Sir Alex’s Reign: 1991-1996
Maybe Sir Alex was starting to believe talk of a ‘curse’ at Old Trafford after coming heartbreakingly close to ending a 25-year wait for the league title in 1992.
The championship had never seemed so close and yet so far away as United wilted in the run-in and Leeds came out on top, despite losing in both cup competitions to the Reds after the League Cup and FA Cup draws, on the same day, set up two fixtures at Elland Road. After winning the League Cup and Super Cup for the first time, with Brian McClair scoring both winners, a fixture pile-up contributed to the team’s downfall and the excrutiating defeat at Anfield provided the final nail in the coffin.
The boss prophetically said: “We’ve got the biggest and the best team in the game. If we all stick together, there is no limit to what we can achieve.” He was also safe in the knowledge that the Class of ’92 lifted the FA Youth Cup and would go on to supply a wealth of first-team options.
The inaugural Premier League season followed. Conceding the opening goal of the new era, to Brian Deane of Sheffield United, was an inauspicious start and a second successive defeat, 3-0 at home to Everton, was hardly the stuff of potential champions.
“There were troughs, of course, and, during those sticky patches, our confidence did not waiver,” stated the manager, who raided the transfer market in dramatic fashion to sign Eric Cantona from Leeds. Although the final winning margin was 10 points ahead of runners-up Aston Villa, the nerves were jangling again – none more so than when Sheffield Wednesday led at Old Trafford. Two late Steve Bruce headers sparked wild celebrations and the belief became stronger following wins against Coventry, Chelsea and Crystal Palace. Sir Matt Busby was amongst the crowd to celebrate in style with a 3-1 win against Blackburn at Old Trafford but this was only the start of a period of domination.
With a huge weight of expectation lifted off the boss’ shoulders, he led the team to their first-ever Double in the following season. Remarkably, only a Coca-Cola Cup final defeat to Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa denied a domestic clean sweep of trophies for the 1994 Reds – the side is often reckoned o be one of the best in the club’s history.
The extraordinary campaign provided a fitting tribute to Busby, who passed away in February, and United were favourites for the championship all season – even if a defeat to an Alan Shearer-inspired Blackburn in April put the cat amongst the pigeons. When Oldham were on the brink of winning the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley and putting the skids under the entire Double bid, Mark Hughes hit the most spectacular of volleys to force a replay, which the Reds won at a canter.
Nothing was going to stand in the team’s way, not even Chelsea, who had beaten United home and away with the only goal on both occasions coming from Gavin Peacock. The same player hit the woodwork at Wembley but Glenn Hoddle’s Blues were simply swept aside – 4-0 with Cantona nervelessly converting two penalties to rubber-stamp his emergence as the main man in a team full of big personalities. Some of the Reds’ football was truly breathtaking, even if the boss, predictably demanded more. “The disappointment of Europe was immense and no-one was more upset by it than I was,” he recalled. Yet football is always a game about fine margins and the following year, 1994/95 was to be a particularly cruel one with genuine cause for frustration.
Deprived of the talismanic Cantona due to his lengthy ban for the incident involving a Crystal Palace fan at Selhurst Park, United still pushed themselves to the brink of a second successive Double. Highlights included a record 9-0 annihilation of Ipswich – with Andy Cole, an overnight signing from Newcastle, scoring five times – and the 5-0 mauling of Manchester City in the derby as Andrei Kanchelskis grabbed a hat-trick.
But it all came down to the final two games of a long, hard season. Ludek Miklosko performed heroics as United failed to add to Brian McClair’s equaliser at West Ham on the last day of the Premier League campaign despite laying siege to the home goal. It meant Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn lifted the trophy despite a 2-1 defeat to his former club Liverpool. Unable to recover sufficiently for the FA Cup final a week later, the Reds again came up against a keeper in top form in Neville Southall as Paul Rideout’s header exacted revenge for the Toffees’ Wembley defeat 10 years earlier.
The Champions League also failed to provide any glory as a 4-0 battering by Barcelona, not aided by being forced to field a weakened team due to controversial selection rules, and 3-1 reverse to IFK Gothenburg put paid to any hopes of getting beyond the group stages. At least a 4-0 win against Galatasaray illustrated the potential coming through the ranks with David Beckham on the scoresheet.
How would United – and Sir Alex – respond to such disappointment? By clinching a second Double in 1995/96 as another campaign went down to the wire. TV pundit Alan Hansen famously warned: ‘You never win anything with kids’ after an opening day reverse at Aston Villa and the sale of Hughes, Kanchelskis and Paul Ince led many to question whether the boss was right to rely so heavily on youth. Those doubts faded when Newcastle, who once led the table by 12 points, were reeled in with Cantona and Peter Schmeichel in sensational form to complement the emergence of key youth products such as Beckham, the Nevilles, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.
Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan famously crumbled under the pressure in the run-in, with the media loving the manager’s mind games, and a 3-0 triumph at Middlesbrough on the final day brought the league trophy back home. There was still the small matter of the FA Cup final with Liverpool and captain Cantona had the final say with a dramatic late winner. At that time, it simply seemed as though life as a Reds fan could not get any better. How wrong that was to prove.
Sir Alex Timeline
1991-92: United win the League Cup and Super Cup for the first time
1991-92: The Reds stutter in the title race and lose out to Leeds
1992-93: Eric Cantona makes a shock move from Leeds to Old Trafford
1992-93: The 26-year wait comes to an end as United win the Premier League
1993-94: Roy Keane makes an English record £3.75m move from Forest
1993-94: The title is retained by an eight-point margin
1993-94: The Double is secured with a 4-0 FA Cup trouncing of Chelsea
1994-95: Cantona is suspended for nine months after an incident with a fan
1994-95: Agony in May as United are pipped to the League and FA Cup
1995-96: Sir Alex entrusts youth and sells Ince, Kanchelskis and Hughes
1995-96: A win at Middlesbrough brings the Premier League trophy back
1995-96: Cantona’s late volley vs. Liverpool clinches a second Double
The manager’s son Darren breaks into the first team
Brian McClair scores the Rumbelows Cup final winner against Forest
The fabled class of 92 start to make waves
The boss in 1992 with prize-winners Ryan Giggs and Gary Pallister
The manager salutes the crowd before the Blackburn game in 1993
The catalyst, Eric Cantona, with the Premier League trophy
The 26-year wait is over as Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson rejoice
The boss talks to his players during the Oldham semi-final
The manager and Sir Bobby Charlton show off another trophy
The great team of 1994 has sealed the Double at Wembley
Heads are bowed at Upton Park after the costly 1-1 draw
Paul Rideout heads home the FA Cup final winner
Eric Cantona is back with a bang – scoring against Liverpool
The players celebrating the title at the Riverside Stadium
Eric Cantona fires through a crowded box to beat Liverpool
Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates another Double in 1996