Converted Full Backs and Wingers: How United Collapsed After 1968 Before Fergie’s Fledglings Replaced Busby’s Babes
Converted Full Backs and Wingers: How United Collapsed After 1968 Before Fergie’s Fledglings Replaced Busby’s Babes
The evolution of soccer is primarily to do with the rule with regard to substitutes. Before it was allowed to replace an injured, or unsuccessful player, they’d to be strong and reliable in their position, so with such a system it was difficult to break into a team. Players couldn’t be tried, and then replaced, if inadequate, which had repercussions in terms of tactics. In the early days of Manchester United, for example, who were Newton Heath from 1878 until 1902, when ‘the Heathens’, who’d played in gold and green, adopted red shirts and became ‘the red devils’, the half back line had predominated. What were essentially three center backs held the middle of the field, with the central back being the mainstay of a defense including wing backs, who in the modern era became full backs. After what became known as ‘the role of the midfield general’ gained in importance, the number of half backs were reduced to two center halves; defending between left and right full backs, while in midfield were generally the more creative members of what had been the half back line, and another midfield player who took on the mantle of creative genius.
Protection of players from referees, to ensure against roughhousing, and to help targeted opponents continuing on the field, alleviated the problem of soccer being for those with physical strength only, which encouraged the evolution of the game from a half back line to center backs; a midfield general and a more skillful creative powerhouse to assist and prompt the forwards. United owed the half back line of Rick Duckworth, Charlie Roberts, and Scot Alex Bell, for their early success; as league champions in 1907-08, and FA Cup winners in 1908-09, when Scots’ center forward, Sandy Turnbull, reacted well to a shot from England’s Harold Halse that came off the bar. Turnbull then struck the ball home to give the club victory against Bristol City, 1-0. When United again won the FA Cup in 1948 against Blackpool, 4-2, the half back line format remained predominant, with England’s John Anderson, Allenby Chilton and Henry Cockburn, and when the team won the title in 1951-52 the playing formula was relatively unchanged.
Matt Busby, a former right inside forward (wing half) for Manchester City and Liverpool, was appointed manager of Manchester United in 1945, and it became the policy of the club to find new young talent to develop, rather than spend in the transfer market. The results were undreamed of by other clubs of the period. With the purchase of just a few exceptional talents, like Tommy Taylor for ₤29,999, who’d become England’s center forward, Busby managed to build upon the 1951-52 success, a championship winning side for 1955-56 and 1956-57, and a squad rotation system that looked to sweep all before it for decades to come. Busby had players recommended by scouts, watched by the coaching staff at Old Trafford, and then they were brought to United on the strength of what they were told, or what Busby saw when alerted by reports of a good prospect.
The importance of the half back line remained a constant, although the skills of players like Eddie Coleman and Duncan Edwards, with England’s Mark Jones as the stopper center half, emphasized United’s revolutionary approach towards attacking soccer. With two midfield players, that is, England’s Coleman and Edwards, United could field five forwards; England left wing, David Pegg, Ireland’s inside left, Liam Whelan; center forward, Tommy Taylor; England’s inside left, Dennis Viollet, and England right wing, Johnny Berry. However, the plethora of talent at United meant that team could have been replaced twice over without any noticeable deterioration in results. The right full back berth was England’s Bill Foulkes’, who’d move into the center half position after the Munich air crash of February 6, 1958, which killed eight members of the side returning from a European Cup tie against what was then Yugoslavia’s (Serbia’s) Red Star Belgrade.
Although the team had drawn, 3-3, to progress to the semi-final, after a home leg won, 2-1, hopes for the winning of the trophy that season were dashed by the untimely deaths of center half, Mark Jones; England full-back, Geoff Bent; winger, David Pegg; left half, Duncan Edwards; right half, Eddie Colman; inside right, Bill Whelan, and center forward, Tommy Taylor. Geoff Bent was understudy to England captain Roger Byrne, who’d been a goal scoring left winger. There was such a wealth of wing talent at United, for example, upcoming legend for fans standing on the terraces at the Stretford End, Bobby Charlton, was an England left winger, who was just beginning to share the load of responsibility for making and taking goals with David Pegg, that Busby had given Byrne the role of left back. However, Roger also died at Munich, so decimating England’s chances of winning the World Cup in Sweden that summer, which Brazil won, 5-2, beating Sweden in the Final, and England, who’d been expected to mount a real challenge for the trophy, lost a group play-off against Russia to miss a quarter final.
