Most 16-year-olds spend their time worrying about exams or what they are going to do for the rest of their lives. David Gaskell kept goal for United in a Manchester derby.
The evening of the 24th October 1956 and the United youth team keeper is faced with a choice after spending the day sweeping the terraces at Old Trafford, take the long bus ride across town to Maine Road to watch his idols play in that years Charity Shield or stay at home and watch the game on TV.
Fortunately for David, the choice he made that night changed his life and gave him a special place in the Manchester United history books. He takes up the story: “I was working in the afternoon on the ground staff at Old Trafford. I went back to my digs and had my dinner, it was about six o’clock and Duncan Edwards and Billy Whelan who I lived with had left for the match because they were playing.
“I wasn’t sure whether to go or not because I was tired, but I decided to go and took two buses to Maine Road. I got a complimentary ticket and went into the paddock to watch the game.
“After a few minutes Ray Wood got injured and someone came over and asked me to go into the dressing room where I was kitted out with some boots and kit and sent on to the field. I came up to the goal where Duncan Edwards had taken over and he asked me what the hell I was doing. I told him I was playing and played for the rest of the game, we won 1-0.”
Gaskell became the youngest player to ever play for Manchester United at 16 years and 19 days, a record that stands to this day. He was also the first replacement ever used by the club in a match, despite substitutions not having been introduced yet: “Matt Busby must have come to some sort of agreement and I came on after a few minutes. After the game they gave us all a medal and I was bit embarrassed and gave mine to Ray Wood.
“I got dressed and went across the road into the bus queue and I could hear all the supporters saying how well Ray Wood had played because it hadn’t been announced that a change of goalkeeper had been made and I was too embarrassed to say it had been me.
“Someone came and found me and invited me to go back on the team coach which I did and they dropped me off at my digs. I was too embarrassed to tell my landlord that I had played and he was still going on about how well United had played. I just went to bed until Duncan and Billy came home a couple of hours later and got me up.”
David was promoted to reserve team goalkeeper after that game and stayed on the fringes of the first team from then on, he picked up another appearance in November 1957 in a 4-3 home defeat to Spurs at a time when it seemed like nothing was going to stop the Busby Babes:
“They were all massive and I was just a child, you looked up to those sort of people but you had to look after yourself.
“I was thrown in at the deep end and admired them, I still do and have fond memories of them.”
The 6th of February 1958 is a date that resonates with any United fan as the Munich air disaster robbed perhaps the most exciting young team in the history of British football the chance of fulfilling its potential.
Although not on the plane, David was badly affected by the tragedy that claimed the lives of his two housemates Duncan Edwards and Billy Whelan: “I was at home in Wigan and I started travelling to Manchester after that because as a young boy it upset me very much. I remember going to Old Trafford the following morning and what really upset me was that the ground staff had to carry the coffins into the old gym.
“It really affected me badly, Mark Jones was six foot four and I could have picked his coffin up with one hand. It was awful, I lost two roommates and had to give out their belongings from the digs to their families.”
David played a couple more games in the first team in the latter stages of that season as United fought to rebuild and went on to establish himself over the next few seasons as he battled Harry Gregg, a man he regards as a good friend, for the number one spot.
Indeed, Gaskell was chosen over Gregg in goal for the 1963 FA Cup final against Leicester City, a game which signalled the return of United as a force on the domestic scene despite their poor form in the league that season: “It was a very bad winter that year and a lot of games were cancelled so towards the end of the season we were playing two or three matches a week but we continued to win cup matches and we got to the final.
“In the league we had to play Manchester City at Maine Road on a Wednesday night and we needed a draw to stay up. In the last few minutes Albert Quixall got a penalty and scored it to get us the draw so as you can imagine it was a very intense occasion.
“We’d played at Nottingham Forest in the week leading up to the cup final so it was upon us before we knew it but we played and we won. I was glad we won but I didn’t have a lot to do during the game.
“Without a doubt that final was the start of us going forward again because it had taken a long time to get over Munich.”
David continued to battle with Gregg for the goalkeeping spot at Old Trafford for the next few years and played his last game for the club at Spurs in September 1966 before the signing of Alex Stepney and a contract dispute saw him wind down his time at United playing rugby for Wigan based club Orrell.
“My last game was at Tottenham and after the match we were coming back from Euston station and I saw in the newspaper that United had signed Alex Stepney. So I went to the manager and he said he’d signed him as back up and wanted me to teach him.
“I wasn’t very happy about that and in the next few games Stepney was playing and I wasn’t, so I asked for a transfer. Leicester and Ron Greenwood at West Ham both wanted to sign me but Sir Matt wouldn’t let me go and told me I was in the reserves. I told him I wasn’t and said I wouldn’t play. I never played again for Manchester United at any level.
“A friend of mine was a solicitor so we went through my contract and all it said was that I had to go to Old Trafford at 12 o’clock every day and report to the trainer Jack Crompton which I did for the next 18 months before going to play Rugby. I started playing at my local club Orrell where I played in the first team after a while.”
David eventually departed for hometown club Wigan Athletic before having spells at Wrexham and playing and coaching in South Africa and Kuwait. Now 75, he admits he isn’t a fan of the modern game: “I watch it and I always look for the United result as well as my local team Wrexham but I find it boring and I talk to many former footballers and they say the same.
“I do watch Match of the Day if I can but I couldn’t watch a full game. The way some of the players fall down and are in pain for the rest of the day, I’d like some of them to be playing for Jimmy Murphy. He’d have had them up against a wall and frightened them to death if they did that.”