Southampton vs Manchester United is a fixture that evokes fond memories for many a Saint.
Ron Davies scoring four at Old Trafford. Tim Flowers’s penalty shoot-out heroics. United changing kits at half time. 6-3 at The Dell. Massimo Taibi’s howler. Successive away league wins after 27 years without one. The contrasting cup final emotions of ‘76 and 2017.
For Danny Wallace, who played for both clubs, it’s been a special fixture right from the start.
It was at Old Trafford that winger Wallace wrote his name into the record books. At 16 years and 313 days, he became Saints’ youngest ever player, playing the full 90 minutes of a 1-1 draw in November 1980.
Seventeen years later, having announced his retirement after persistent injury problems, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Plenty happened in between. His electrifying runs were synonymous with perhaps Saints’ greatest era, earning England recognition before the move to United that led to silverware in the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Nowadays, in his own words, Wallace is sadly unrecognisable. The disability has him wheelchair-bound, stricken of the energy that made him such an exhilarating watch on the pitch.
Such is his love of both clubs, and a fixture packed with memories, the 55-year-old has summoned the effort and courage to be here at St Mary’s on Saturday, as a guest of Southampton but sure to earn a huge cheer from both sets of supporters.
“It’s going to be quite an emotional day for me, because it’s nearly 40 years since I made my debut at Old Trafford,” he says, picking up the story. “I’m bringing one of my sons, so it’s going to be extra special.
“I don’t get to many games really. I think the last game I went to was about five years ago, but obviously you can see it on the telly and that’s a lot more comfortable for me anyway.
“Southampton and Man United are the first two teams I look out for when I’m at home, so it’s great to be invited down to watch the two teams that I really love, and take in all the atmosphere that I haven’t done for such a long time.
“I’m really looking forward to it, hoping the game goes well and hopefully both teams can get a point out of it!”
Wallace might be sitting on the fence when it comes to his allegiance, but he’s not shy in discussing his debilitating condition – an openness that understandably took time to develop.
“When the sun comes out I’m a lot happier, and it’s been going well for a few months. It’s just very different to the life I was used to,” he admits.
“I think I’ve coped with it quite well. I’ve had a lot of help from my family, naturally, and my wife Jenny has been absolutely tremendous over the years.
“For her to look after me and the family and still go to work, she’s done a really fantastic job.
“It’s been really hard for 22 years, but I’m pleased that I can talk about it a lot more easily than I could when I was younger.”
Away from the action on the pitch this afternoon, Wallace hopes to be reunited with some familiar faces from his playing days.
“There are a lot of players who have kept in touch and asked how I’m feeling, but obviously people have to get on with their own lives,” he says.
“I can’t complain. I’ve got everybody that I need to be around me at the moment. I’m just hoping I can go back to Southampton, see some players and have a chat with them.
“I was down a few months back, for the Nicky Banger Foundation, and I met up with Kevin Keegan, Lawrie McMenemy and Matt Le Tissier, and it was great to see them.
“Kevin was at The Dell early in my career, and we were talking about a couple of the games. One of them was against Coventry, when we drew 5-5 and I came in and thought we’d lost the game 5-4!
“The team burst out laughing, saying it was 5-5 and we didn’t lose, so I was quite pleased when I found out! It was nice to talk about those memories.”
It was Keegan’s absence, 18 months earlier, that paved the way for Wallace’s unexpected introduction.
“He got injured a couple of days before the game,” Wallace recalls, as the conversation turns to his debut.
“To travel up north to Manchester was quite surreal really. I just thought I was going up there to clean the boots and make sure all the professionals were looked after – never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to make my debut at that time.
“Lawrie did really well for me – he only told me about an hour before the game was starting, so I didn’t really have enough time to worry about it.
“He was always like that – a great man manager. I was so pleased to make my debut and I wore Kevin’s number seven shirt, which was absolutely brilliant. It was just such an exciting day for me.
“I cannot remember anything about the game – not even going out to warm up. It’s all just a blur.
“I think after the game we had interviews, me and Reuben Agboola, and we were on telly for the first time, which was more frightening than anything!
“I came through it and I don’t think the manager was too upset with me – he played me again the week after against Coventry, and I just got on with it.”
DANNY WALLACEWE WERE VERY UNLUCKY NOT TO WIN THAT LEAGUE, BUT TO COME SECOND WITH A CLUB LIKE SOUTHAMPTON IN DIVISION ONE WAS STILL AN ACHIEVEMENT, AS WELL AS GETTING TO THE FA CUP SEMI-FINAL.
ON GOING CLOSE TO THE TITLE
His record would remain intact for 25 years, until it was broken by another future England international, Theo Walcott.