Although Matt managed to rebuild the squad, and ultimately challenge again for the European Cup, that is, Manchester United won the FA Cup of 1962-63, 3-1, against Leicester City, after Scots’ forward, Denis Law, had been brought back to the English championship for ₤115,000 from Italy’s Torino, where he’d been sold there by Manchester City for ₤110,000, before the commencement of the 1961-62 season, and starred at Wembley alongside Scots’ compatriot, forward David Herd, who scored twice to Law’s once. Busby’s United went on to win the English title in 1964-65, and again in 1966-67, largely through the discovery of George Best, a mercurial winger from Northern Ireland, who just about played everywhere in United’s forward line, while scoring goals that other players could only dream of.
Best was helped by the decision of the English Football Association to allow a single substitute for each game, which allowed attacking play to become more adventurous on the understanding that, if a player was injured, a substitute could enter the fray, although it meant the emergence of the utility player, who could fit into defense, midfield, or a striker’s role. England’s David Sadler could play center forward, or center half, but his versatility had been used to make it possible for United to shore up their defense in case of injury. The utility player made players like Sadler less valuable in terms of their dual contribution, that is, positional specialization became much more important. Moreover, the fact of the utility player’s specialized substitute role tended to hamper, rather than help, their progress.
As he was expected to fit in anywhere, Northern Ireland’s David McCreery, for example, substituting for England left winger, Gordon Hill, in successive FA Cup Finals, that is, against Southampton in 1976, which United lost, 0-1, and against Liverpool in 1977, which United won, 2-1, wasn’t really able to develop a career as an outfield player, beyond his utility midfielder’s role. Sadler would discover that he would become nominated as substitute more often than he was used to, because he could fit in up front, or at the center of defense, that is, his importance as someone who could join the attack, or move back into defense in the event of injury, lessened to the extent that he was perceived to be able to fulfill that role from the substitutes’ bench, while better forwards and central defenders were selected ahead of his claims to make the central defender’s or striker’s position his own.
In the 1967-68 season substitutes were permitted for tactical reasons, that is, a non-injured player could be replaced for strategic advantage from ‘67, for example, a defender for a forward; if the team needed a draw, or to defend a single goal lead that, to the manager and/or coaching staff in the dugout with the substitutes’ bench at the side of the pitch, looked precarious.
Matt Busby became Sir Matt Busby after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, following the club’s winning of the European Cup at London’s Wembley stadium in 1968. Although Denis Law was injured and couldn’t play, Charlton scored with a rare header, flicked on and past Benfica of Portugal’s ‘keeper Henrique, after a cross from the left, before midfielder, Jaime da Silva Graça, put through after good work by left winger, José Augusto, and center forward, José Torres, leveled the scoring for Benfica,1-1. The contest went to extra time, and in the 93rd minute England’s Stepney took a long goal kick which was headed on to Best by Law’s teenage England replacement for the evening, Brian Kidd. Best escaped the defenders to round the Benfica ‘keeper, and roll the ball on into an empty net, 2-1. A header from Sadler was saved by Henrique on 95 minutes, but came to Kidd, who headed it in, 3–1. Charlton completed the scoring in the 99th minute, blasting home a pass from Kidd, 4–1.
Everything then seemed possible for United, but defeat, 1-2, over two legs in the Intercontinental Cup Final with Estudiantes de La Plata of Argentina, South American winners of the Copa Da Libertadores, that is, that continent’s equivalent of the European Cup, together with European Cup semi final defeat to A.C. Milan, 1-2, on aggregate, after losing, 0-2, at the San Siro stadium in Italy, signaled a collapse that would see United without a major trophy until 1977.
Busby retired, and former United half back, reserve team coach, Wilf McGuinness, took on the full managerial role. However, defeats in successive seasons in the League cup semi finals to Manchester City, 1969-70, 3-4, on aggregate, and to Aston Villa, 1970-71, 2-3, on aggregate, together with FA Cup semi final defeat in 1969-70 to Leeds in a second replay, 0-1, after the first two games had ended, 0-0, revealed flaws in Busby’s managerial reign.
