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‘I had Mark Hughes in my pocket’ – the day Histon FC played Manchester United

Imagine that one week you’re playing football for Histon FC, then of the Eastern Counties League, against the likes of Clacton and Newmarket Town (no disrespect to either of them), and the next you’re facing the mighty Manchester United, led by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.

Well that’s exactly what happened to Milton resident Duncan Confrey, a former central defender for Histon, when Manchester United came to town 35 years ago – on 19 May, 1989.

Duncan Confrey with the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell
Duncan Confrey with the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell

Having signed for Histon from Milton FC, where he’d played for about five years, in January 1989, Duncan, then 20 years old, suddenly found himself marking one of the world’s top strikers who had recently returned to the UK from FC Barcelona: Welsh international Mark Hughes.

But how did this unlikely match-up against one of the richest and most widely-supported clubs in the world come about?

“A friend of mine, [fellow Histon player] Giuliano Maiorana, got spotted by Manchester United, got invited up for a trial, and played in a testimonial game for Man U,” explains Duncan, whose brother Fraser Confrey has been the club secretary of Milton FC since 1986 and is known locally as ‘Mr Football’.

“And Alex Ferguson liked what he saw and signed him up – and as part of the deal, our manager Alan Doyle, a shrewd guy, managed to get £30,000 for Giules and also persuaded them to bring the full first team down to Cambridge to play a friendly, to boost the club’s coffers. So that’s how it came about.”

Duncan – who describes himself as an “old-fashioned, uncultured centre back” who would “go through everything” – started off playing in the Histon reserves but quickly made it into the first team set-up.

He recalls that the match against Man United was played at the Cambridge United ground, in order to accommodate a bigger crowd.

“That was a great idea,” notes Duncan, “because I think in the end there was about 6,500 people who came out on the Friday night to watch it, which was something else – a new experience.

“I’d played a few games for the first team, but we were used to 150, maybe 200 people – and to walk out in front of 6,500…

“My brother and my dad were there, and a load of my friends, and you can hear them shout your name – you know exactly who it is, but when you look up and there’s a sea of faces, you can’t see where it’s coming from.”

Pages from the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell
Pages from the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell

The Manchester United squad that day included such luminaries as Jim Leighton, Steve Bruce, Paul McGrath, Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Brian McClair and Mark Hughes. Alex Ferguson – who had yet to be knighted – fielded a strong team that day.

Even so, the final score was still a very respectable 3-1 to Manchester United, with Tim Warner, a University of Cambridge graduate, getting Histon’s goal.

Though he was extremely passionate about football and 100 per cent dedicated to playing the game, Duncan admits that he didn’t always ‘keep tabs’ on all the big names in the top flight, meaning that he had never heard of the player he was assigned to mark.

“[Histon team-mate] Gary Haylock said to me ‘That’s who you’ll be marking then, Dunc’ and I said ‘Who’s that?’ He said ‘Mark Hughes’ and Mark Hughes was about the best-known centre forward in world football at the time.

“He’d just not that long before been signed to Man U back from Barcelona, but I didn’t know who Mark Hughes was.

“And then I recognised him because I’d seen him on Match of the Day or whatever.

“I looked at him and one of his thighs was two of mine – he was known for his thunder thighs.

“He was quite a big bloke as well, probably a six-footer, but luckily enough because I didn’t know him, I had no fear.”

A page from the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell
A page from the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell

Duncan, a self-employed plasterer, wasn’t in the starting line-up that day.

“At Histon, the club captain was also the centre back,” he observes, “so I didn’t only have to take his place, I had to take the captain’s place – Chris Hutton, a good player.

“So I came on I think about 10 minutes into the second half. I think it was 2-0 to them. The atmosphere was just so electric.

“I know it sounds funny but when he said ‘Right Dunc, get warmed up’, that was a thrill on its own.

“Just running up and down the touchline in front of that many people, and people calling out your name…

“Then I got on and I was marking Mark Hughes – and what a hard man to mark. As you were running back to your box to defend it, you turned round and he’d disappeared. He was somewhere else!”

Despite the challenge, Duncan says he had a “fantastic game against him”, preventing Hughes from getting on the scoresheet, and reveals that his brief but memorable association with the highly-decorated player didn’t end on the pitch.

“We got back into our dressing room and we were all euphoric. It was great fun. We’d been in the shower, came out and our changing room door opened and Mark Hughes was stood there,” he remembers.

“He said, in his Welsh accent, ‘Excuse me boys, which way is the bar?’ so another lad, Lofty (Steve Haylock), said ‘Dunc, are you going to let Mark Hughes out your pocket so he can go for a pint?’

“And the whole room erupted and everyone was laughing, apart from Mark Hughes! But I did get a pint with him in the bar afterwards, and had a word with Alex Ferguson and the rest of the players – and they must have stayed for a good hour and a half.

“They were staying at the hotel in Histon, so they had the team coach and they headed back there, and we headed up to Ronelles, which was the nightclub in Cambridge at the time.

“And that was as near to being famous as I think I’ll ever be!

“What a lot of people had done, was go to watch the game that night and then made a night of it by going out for the rest of the evening.

“When we arrived at the nightclub, the DJ, who we knew, announced ‘The Histon lads are here’, so we got a round of applause when we first went in and everyone was coming up to us for an autograph.

“It was a great feeling, just a great night all round – and it’s still remembered to this day. For old friends, that’s the first question: ‘Is he still in your pocket?’”

Duncan Confrey with the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell
Duncan Confrey with the matchday programme. Picture: Keith Heppell

Ely-born Duncan, whose father was Scottish, says he would have chosen to represent Scotland over England internationally if he had had the chance. He went on to play for Histon for 10 years.

Other well-known players he came up against during that time included Alan Brazil, Luther Blissett, Trevor Francis, Viv Anderson and Ruel Fox.

Mark Hughes later played for Chelsea, Southampton, Everton and Blackburn Rovers, before moving into management. He also won 72 caps for Wales and scored 16 goals.

Sadly, things didn’t really work out for Giuliano Maiorana at Manchester United.

“He got signed just when the Class of ‘92 were just coming through,” explains Duncan.

“So he had Giggs and Lee Sharpe – they were his two main competitors for the left-wing spot – and he was doing well but he got a bad injury, which forced him out of professional football.

“He was very unlucky. He was very fast, very skilful and I’m still friends with him to this day.

“And his brother played at Histon as well, so the two brothers played each other that night – Salvatore for Histon and Giuliano for Man United.”

Thirty-five years on, it’s a night that still puts a smile on Duncan’s face.

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