Hands up for Fergie
Twenty years ago today Mark Robins saved an under-fire Alex Ferguson's career with a vital FA Cup winner. Mark Ogden reflects on the role of that goal for United's legacy .
IMAGINE a world in which Howard Kendall became Manchester United manager in place of plain old Alex Ferguson in the early weeks of 1990.
Picture the football landscape 20 years on. Sir Howard Kendall, perhaps? The man who transformed Manchester United from also-rans weighed down by the burden of history into the dominant force of English football?
And what about Ferguson? Had he been shown the door at Old Trafford after just three years in charge, how would his career have mapped out as a former United manager? Damned as a failure with Wilf McGuinness, Frank O'Farrell and Dave Sexton or a man who would ultimately have brought glory to some other fallen giant?
Twenty years ago today, Ferguson approached the fork in the road that has since defined his career as United's, and English football's, most successful manager. It was January 7, 1990, when United played Nottingham Forest away in the FA Cup third round.
Without a victory since mid-November and with United plummeting towards the First Division relegation zone, the word was out that defeat would see Ferguson sacked. Kendall, recently installed as Manchester City manager, had been flagged up as Ferguson's likely successor. Terry Venables, Brian Clough and Bobby Robson were also touted.
Four weeks prior to the Cup tie against Forest, United suffered a 2-1 defeat at home to a Crystal Palace team routed 9-0 at Liverpool just three months earlier. Mirroring the growing disenchantment towards Ferguson from the terraces, a banner was unfurled on the Stretford End which read, "Three Years of Excuses and It's Still Crap. Ta Ra Fergie!"
December was a dark period for Ferguson. Defeats against Arsenal, Palace, Tottenham and Aston Villa, plus draws against Liverpool and Wimbledon, had increased the pressure, prompting Ferguson to admit in his 1999 autobiography, 'Managing My Life', that "in those grim days, I was, for the first time, feeling uncomfortable about my position".
Despite the strong backing of director Bobby Charlton, and subsequent insistence of chairman Martin Edwards that Ferguson would not be sacked had United lost at Forest, defeat at the City Ground would not have helped the manager's cause.
But the defeat never came. A decisive header by Mark Robins, a 20-year-old product of United's revitalised youth system, secured a 1-0 victory and became forever known as the 'goal that saved Fergie's job'. Robins, now the Barnsley manager, said: "Alex wrote a book and, in it, he was asked the question, did the goal save his job?
"He wrote that, in training, I would have missed it, but because I had a push in the back from Stuart Pearce, it went in. Excellent! So did I save his job? Yes.
"Did he ever thank me? No, but whenever anybody asks me about the goal, all I say is that he picked a side to win a game and we did."
The fact that United lost their next two league games, at home to Derby and away to Norwich, suggests that, had Robins' goal not saved Ferguson's job, it certainly bought him crucial time.
He rode the storm and navigated United through a hazardous fourth-round tie at Hereford. On February 10, goals from Mark Hughes and Danny Wallace secured a 2-1 victory in a relegation battle at Millwall that propelled United towards safety.
Ferguson guided United to a final position of 13th in the league, five points from relegation. More significantly, he laid his hands on his first trophy at the club when United beat Palace in the FA Cup final following a replay.
Twenty years later, he has become a legendary figure in football management, with a record more illustrious than Matt Busby.
The FA Cup success in 1990 proved the first of 33 pieces of silverware won by Ferguson's teams at Old Trafford.
There have been 11 Premier League titles, two European Cups, five FA Cups, three League Cups, one European Cup-Winners' Cup, eight Community Shields, a Super Cup, Inter-Continental Trophy and Fifa Club World Cup.
Who knows what would have happened to Manchester United but for that Robins goal, two decades ago today?
It is inconceivable that United would have enjoyed such success without Ferguson and, despite the storm clouds that were gathering, the 68-year-old still believes he would have survived, even without the victory at Forest.
"The goal at Forest was important, and who's to say what would have happened without it, but I don't think it saved my job," reflected the United manager.
"You never know in football. Who's to say how the club would have reacted if we'd lost and if crowds had tumbled?
"One thing's for sure, though. Bobby Charlton would not have let it (a change of manager) happen. He knows better than anyone the heartbeat of this football club.
"This football club needed the foundation of youth and we were doing some great work on that side of it. Bobby knew we were on the right road." (© Daily Telegraph, London)