. The January capture of free-scoring Andy Cole from Newcastle United seemed to re-emphasise Ferguson’s determination to win a third league title on the trot, but within a few weeks United suffered a terrible blow, as Eric Cantona was ruled out for the remainder of the season after clashing with a racial abuser at Crystal Palace and receiving a lengthy 8-month suspension from the Football Association.

The rest of the squad, Pallister included, fought on magnificently in Eric’s absence; Cole scored regularly, and the team only lost twice more in the league…but it wasn’t enough. With Alan Shearer in irresistible form, Blackburn simply didn’t let United back in again, and when they finally did, losing 2-1 at Anfield on the final day, United fluffed their lines at Upton Park, the 1-1 draw consigning them to the runners-up spot.

The F.A. Cup offered a chance of redemption a week later, as the Red Devils journeyed to Wembley, favourites to beat an ordinary Everton side. Pallister had been instrumental in their Semi-Final conquering of Crystal Palace, scoring in extra-time in the original bad-tempered 2-2 draw at Villa Park, and then grabbing the winner in the 2-1 replay triumph. However, on the day of the Final, a jaded United side couldn’t muster enough quality to hurt the Toffees, and when Paul Rideout reacted quickest to head a rebounded ball from the crossbar back past Schmeichel, the game was gone, and with it a depressing season.

Determined to put the previous season’s disappointments behind them, Pallister and United began 1995-96 with a 3-1 loss at Villa, but quickly gathered momentum, aided by Cantona’s return from suspension, to go undefeated for 10 games (including a 2-0 win at Middlesbrough in which Pallister scored the opener against his former club- mind you, it would prove to be his solitary goal for the season!). However, a winless run of five games before the Christmas period left them trailing league leaders Newcastle United, then managed by Kevin Keegan, by ten points, and anyone with hopes of another league title triumph for United seemed very optimistic indeed! Those hopes looked all but extinguished after the team beat Keegan’s men on Boxing Day, but were then thrashed 4-1 at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day, as loan-signing William Prunier ended his hopes of having a United career in a single afternoon with a shambolic appearance at centre-back.

However, United rallied to go on a, frankly, incredible unbeaten run of games in 1996, losing only ONE more match in either the Premier League or the F.A. Cup (a surprise 3-1 league reverse at Southampton on 13th April, when Ferguson memorably had the team change from their grey shirts at the interval, claiming later that the players couldn’t see each other out on the pitch…) as they stormed to an unprecedented second League and Cup ‘Double’. Again, whilst the breath-taking form of striker Eric Cantona (19 goals in 38 games) rightly hogged nearly all the media attention, the Scrooge-like nature of the defence behind Cantona and Andy Cole (once again led by Pallister and Schmeichel) more than contributed to the team’s successes. Pallister was as steady as ever as he towered over a back line that conceded only 35 goals in the 38 game Premier League season, and added the F.A. Cup with a 1-0 shut-out of arch-rivals Liverpool at Wembley.

Gary started what would prove to be his penultimate season at Old Trafford by waving goodbye to his long-time friend and centre-half partner, Steve Bruce, who departed for Birmingham City during that summer of 1996 after a magnificent career at United; in his place came a Norwegian named Ronny Johnsen, who proved himself a more than able replacement for ‘Brucie’ over the next few seasons. By now, Pallister was starting to feel the effects of playing at the top level for so long, and missed almost a third of the Premier League season due to niggling injuries, particularly with his back. In his absence, David May and Johnsen proved a decent partnership, alongside marauding full-backs Gary Neville and Denis Irwin.

With Cantona ‘pulling the strings’ and new-boy Ole Gunnar Solskjaer making a name for himself up front, United roared into the new season, but were quickly challenged by Newcastle and a new threat in the form of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Pallister settled into a new partnership with Johnsen, but it was constantly interrupted by injury, and the fragile confidence was badly shaken by three very bad defeats in late autumn, including a 5-0 capitulation at St. James’ Park, and United slumped to 7th position in the table.