Wallace’s rise was as rapid as his dribbles down the wing. At 19, he was finishing a top-flight campaign as the club’s top scorer.
Aged 20, he was making national headlines for his Goal of the Season against Liverpool – an overhead kick as one half of a brace that propelled Saints into genuine title contenders.
“It was just natural that the ball was in the right position and I just had to get it past Bruce Grobbelaar,” Wallace explains, modestly.
“I don’t think there were too many overhead kicks scored around that time, but I’d done a few in the reserves and in training.
“To tell you the truth, I thought the header, for the second goal, was a lot better. I beat Alan Hansen in the air to make it 2-0.
“With the height that I am, you wouldn’t expect me to do that, so I think I was more pleased with that one!
“We lost out to Liverpool by three points, but I think we were the better team that season.
“Lawrie knew he had a good team who were destined to win something. Unfortunately, we just missed out, but they’re great memories and it was a good time.
“We were very unlucky not to win that league, and it was disappointing, but to come second with a club like Southampton in Division One was still an achievement, as well as getting to the FA Cup semi-final. It was a fantastic season for us.”
Towards the end of his Saints career, Danny was not the only Wallace on show at The Dell.
Twin brothers Rod and Ray, five years his junior, were progressing through the youth system, paving the way for all three to start together for the first time against Sheffield Wednesday in 1988. Danny was 24, his brothers 19.
“It was absolutely fantastic,” Danny remembers. “I couldn’t believe it when Chris Nicholl gave them the chance to come in and play alongside us. For them to have the ability to get into the same team was unbelievable.
“They were two different players, Rodney and Raymond. Rodney was playing up front and scored a lot of goals, and Raymond was that defender who got stuck in and was good at his job.
“For three brothers to be in the first team together was incredible, and gave our parents so much joy.
“Unfortunately, they (the parents) are no longer with us, but they were so proud of their boys, and it was just a great thing for the Wallace family.”
Less than a year later, three became two, as Wallace made the decision to leave The Dell behind, along with all the memories he still cherishes, in favour of United.
In total, he amassed 317 appearances and 79 goals in nine years as a Saint.
“I was getting a little bit older and I’d tried so hard to win a trophy for Southampton, but it never really happened for us,” he reflects.
“I just thought it was time for me to change, and go somewhere else where I could win something. When Sir Alex Ferguson came in for me, I had to jump at the chance.
“I’m really pleased that I did, because even though I loved Southampton so much, I needed a new challenge and to get out there and see what I could do.
“For him to put a bid in for me of £1.25million, it was hard to say no. It was great that I had a chance to go to Manchester United, where I’d made my debut.
“To win a trophy in the first year by winning the FA Cup was an incredible feat for me. It was just lovely to do something that I’d wanted to do for a long, long time, which was to play at Wembley.
“I’d loved it to have been Southampton, but it was Manchester United, and to get a winner’s medal there made me so proud. It was just a lovely feeling.”
That FA Cup triumph means the world to Wallace, who started both finals – the first, a 3-3 thriller that went to extra time, and the replay, a tighter affair decided by Lee Martin’s solitary second-half goal.
It was the highlight of his United career, which, by his own admission and through reasons at the time unknown to Wallace himself, never quite took off, as his unquestionable talent began to ebb away.
“I was there four years and I knew as time went on I was struggling with something,” he says. “I was having a lot of bad injuries, niggling injuries, and didn’t really know why.
“By the time of 92/93, I was struggling to keep up with the first team, and Sir Alex was ready to let me go.
“I can honestly say my time at Manchester United was terrific, and to win two trophies there, I really can’t complain.
“It would’ve been nice if I’d done a lot better there, but I think this disability had a big influence on it. Looking back on it, I think that was the reason I struggled at the end of my Manchester United career.
“I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I moved to Birmingham after a loss of form, thinking I’d be able to go there, get my career back on tune and everything would be alright.
“But I went to Birmingham and it got even worse. I think I was there 18 months and played 12 games, so that tells you there was something definitely wrong.
“After leaving Birmingham, I just didn’t know what to do. I went into a little bit of depression and it was hard for me for a couple of years, until I actually knew what was wrong with me.
“That was when we found out the MS was partly the cause of my demise. When the doctor first told me, I think I was more relieved than anything.
“I realised I wasn’t just an injury-prone player who’d lost his form – there was a reason and a cause for this problem.
“The relief was better than knowing I had this disease for the rest of my life.”
Twenty-two years on, and 39 years since that landmark debut, Wallace remains fondly remembered on the south coast.
Just as importantly, he still looks back on his time as a Saint with the very same level of affection.