A close scrutiny of the way in which Busby selected his squad, revealed his method of maintaining control with increasing age, and its direct relation to the role of the substitute; together with the developing concept of the half back line. Busby’s approach seems to have been to move left and right sided players infield; if he thought they could do a job there. Consequently, the Manchester United squad seems littered with full backs and wingers, who could play at center back, in midfield, or as forwards and/or wingers, for a good part of the period before and after Busby’s retirement.
For the 1968-69 season’s campaigning, the club had four full backs, that is, Ireland’s Shay Brennan, who’d started as a left winger, after the death of David Pegg; Scot Francis Burns, Ireland’s Tony Dunne, and Scot Frank Kopel, with Bill Foulkes at center half, who’d been a right back before the Munich air crash. George Best, England’s John Aston, Scots Willie Morgan and Jimmy Ryan, were all wingers, although George had become a main striker, top scoring with 19 goals that season, and Bobby Charlton, who played behind the forwards in midfield, as a deep lying center forward, had been a left winger. Consequently, apart from England’s Stepney, and English reserve ‘keeper Jimmy Rimmer, ten of Busby’s outfield players were make-do, and David Sadler was a utility player, who could play center forward and/or center half; depending on the needs of the team.
Steve James, an English center back, played 21 games, age 19 at the start of the 1968-69 campaign, and England’s Brian Kidd made 28 starts, age 20 at the beginning of the season, for 1 goal returned by the close of the campaign. Scots, Law, 14 goals in 30 starts, midfield playmaker, Paddy Crerand, and utility midfielder, John Fitzpatrick, made up the recognizable remainder of the squad, apart from midfield destroyer, England’s Nobby Stiles, who’d retire, half-blind in the tackle, because he took his contact lenses off to play, although after Busby took over the reins again in December 1970, when McGuinness had buckled under pressure to succeed, and Stiles, who’d made but 8 starts in 1969-70, was recalled to strengthen the team, and made 17 starts, he wouldn’t formally retire until the end of 1970-71, when United appointed Leicester City manager, Frank O’ Farrell, to take over for the 1971-72 season.
The 1969-70 season saw little change apart from the arrival from Arsenal of Scot Ian Ure at center back to limit James’ appearances for the season to 2 starts. Irish winger Don Givens, who’d go on to play for Queens Park Rangers, and score 13 goals when London’s QPR ran a close second to Liverpool in the 1975-76 English league championship race, made 4 starts and 4 more as substitute, and Paul Edwards emerged as a full back with 18 starts. A bizarre aspect to the campaign was Denis Law, the most feared striker in Europe, watching Italian midfielder, Carlo Sartori, start in three FA Cup semi final games against Leeds United, before their Scots’ captain, and midfield dynamo, Billy Bremner, broke the stalemate with a 9th minute strike, 0-1. United had already lost the League Cup semi final to Manchester City, 3-4, on aggregate.
Although Busby resumed the reins as manager in December 1970, United had again lost the League Cup semi final; this time to Aston Villa, 2-3, with Brian Kidd doing his best and scoring both United’s goals. Scots Ian Donald and Willie Watson, and English players Tommy O’ Neil and Tony Young, increased the full back compliment, although Best with 18 and Law with 15 goals suggested there might have been life in the old dog; if sacked manager Wilf McGuinness had focused on producing more than left and right full backs for the improvement of the squad.
By the time Frank O’ Farrell had the reins, a genuine influx of fresh talent was required at Old Trafford, and future Scotland and Manchester United captain and center back, Martin Buchan, was brought from Aberdeen for a then club record transfer fee of ₤120,000. Buchan would lift the FA Cup in the 1977 Final, after Liverpool were beaten, 2-1, with goals from striker Stuart Pearson on 51 minutes, and strike partner, Jimmy Greenhoff, on 55 minutes, whose deflection off his chest from a Lou Macari attempt at goal sandwiched Liverpool midfielder Jimmy Case’s thunderbolt equalizer on 53 minutes. However, despite O’ Farrell’s promoting Northern Ireland striker, Sammy McIlroy, who billed as ‘the last of the Busby Babes’, on November 6th 1971 scored on his debut at Maine Road against Manchester City in a 3-3 draw, and finished with 4 goals in 16 appearances and 8 starts, the club would be relegated in 1973-74, partly because O’ Farrell’s other major signing from Nottingham Forest, winger Ian Storey Moore, who played 11 times that 1971-72 season for 5 goals, incurred an injury that would cause his retirement. Although the team began to gel, and the club were top of the league at Christmas, Manchester United finished 8th. Best got 18 goals, Law 13, and Kidd 10, but It was the last occasion they’d flatter to deceive.