Thankfully, the array of attacking talent at Ferguson’s disposal was more than enough to ensure that United rarely left any pitch without at least a share of the spoils, and a run of nine wins and two draws between Christmas 1996 and early March 1997 was enough to carry the Red Devils to the top of the table, Pallister grabbing his usual rare goal in the 2-1 win over Southampton in February. Two defeats in the spring gave the chasing pack some hope that United might falter in the final straight to the finish line in that season’s title race, and after losing the 1st leg of their Champions League Semi-Final tie at Borussia Dortmund, United went into the traditionally difficult away league game at Liverpool with a few nerves showing.

What you need in such a hostile atmosphere is an early goal to silence the crowd and give your own team-mates renewed confidence….step forward Gary Pallister! The big man thundered two headers from set-pieces into the Liverpool net during a pulsating 1st half at Anfield, and by the time the referee blew for time on a 3-1 win for the visitors, Pallister had gone a long way to ensuring the league title would remain at Old Trafford in the summer. Despite dropping six points in their final four games and disappointingly also losing the 2nd leg of the European Cup Semi-Final to Dortmund, United finished 7 points clear of their nearest rivals in the Premier League, and Pallister had another winners’ medal for his sideboard. The Champions’ defence had shipped 44 goals this time around though, and it was further proof of just how magnificent, and important, Gary’s enduring defensive partnership with Steve Bruce had been in previous years.

Pallister’s final season at Old Trafford started without Eric Cantona, who had shocked the football fraternity by retiring from the game that summer; into the squad came Henning Berg, a steady centre-half from Blackburn Rovers. The Champions again started the defence of their title strongly- indeed they were never outside the top three positions in the league table at any stage of the season. Crucially, however, they lost new captain Roy Keane to a season-ending cruciate ligament injury at Leeds United in late September, and allowed a very strong Arsenal side to grab the initiative (helped in no small way by doing the ‘double’ over United) late in the season; the margins between success and failure were never more blurry, and when United dropped points with two draws against Liverpool and Newcastle in successive weekends in April, Arsenal nipped in front and did not ‘blink’, to snatch the league title by a single point. Pallister had managed to feature in 33 league games, without scoring, and also in the disappointing F.A. Cup and Champions League campaigns (United crashing out to AS Monaco on the away-goals rule at the Quarter-Final stage).

By now, Gary had lost a portion of the pace he had based his defensive game upon, and his former ability to withstand injury had deserted him. Alex Ferguson knew that too, and with the margins between success and failure at the very top level of the game becoming increasingly small, the boss decided Pallister’s time at United was over after 9 wonderful years. Having already made the move to bring in a monster of a centre-half from PSV Eindhoven called Jaap Stam as soon as the transfer window opened on 1st July, Ferguson sold Gary Pallister back to his boyhood idols, Middlesbrough (then under the guidance of his old team-mate Bryan Robson), for £2.5 million on 17th July…. Remarkably, after all those years of sterling service, the big man was returned for a PROFIT on his original price!

He played in 61 more games for Boro before retiring from playing at the end of 2000-01, at the age of 36….not bad for a man who had once got ‘chewed out’ by his manager for munching on Mars bars!

‘Pally’ appears reasonably regularly on both TV and in print media as a pundit, his views respected and given weight by his lengthy career in the very top echelons of English football. His partnership with Steve Bruce, ‘Dolly and Daisy’, will never be forgotten by the legions of United fans who rested their hopes on the pair to help us keep clean sheets for nearly a decade!

About the Author

Rodney McCain
A passionate supporter of Manchester United since I was 6 years old. In life I'm a consulting civil engineer, but that's only to pay the bills. Originally from Northern Ireland, I was a regular at Old Trafford for many years, but now reside in the United States, which makes getting to games a tad difficult.... I love to write about football, which hopefully comes across to readers on these sites.