HARRY COLLINS looks at a goal widely acknowledged as the one that saved Alex Ferguson’s job, and paved the way for Manchester United’s success in the ’90s and beyond.
Time, a luxury rarely afforded in the modern game, an indulgence no longer offered to professionals in an industry that demands immediate success. Money has undeniably changed our sport forever, forcing owners and chairman into decisions focussed on the immediate future of a club, with no long-term plan or strategy, just self-preservation and security.
There was though a time before such riches, a time of dedication and honesty, a time that allowed for failure without tarnishing reputations and CV’s eternally. Seldom are managers given the opportunity to build a team or mould a club towards their own vision, an approach that previously yielded the formation of dominant teams and footballing dynasties.
Manchester United is a club steeped in history with success rooted firmly in the DNA of the European giant. Sir Alex Ferguson is famed for masterminding the most successful period in English football during his 26 years at the helm at the Theatre of Dreams. Ferguson steered the club to 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, a feat that saw the Red Devils reach the pinnacle of world football.
The Scot’s legacy will be remembered for the haul of silverware and the nurturing of a golden generation of local talent but his tenure did not start with the immediate success demanded today. In January 1990 a large number of Manchester United fans were calling for the dismissal of the former Aberdeen manager. In December, the famous Stretford End showcased a banner blaming Ferguson for ‘three years of excuses’ following a home defeat to Crystal Palace.
As Fergie’s men travelled to an in-form Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup rumours circled that a defeat would be the manager’s last in charge of the great club. A defeat looked more than likely and a win would arguably only offer the boss a stay of execution with performances in the league far from pleasing the boardroom or the fans.
An away tie in the competition became a regular occurrence for the Red Devils in 1990 but the trip to Nottingham in the third round remains one of the most pivotal fixtures in the history of Manchester United. There may not have been a trophy on offer but the crowd of just over twenty-three-thousand witnessed a performance that would eventually deliver countless titles to the visitors.
Ferguson faced a fork in the road, a fixture that, in hindsight, would determine the footballing landscape for decades. Nottingham Forest were favourites, a tough, resilient side that could hurt Ferguson’s team whilst remaining resolute in defence.
Mark Robins, a 20-year-old known for his instinctive finishing, would be Fergie’s saviour, earning the chewing gum-chomping Scot a reprieve at The City Ground. Nicknamed Rummenigge at the FA’s School of Excellence, the striker produced a decisive header in just his third senior start for the club. A product of Manchester United’s revitalised academy, Robins was playing alongside his compatriot and hero Mark Hughes in a three-pronged attack that also featured Brian McClair.
It was the two Mark’s that combined for the winner with Hughes providing an exquisite cross with the outside of his boot that bounced in the penalty area. Robins beat Stuart Pearce to the pass and nodded the ball home, a strike known as the goal that saved Fergie.
It is inconceivable that United would have enjoyed such success without Sir Alex Ferguson, who always remained certain that his position was safe. With storm clouds gathering over the Scottish manager we will never know if Mark Robins’ goal did, in fact, protect his manager from the proverbial axe. Manchester United would go on to lift the FA Cup in 1990, Sir Alex’s first silverware at the club. Lee Martin’s winner in the final replay enough to beat Crystal Palace, the team that nudged Sir Alex to the brink back in December.
The Scot would go on to build his own dynasty at Old Trafford witnessing some monumental moments and some decisive goals that shaped the face of English football. Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s winner in Barcelona and Steve Bruce’s header in 1993 are two that spring instantly to mind. Inconceivable though it may seem, these instants forever etched into the history of Manchester United may not have happened but for the golden goal of Mark Robins in January 1990.