When Scots’ national team manager, Tommy Docherty, agreed to take over after O’ Farrell’s firing, it was to clear away the dead wood, and it wasn’t evident to everyone that the phoenix would rise from the fire. ‘The Doc’ inherited Wyn Davies, a Welsh forward bought from Manchester City on September 14, 1972, who scored on his September 23rd debut at home against Derby, 3-0, and prolific Scots’ striker Ted MacDougall, who O’ Farrell had brought from Third Division Bournemouth on September 27th, intending to pair him with Davies, and who also scored on his debut at home against Birmingham on October 14th, 1-0. However, after his arrival, Docherty bought Scots’ full back Alex Forsyth from Partick Thistle, future Scotland center back, Jim Holton, from Third Division Shrewsbury, center forward, Scot Lou Macari, from Celtic, Irish midfielder Mick Martin from Ireland’s Bohemians, and Scot George Graham from Arsenal, where he’d won the UEFA Cup in 1969-70 and the FA Cup and league championship ‘double’ in 1970-71, as a direct replacement for retired midfield maestro, Paddy Crerand. Davies and MacDougall managed only 9 goals between them, while the old war dog, Bobby Charlton, top scored with 6, before retiring at the close of the season’s campaigning, and left United barely avoiding relegation in 18th position in the table.
Despite the team’s beginning to take shape in 1973-74, which was Docherty’s first full season in charge, the club were relegated. Another Scot, left full back, and sometime center half, Stewart Houston, arrived from Third Division Brentford; Irish left winger, Gerry Daly, came from Bohemians, and midfielder, Scot Jim McCalliog, from Wolves. The only real change Docherty instigated in the 1974-75 season, when United won the Second Division title, was center forward, Stuart Pearson, who scored 17 league goals in the campaign to return United to the top tier of English soccer, and it’d be Pearson that’d get the opening goal in the 1977 FA Cup Final; squeezed with force at a run under the diving Liverpool ‘keeper, Ray Clemence, 1-0, as the team ran out winners, 2-1, so preventing the Merseysiders from achieving the unique treble of FA Cup, league championship, and European Cup, which Liverpool secured, 3-1, against German Bundesliga club, Borussia Mönchengladbach, at the Stadio Olimpico, Rome, Italy. It was a far cry from Sammy McIlroy’s top scoring with 6 goals for the 1973-74 relegation season. McIlroy was the midfield general for United’s beating of Liverpool in that FA Cup Final of 1977, as the club began its slow climb back to the summit of English soccer.
With three substitutes possible, after an English FA decision in 1996, and five players to choose from on the bench, increased to seven in 2008-09, Manchester United would take advantage of the attacking options afforded to themselves and attain the treble in 1998-99, with victory over Newcastle United, 2-0, in the FA Cup Final. Able to select from five players, including Dutch ‘keeper, Raimond van der Gouw, Swedish left winger, Jesper Blomqvist, was the outfield player Ferguson kept back for the Bayern confrontation. Former spurs’ striker, Teddy Sheringham, came on in the 9th minute of the FA Cup Final, after an injury to United captain and midfield general, Ireland’s Roy Keane, who’d then miss the Final against Bayern, and Sheringham opened the scoring in the 11th minute against Newcastle, 1-0. England’s creative midfield goal scorer, Paul Scholes, got the second on 53 minutes, 2-0, and although Andy Cole was replaced on 60 minutes by Trinidad and Tobago striker, Dwight Yorke, manager Alex Ferguson’s substituting of Scholes with Dutch center back, Jaap Stam, on 78 minutes, signaled that the game was effectively over and that the club were preparing for Bayern Munich, who were beaten, 2-1, in the European Cup Final, staged at the Nou Camp stadium of Spain’s FC Barcelona. Sheringham, on as a 67th minute substitute for Jesper Blomqvist, scored on 91 minutes for the team to draw level with Bayern, who’d taken the lead through a 6th minute direct free kick from right winger, Mario Basler, and before Norway’s striker, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, on as an 81st minute substitute for starting center forward, Andy Cole, struck on 93 minutes to give the victory to United. The league title had been secured with 79 points from Arsenal on 78, through a 2-1 win at home to Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of the league campaign.
