Manchester, 1990. The Stone Roses. The Happy Mondays. Baggy. Indie. A northern renaissance. United have just claimed their seventh FA Cup, Alex Ferguson’s first ever trophy at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, Liverpool have clinched their nineteenth – and, to date, last – League title. Times are changing, but the dominance of Manchester United over the English scene has not yet quite begun.
Following on from Italia ’90, English football was allowed back into European competitions after an indefinite ban was sanctioned by UEFA in light of the terrible events of the Heysel disaster in which 39 Juventus fans were killed when a wall collapsed in the ageing stadium that hosted the 1985 European Cup Final – against Liverpool. But after a peaceful World Cup on the continent, the scourge of English hooliganism had largely abated, it seemed, and Manchester United were among the first beneficiaries of the lifting of the ban by virtue of their cup win the previous season.
Ferguson’s Manchester United, however, is a team in transition. Combining an expensive core of experienced English professionals with young, exciting talents emerging from the club’s youth system that was so painstakingly put in place by Ferguson immediately upon his arrival at Old Trafford, United still seem a ‘cup team’; as good as any on their day, but still lacking the consistency and character required to wrest control from their rivals during the long, gruelling league campaigns.
In a season that saw the emergence of the first true ‘90s pop footballer in the teenage flying left-winger Lee Sharpe, the rise of Mark Hughes into the Footballer of the Year, and the debut of a seventeen-year-old skinny Welsh boy who would grow into a club immortal, Manchester United became the first English club to win a European trophy since 1984 when Alex Ferguson masterminded victory in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in Rotterdam against Johan Cruyff’s famed Barcelona in May, 1991.
Domestic cup success was near at hand in the form of the League Cup (known then quaintly as the Rumblelow’s Cup) but Ferguson was cruelly denied a cup double of a kind when a John Sheridan thunderbolt hit the inside of Les Sealey’s post for a memorable winner. It meant Second Division Sheffield Wednesday, promoted that year, won the 1991 League Cup. United, for their part, fought their way valiantly into a second Wembley Cup Final in less than twelve months. Ferguson’s young team turned over Leeds United, league champions the following year, in the semi-finals 3-1 on aggregate, but not before despatching Liverpool 3-1 in front of a packed Old Trafford, and sensationally destroying Arsenal 6-2, thanks in no small part to a perfect hat-trick from Sharpe, the bright face of English football’s future it seemed at the time, who scored with his left foot, right foot, and head in front of a stunned Highbury.
Legend has it that an ebullient Sharpe, bouncing around the Highbury away dressing room, match-ball in hand, was given a massive dressing down by a seemingly-unimpressed Ferguson, who in truth feared that his young starlet would rest on his laurels. It is a telling story about Ferguson’s man-management approach Sharpe, known for his partying ways, ultimately succumbed to a mixture of injuries and exactly what Ferguson feared that night in London.
The glories of the cup runs in 1990/91 in reality, however, masked what was still a team carefully being put together by Alex Ferguson. The important captures of Denis Irwin and Andrei Kanchelskis that season were augmented by the arrivals of Peter Schmeichel and Paul Parker a year later. Having already brought in Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes, the 1991/92 season began with immense promise and even talk of a first League title in 25 years. Ferguson remained quiet, but seemed to instil in his players the focus and discipline that so lacked and hindered the squad he inherited upon his arrival in November, 1986.
That season, driven in equal measures by the confidence imbued by a team that was at last winning silverware on a regular basis, the complimentary qualities of strong squad of players at their peak, and a youth academy conveyor belt that was beginning to crank out some serious talent, United won the 1991/92 European Super Cup (against European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade), the League Cup against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, and mounted their first serious title charge under Ferguson.
Midway through April, 1992, United found themselves on top of the First Division with only five matches to play. Beaten only three times up until that point, Ferguson’s men did what now seems to be utterly unthinkable of any of his Old Trafford outfits; they folded under the pressure. United had become exhausted by the demands of a long season fought on multiple fronts, and – in truth – lacked the mental edge required of true champions. Losing their matches against Nottingham Forest at home, and West Ham United and Liverpool away, they let the last-ever First Division league title slip. Meanwhile, their bitter rivals, Leeds United, held firm, drawing 0-0 at Anfield where United later capitulated badly, and winning four of their last five were deservedly crowned champions.
The hurt it caused Alex Ferguson was immense, but unlike in previous years, the near-miss didn’t prove to be a fatal set-back that would see the club fail to recover from after again coming ever so close to success. In fact, as with most champions, this initial failure imbued the manager and his players with a belief as well as an iron will to finally wrest control of a long-elusive league championship in the very following season.
The hindsight of history allows us to suggest that the defeat suffered by Ferguson and that crop of Manchester United players on the imminent verge of an era of unimaginable success actually served to inspire the great Scot and his men with a supreme determination and confidence in a manner similar to that in which Winston Churchill had previously described a crucial victory for the Allies at El Alamein, North Africa:
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
In any case, this much was certain: The tide had irrevocably turned.
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