By Matthew Gooding (@ZinedineF)
For a couple of years around the turn of the Millennium I had what I still consider to be one of the best summer jobs going; working in the ice cream hut on Jesus Green.
As well as giving me the opportunity eat copious amounts of free ice cream, it led to a brush with greatness when, among the stream of tourists, dog walkers and local tramps who paid the kiosk a visit on a daily basis, who should appear at my window but Lionel Perez.
Seeing footballers in the wild is always fascinating, but this was a particularly big deal given that Perez was my favourite U’s player at the time. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, and in typically loquacious 17-year-old fashion, I mumbled ‘are we going to get promoted next season, Lionel?’ He looked a little bemused and replied with a gruff ‘yeah’, before taking his ice lollies back to his kids. Given that John Beck was manager at the time, I think we both knew this was a forlorn hope.
I never got another chance to indulge in high-level banter with Perez, but at the time he was a familiar sight around the city; my mates and I had a regular Friday night football game on Jesus Green, and he would often be over there kicking a ball about with his children. The fact that he so obviously loved the quality of life in our fair city, to the extent that he took a massive pay cut to join United on a full-time basis, was part of his appeal as far as I was concerned. The fact that he was an extremely decent keeper also helped.
Perez is perhaps best known for his time at Sunderland, and being the keeper that is lobbed by Eric Cantona for that goal that gets endlessly replayed on Sky Sports. He first came to United fans’ attention during a loan spell at Scunthorpe during the 1999/00 season, where he put in a typical virtuoso performance as the Iron won 3-1 at the Abbey. The contrast to the hapless Shaun Marshall in our goal was painfully obvious.
Roy McFarland obviously kept this in the back of his mind as, with United ensconced in a relegation battle in what is now League One, he brought Perez in on loan to give the team a late season boost. Lionel had an immediate impact, with the U’s winning three and drawing one of his first five games for the club, conceding just twice in a run which ultimately saved us from the drop. Trevor Benjamin’s goals grabbed the headlines, but Perez’s presence between the sticks was just as important.
I was in love immediately. A caricature Frenchman with a penchant for wearing short-sleeved shirts, constantly puffing out his chest, shaking his long blond locks or wagging his finger in the face of an offending attacker, Perez was always going to have good cult hero potential. He was also apparently a great character off the pitch, forming a special bond with goalkeeping coach Ali Uzunhasanoglu, to the extent that, when he left the club at the end of his initial loan spell, a (probably apocryphal) story did the rounds that he left a blank cheque with Ali so he could pay for a family holiday.
No-one expected him to return the following season, but after he was released by parent club Newcastle rumours started to swirl. Obviously there was no Twitter or smartphones in those days, but I remember a poster on the club message board stating excitedly that Lionel had been spotted having lunch with McFarland in Henry’s on Quayside. Apparently the terrible food at the now defunct venue didn’t put him off, and he penned a two-year contract to much fanfare shortly afterwards.
Perez was never quite as good after his return, earning a hefty collection of red cards as United spent most of his two years at the club struggling at the bottom of League One – there was only so much a goalkeeper could do, even a brilliant one, when he was playing behind John Dreyer or Dean Walling. But there were still plenty of stand-out performances, particularly in 2000/01, but also the year after, when he was particularly magnificent as the U’s beat Bristol City 2-0 to reach the LDV Vans trophy final. Again the goalscorer that night, Armand One, took the plaudits, but without a string of ridiculous Perez saves his efforts would have been in vain.
By the end of his contract United were completely skint (some things never change), so he was always going to move on. We knew it and he knew it, and this led to an emotional, and now legendary, final appearance against Tranmere. Having charged into the Newmarket Road End to jump around with the fans prior to kick-off, Perez was given the chance to get on the scoresheet when the U’s were awarded a penalty. The crowd held its breath as he strode up, but alas his technique was slightly lacking, and a low effort was saved by Rovers keeper Joe Murphy. Sadly for Murphy he never recovered, and had to go off injured shortly afterwards. Such was the power of Perez.
After leaving United Lionel dropped into non-league with Enfield and, er, Stevenage. I guess nobody’s perfect. I’m not sure what he’s up to these days, but he’ll always have a special place in my heart; perhaps we’ll meet again one day over a ’99.