After the 1977 FA Cup Final defeat of Liverpool , Tommy Docherty was replaced by QPR manager, Dave Sexton, who’d begin bringing genuine quality players to the club through the transfer market. First to arrive were Scots Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan, Leeds United’s center half and center forward, both of whom had been instrumental in Leeds reaching the European Cup Final of 1974-75, which Leeds had lost to Bayern Munich, 2-0, and McQueen couldn’t play because of suspension, after being red carded against Barcelona. Leeds had won at Elland Road, 2-1, and drew at the Nou Camp, 1-1, to reach the Final, 3-2 on aggregate, but McQueen was sent off on 65 minutes, allowing Spain’s Barca to equalize fellow Scot Peter Lorimar’s 7th minute opener, through forward, Manuel Clares, on 69 minutes. When Manchester United beat Leeds, 2-1, in the FA Cup semi final of 1976-77, with goals from Jimmy Greenhoff, and Steve Coppell, the right winger Docherty had bought to replace United’s ageing Scots’ captain, Willie Morgan, it was something like revenge for McGuinness’ defeat to the Elland Road Club, 0-1, in the previously deadlocked 2nd replay of the 1969-70 FA Cup semi final, before United went on to beat Liverpool in the Final, 2-1. Sexton’s other major coup was to take England’s Chelsea captain, and creative midfielder, Ray Wilkins, to Manchester United for ₤825, 000, which was almost as much as the club had paid for both McQueen and Jordan. When prolific Nottingham Forest center forward, Gary Birtles, arrived for ₤1.25 m in October 1980, it looked like United had the team for success, but Birtles didn’t score in 25 league games.
The period of blaming United managers for the side’s lack of trophies had arrived. When Sexton sold exciting, but unpredictable England left winger, Gordon Hill, to Derby County for ₤250,000 in 1978, Wales’ and Wrexham winger, Mickey Thomas, was bought as his replacement. However, although United made it to the FA Cup Final of 1979, they lost to Arsenal, 2-3, despite Herculean efforts from an injured Gordon McQueen, who unable to play in the back line, was put up front, where he could do least damage, and scored from an 86th minute free kick on the right that went over everyone’s head, but was turned back in low, where McQueen, who’d been up for an attempt at a headed goal, along with Jordan, struck to give ‘the red devils’ hope, 1-2. Arsenal, through a ball clipped back from the touchline at the right of the goalpost, finding England’s midfield anchor, Brian Talbot, had taken the lead on 12 minutes, as Talbot powered in to strike. Ireland’s center forward, Frank Stapleton, headed in at the far post from a cross on the right on 43 minutes, which sent ‘the Gunners’ into the half time break with what had seemed an unassailable lead, 2-0. However, inspired by McQueen’s ’never say die’ attitude, Sammy McIlroy accepted a long ball through the middle, and escaped Arsenal defenders to squeak in a shot that just trickled inside the left upright, so equalizing in the 88th minute, 2-2, but Arsenal’s England center forward, Alan Sunderland, scored in the dying moments of the game, following good work on the left from midfield genius, Ireland’s Liam Brady, who set up England’s Graham Rix to cross from close by the corner flag to where Sunderland stretched out his right leg and slid in the ball with his boot at the far post on 89 minutes. United fans were left wondering if Hill’s play on the left would have been more successful than Thomas’. Sexton’s purchase of Birtles had cast too much doubt on his judgment as a manager and West Bromwich Albion boss, Ron Atkinson, was appointed to replace him for the 1981-82 season.
