Sir Alex’s Reign: 1986-1991
Rome wasn’t built in a day and, when Sir Alex took over in 1986, he inherited a team that was struggling near the foot of the old First Division.
Keen to give the existing staff a chance to prove themselves, the boss took his time to assess the players and waited before stamping his authority on the club. Nonetheless, small signs of progress were evident with a Boxing Day victory against Liverpool in front of the largest league attendance of the season an obvious highlight. A disappointing FA Cup defeat to eventual winners Coventry, however, provided proof that an overhaul was needed at Old Trafford. Ron Atkinson’s team may have lifted the famous trophy only a year earlier but a culture of success was required and a shake-up would take time to deliver. A 4-0 thumping at Tottenham was a harsh lesson and the reality was United only won once away from home all season in the league and finished 11th behind the likes of Norwich, Wimbledon, Luton and Watford.
Sir Alex’s first full season in charge left him with “mixed emotions” although Viv Anderson and Brian McClair, in particular, proved shrewd acquisitions. Liverpool were worthy champions, finishing nine points clear, but a second-placed finish was no mean feat for the Reds. United finished the campaign with five successive victories after Gordon Strachan earned a battling point at Anfield for the ten-man visitors in a 3-3 draw. Again cup exits were to enrage the boss with Oxford ending interest in the Littlewoods Cup and 31-goal top-scorer McClair missing a late penalty in a dramatic defeat to Arsenal at Highbury in the FA Cup. Long-serving duo Arthur Albiston and Kevin Moran left the club in the summer with Mark Hughes returning to Old Trafford and Jim Leighton introduced to take over goalkeeping duties from Chris Turner and Gary Walsh.
After finishing second, expectations were high for the 1988/89 term so a drop back to 11th place again simply wasn’t part of the plan and nobody was more frustrated than the manager. “The season did not just slip away, it collapsed,” he admitted. “People talk about a curse over United. Quite honestly, I do not know how to seriously view that sort of superstition. But no club can be expected to fulfil its potential without so many of its players for so long.” Injuries took their toll – Remi Moses and Nicky Wood had to retire – while Norman Whiteside, Anderson and Colin Gibson were all sidelined. Sir Alex said he was “embarrassed” at leaving the club so thin on the playing side after offloading the likes of Jesper Olsen, Peter Davenport and Gordon Strachan.
Six of the last eight league games ended in defeat and the time for drastic change had arrived. In the summer of 1989, a transfer spending spree injected some much-needed quality and character into the team. Neil Webb, Mike Phelan, Danny Wallace, Paul Ince and Gary Pallister, all Englishmen, arrived – even if Michael Knighton’s proposed takeover of the club fell through.
It’s fair to say the pressure was on the boss after his expensive outlay and he needed to deliver a trophy. A 13th-place finish in the table was way below expectations, even if the focus rightly shifted towards the FA Cup towards the end of the season. The new signings simply took time to gel, as Sir Alex readily admitted, and a 5-1 derby defeat to Manchester City was a chastening experience. Trailing to Millwall at half-time in February, it’s hard to imagine that United looked to be plunging into a relegation battle but second-half strikes from Wallace and Hughes turned things around. Lee Martin and Mark Robins supplied youthful exuberance and both would have a major impact on the FA Cup run.
Robins headed a vital winner at Nottingham Forest in the third round that silenced press calls for the manager’s sacking. Wins against Hereford, Newcastle and Sheffield United, all away from home, set up a thrilling semi-final with Oldham. After a 3-3 draw at Maine Road, Robins struck an extra-time winner in the replay to take the Reds to Wembley. Another 3-3 thriller, with Crystal Palace, tested the nerves but Sir Alex showed his ability to make the hardest decisions when dropping Jim Leighton for the replay in favour of Les Sealey. It was an incredibly brave call but Sealey kept a clean sheet and Martin fired the only goal to bring home the first silverware of the Ferguson reign.
The FA Cup triumph not only provided a little more breathing space but also enabled the club to enter the European Cup-Winners Cup, a trophy the Scot had already got his hands on during his time at Aberdeen. Playing in Europe has always been extremely important to United and the adventure was a memorable one for everybody involved. Pesci Munkas, Wrexham, Montpellier and Legia Warsaw may not represent the continent’s elite but there’s little doubt United were underdogs going into the final against Barcelona. On a wet night in Rotterdam, Hughes exacted revenge against his old club with a double to defeat Johan Cruyff’s side.
It was a pretty dramatic season domestically as well – even if sixth spot didn’t provide the sort of leap up the table the boss dearly wanted. Finishing behind Man City was disheartening, and the club were docked a point following a mass brawl with Arsenal’s players during a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford, an incident that had its roots in Nigel Winterburn’s goading of McClair for his penalty miss in his first season as a Red. There was also a return to Wembley in the Rumbelows Cup, only for the hard work of disposing of Liverpool, Arsenal (6-2 on an incredible night in North London with Lee Sharpe scoring a hat-trick) and Leeds to count for little in the end. Second Division side Sheffield Wednesday upset the odds in the final as Atkinson’s charges won with a goal from Stretford-born John Sheridan, thanks largely to an inspired display in goal by another ex-Red, Chris Turner.
But optimism was building that the wait since 1967 for the holy grail of the league title was not far away. United were competing for trophies again and, not only was Sharpe emerging as an exciting talent, but a left-winger possessing even more potential made his debut in the shape of Ryan Giggs. The building blocks had been put in place and the patience in Sir Alex was about to reap its rewards beyond everybody’s wildest dreams.
Sir Alex Timeline
1986-87: Sir Alex takes over; 2-0 loss at Oxford is his first game
1987-88: Brian McClair and Viv Anderson are his first signings
1987-88: McClair becomes the first player to break the 20-league goal barrier since Best
1987-88: United finish runners-up to Liverpool and exit the FA Cup at Arsenal
1988-89: A 5-1 derby defeat to City is a real low point
1988-89: United can only manage 11th place in Division One
1989-90: A spending spree brings in the likes of Paul Ince and Gary Pallister
1989-90: United win the FA Cup, Sir Alex’s first trophy as boss
1990-91: An on-field brawl with Arsenal leads to United being docked 1 point
1990-91: Ron Atkinson beats his successor in the League Cup final
1990-91: On a glorious night in Rotterdam, United win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup
The new manager is presented to the Old Trafford crowd
United’s Danes Jesper Olsen and John Sivebaek
Norman Whiteside in action against Norwich in 1986
Sir Alex at United’s photo-shoot back in 1987
Bryan Robson charges into Bruce Grobbelaar
Bryan Robson with new signing Brian McClair
Colin Gibson celebrates a goal against Derby in 1988
Bryan Robson with youngsters Russell Beardsmore, Lee Martin and Lee Sharpe
Michael Knighton juggles the ball ahead of the Arsenal game
Sir Alex with new signings Mike Phelan and Neil Webb
Mark Hughes forces a replay against Crystal Palace in 1990
Lee Martin strikes the winner in the 1990 FA Cup final replay
Les Sealey congratulates the boss on his first United trophy
United celebrate a famous victory over Barcelona in Rotterdam
Sir Alex with the European Cup-Winnners Cup