The period of heavy criticism for United managers who bought big, and showed little for the outlay in terms of trophies, began with Sexton, and finished with Atkinson, who won the FA Cup twice in 1983 and 1985. Wilkins and future England captain, Bryan Robson, who Ron brought from W.B.A. for ₤1.5 m, and was easily the best English midfield creator-destroyer of his generation, combined well to force a draw, 2-2, in the FA Cup Final of ’83 with Brighton and Hove Albion of the South Coast. On 14 minutes, a cross from deep on the right had given a chance for Brighton center forward, Scotland’s Gordon Smith, to head the ball past United ‘keeper, Gary Bailey, 0-1, but Frank Stapleton, who Ron brought from Arsenal for the commencement of the 1981-82 season for ₤900,000, after the half time break got on the end of a 55th minute cross from England right back, Mike Duxbury, to slot the ball in at the far post, 1-1. Wilkins, deep on the right, then curled a 72nd minute spectacular long range shot into the top left corner of the Brighton net to give United the lead, 2-1, before a corner to Brighton on the right was driven low to the edge of the box in the 87th minute, where it was driven in towards goal, and found England’s center back, Trevor Stevens, who slammed the ball past Bailey, 2-2.
In the replay, on 25 minutes Robson scored with a low left footed drive into the right corner of the Brighton goal, after the ball was played back to him from inside the box to the edge of the area by Welsh wing, Alan Davies, who was in the side because of injury to Steve Coppell. Northern Ireland teenage center forward, Norman Whiteside, at 18 years an Atkinson protégé, headed in a 30th minute cross from the left, and to the right of Brighton ‘keeper Graham Moseley. A left footed free kick on 44 minutes from an Atkinson buy from Ipswich Town, Dutch midfielder, Arnold Muhren, deep in the left of midfield, found Robson, who sent in a looping back header, and the ball was headed down in the center of goal by McQueen to where Robson was running in to strike home inside the left upright. After Robson was dragged down by Stevens in the penalty area, Muhren drove a low penalty to the right of the Brighton ‘keeper Moseley, on 62 minutes, to complete the scoring, 4-0.
United’s victory over Everton, 1-0, in the 1985 FA Cup Final, was both less complicated, and more so. Northern Ireland center back, Kevin Moran, was sent off on 78 minutes, after bringing down Everton midfield strong man, Peter Reid, when he was clear through on goal, which left the depleted side to play a canny game of counter attack, after defending deep against eleven players to their ten. The game went to extra time, and on 110 minutes, that is, 5 minutes into a second half of 15 minutes, Whiteside wide on the right, cut in to curl a low shot around Everton's Welsh left back, Pat Van Den Hauwe, which beat unsighted ‘keeper, Neville Southall, and found the bottom left corner of the net.
The previous season saw Atkinson getting 11 goals from Sexton import Birtles, and 13 from Stapleton, who went on to top score in 1982-83 with 14, and 1983-84 again with 13. However upcoming Wales’ striker, Mark Hughes, top scored in 1984-85, with 16 goals to Frank’s 6, although United were beginning to play as the fans wanted. The previous season Atkinson had brought Scots’ left winger, Arthur Graham from Leeds, but for the 1984-85 season ‘Big Ron’ had obtained for ₤350,000, from Dutch club Ajax of Amsterdam, the services of Denmark’s Jesper Olsen on the left wing, with Scot Gordon Strachan, brought for ₤500,000 from Scotland’s Aberdeen, where Alex Ferguson was manager, on the right wing.
Atkinson’s purchase of Alan Brazil for ₤625,000, a center forward from Ipswich, didn’t really work. Brazil only managed 5 goals in 17 appearances in 1984-85, but what really annoyed the supporters was the sale of Ray Wilkins to A. C. Milan for ₤1. 5 before the season began. Moreover, Atkinson compounded his sin by investing poorly in bringing forwards Terry Gibson from Coventry in January 1986, who scored just once in 23 appearances, and Peter Davenport from Nottingham Forest in March 1986, while finalizing a ₤2 m deal with Barcelona for top scorer, with 17 goals that season, Mark Hughes. Although Davenport top scored in 1986-87, those 14 goals weren’t enough to prevent Ron from being sacked, and Alex Ferguson was appointed manager on November 6, 1986.
Alex had done the impossible at Aberdeen and won a European trophy, the UEFA Cup in 1983 against Real Madrid of Spain, 2-1, followed by success in the European Super Cup against Germany’s winners of the European Cup, Hamburger SV, 2-0. Among Ferguson’s first decisions was to find a replacement for the waning powers of Stapleton, who went to Ajax for ₤100,000, and Alex signed Celtic striker, Brian McClair, for the 1987-88 season for ₤850,000; a decision the club never regretted. United would go on to capture 13 league titles, before Sir Alex’s retirement after the last in 2012-13, which together with European Cup triumphs in 1999 and 2008 meant that the buck had stopped, when Queen Elizabeth knighted him, after Bayern Munich were beaten, 2-1, in the European Cup Final of 1999. With Scot McClair’s 24 goals in 1987-88, and the arrival of Norwich City center half, Steve Bruce, signed for ₤900,000 on December 18th, United finished runners up in the league to Liverpool. Although 9 points behind the Merseysiders’ 90, it was significant success for the squad, because United hadn’t won the championship since their 1966-1967 triumph.
Mark Hughes was brought back from exile for the 1988-89 season’s campaigning, and on April 18th the club signed for ₤200,000, 16 year old left winger, Lee Sharpe, from Fourth Division Torquay United. Although Hughes again top scored with 14 goals in 1988-89, the club finished a disappointing 11th in the league, and Ferguson moved to strengthen the squad for the 1989-90 season, with the ₤750,000 close season signing of Norwich City’s defensive midfielder, Mike Phelan; Nottingham Forest’s midfield playmaker, Neil Webb, for ₤1. 5m, and early on in the season center back, Gary Pallister, arrived from Middlesboro for ₤2.3 m, while West Ham United agreed to part with their self-styled ‘guv’nor’, a strong tackling ball distributor, midfielder Paul Ince, for ₤1.7 m. However, despite the huge financial investment, and the wealth of talent advertised, by September 9 United had lost three games in succession; against Derby away, 0-2; Norwich at Old Trafford, 0-2, and Everton away, 2-3. Ferguson moved quickly to sign Southampton winger, Danny Wallace, who renowned for his electric pace and verve, arrived for ₤1. 2 m on September 16, and thereafter assisted Hughes to easily become the team’s top scorer again that season, but with only 13 goals. Many armchair punters believed Ferguson’s sacking was an inevitability, after a 1-5 defeat to arch rivals Manchester City at Maine Road, but it was the FA Cup, and 20 year old striker, Mark Robins, who’d started one game and made 9 substitute appearances the previous 1988-89 season, and would make 10 starts, with 7 appearances as a substitute, for a return of 7 league goals for 1989-90, who saved the side with a headed goal from a curling Hughes cross in the 56th minute away against Nottingham Forest on January 7th in the 3rd round, to give United a breathing space, 1-0, which would ultimately restore their confidence, as they progressed to a Final against Crystal Palace, which culminated in a 3-3 draw, and went to a replay.
In the 17th minute, Palace center back, Gary O'Reilly, headed in from a free-kick, but on 35 minutes, McClair, converted from a striker`s role into midfield, like so many of his predecessors, made a run down the right wing, and floated a cross to the back post, where United captain Robson headed in, 1-1. In the second half, a cross-shot from right midfielder, Webb, found its way to Hughes, who fired low and into the corner on 62 minutes. Palace substitute, forward Ian Wright, had an immediate impact on 72 minutes, when he ran past United defenders to slot past Scots` `keeper, Jim Leighton, 2–2. In extra time Palace winger, John Salako, floated a cross to the back post where Wright volleyed in on 92 minutes, 2-3. In the second period of extra time, United`s winger, Danny Wallace, provided a through ball for Hughes to chase, and he calmly angled the ball past the onrushing Palace `keeper, Nigel Martyn, 3-3, on 113 minutes. Scotland `keeper Leighton, bought by Ferguson from Aberdeen in 1988 for ₤750,000 to replace retired Gary Bailey, took so much criticism for his failure to prevent Palace scoring, Ferguson replaced him for the replay with Les Sealey, who’d played only 2 league games towards season’s end, after being loaned by Luton in December ‘89, and who kept a clean sheet, but it was a run down the length of the pitch by a ‘Fergie Fledgling’, Lee Martin, from his left full back position, that ended with Neil Webb diverting the ball into his path, and he crashed in the only goal of the replay into the top left corner of the Palace net on 59 minutes, 1-0, and the Ferguson era was underway.