It is hard to believe now but way back in 1989, Manchester United diehard Pete Molyneux unfurled a controversial banner calling for the club’s manager Alex Ferguson to resign (below). Even harder to believe is that its sentiments very much captured the mood of the times amongst United’s fanbase.
Almost 30 years on, it is a banner that has a special place in the folklore of the Old Trafford club – and the football of my lifetime. Ever the opportunist, Molyneux even had the temerity to write a book about his adventures as he sought to make light of his 15 minutes of fame.
I think about that banner often and whenever a hapless player gets singled out by the boo boys in his own support or an under pressure manager is forced to run the gauntlet of a baying mob encircling the tunnel. As a warning from history it couldn’t be more eloquent. Sadly, it is a reminder that fickle, entitled fans are one of our great game’s true constants.
Long before knighthoods and Magnificent Trebles, long before the Class of 92, Ronaldo and Rooney. Long before The Bosman Ruling and the dawn of the Premier League in 1992 Alex Ferguson swept south from Aberdeen in 1986. And he arrived at Old Trafford as a man in a hurry.
As Aberdeen boss Ferguson, along with his friend Jim McLean at Dundee United, had cowed Glasgow’s Old Firm with an indomitable, modern Aberdeen side built in the manager’s image. It is a fantastic achievement in context. Matched by no-one before or since.
The Dons had beaten the mighty Bayern Munich and Real Madrid en-route to winning the European Cup Winners Cup in Gothenburg. With nothing more to achieve in Scotland, the manager accepted the brief of returning Man United to the former glories they had enjoyed under another great Scot, Sir Matt Busby.
Much has subsequently been made of a ‘drinking culture’ at Old Trafford, a loss of focus and a club malaise that bedevilled everything from training and transfer business to preparation and youth development. What was required was what United got: root and branch reform, cultural revolution, enacted by a far-sighted, paternalistic dictator with an unerring eye for detail and the charisma to lead and inspire from the front.
It is all true, of course, and much of it now exists within the realm of myth, but back in 1989, the world looked very different, far more cut and dried.
For Ferguson, and indeed anyone in football then, ‘winning’ meant only one thing, smashing Liverpool’s stranglehold at home and in Europe.
Liverpool’s last league title was in 1990, and Ferguson did not win the first of his 11 championships until the 1992/93 season. In between, Arsenal and Leeds United both won the league.
Nonetheless, everyone who knows football, who lived through those times, understands the significance of the Old Trafford boss’ newspaper response to the goading criticism of Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen, an ex-Anfield stalwart, when Ferguson said: “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that.”
Make no mistake, Pete Molyneux’s Ta Ra Fergie banner was unfurled in the midst of some dark days for Ferguson and United.
Though you’d never have known it then, a Man United side containing the seeds of later greatness lost 5-1 against a rampant, dynamic Manchester City team that flattered to deceive. The air was full of sporadic and mutinous chants of “Bryan Robson’s red and white army”. The Guardian’s Daniel Taylor recalls that the Red News fanzine printed a “crisis” edition calling for Ferguson’s removal. “Resign now,” one columnist implored. “Do the decent thing for Manchester United Football Club.”
Fast forward to the present day and there is no doubt, that in the same scenario, at a PLC club, that the manager would be long gone, fired by impatient executives, spurred on by revolting fans.
But regardless of the fact that Sir Alex now claims that he retained the backing of his chairman ahead of a season-defining Third Round FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest on January 7, 1990 there is no doubt that United were in full-blown crisis mode. Metaphorically, the manager was staring down the barrel of a poised and loaded gun and the vultures were gathering, ready to devour the carcass if his side failed at the City Ground.
Fergie’s expensively revamped, but injury-hit United arrived in Nottingham on the back of eight league matches without a win. To make matters worse, United took to the field without the unavailable Bryan Robson, Neil Webb, Paul Ince, Mal Donaghy, Danny Wallace and Lee Sharpe.
But still Ferguson had a gut instinct that fortunes were about to turn in his favour according to local newspaper correspondent Stewart Mathieson of the Manchester Evening News. Mathieson reported that on the morning of the match a member of Old Trafford’s staff placed a bet for Ferguson on United winning the FA Cup at 16-1.
Mark Robins’ goal won the day and the rest, as they say, is history.
In a Telegraph interview of 2016, Mark Robins recalls what was to be a career-defining moment for both himself and his manager.
He said: “I remember the ball being on the touchline and Lee Martin playing the ball to Mark Hughes. They thought the ball had crossed the line for a throw-in, but it hadn’t. Mark Hughes put in a sublime pass, with the outside of his foot, and it sat up nicely for me to run on to and hit into the far corner
I’d always been told to hit the ball back in the direction it had come but Sir Alex wrote in his book that normally I would have run on to the ball and flicked it into the other corner and missed. But, because Stuart Pearce pushed me in the back, he made me put it into the far corner. It was the goal that began my journey in professional football.
After the game, all we knew was that beating Forest was a big, big boost. We could not have known that win would set us on our way to winning the FA Cup
When you are 20, as I was at the time, all you are worried about is keeping your place in the side and I knew that goal would help me do that.
Although, my goal in the Third Round is the one everybody keeps asking me about, for me, the winner I scored against Oldham in the semi-final, was far more significant because it got us to the final at Wembley.”
The margins couldn’t have been smaller, a nudge in the back making the striker’s mind up as to where to guide the ball.
We now know that United went on to win the 1990 FA Cup and then return United to the their former glories (and more) at home and abroad. The roll-call of Sir Alex’s achievements is a matter of record.
But what if Robins’ shot had drifted wide under a successful challenge from Pearce, what then?
Would we be looking at a landscape where Liverpool still dominated?
A world where Scholes, Giggs, Gary Neville, Beckham, Keane, Schmeichel, Cantona and Ronaldo (and by extension, his rivalry with Messi) enjoyed a markedly different career trajectory, with United’s stars playing at different, more (or less) successful clubs?
And what about the Premier League’s post-Sky TV profile? Ferguson, pointing at his watch or jigging on the touchline in delight, the mind games. All of it is so entwined with the fabric of the domestic game over the last 30 years that it is impossible to envisage what a world without United’s success might have looked like.
Mark Robins’ goal is culturally significant in so many ways. Tangentially it shaped so many events that happened subsequently, within the game, on a global stage that its impact cannot be understated.
It is also a timely reminder that trigger happy fans like Pete Molyneux and the corporate box executive class, cannot be trusted to make good decisions that are not knee-jerk and wrong-headed. The main stand fraternity rotters’ convention should always be resisted.
The fans and the Premier League’s corporate class cannot be relied upon to be the good custodians of the game that football needs. This is a job for football people and for football people alone.
Mark Robins’ goal also reminds us that ‘if’ is the biggest word in football.
In a game of small margins, a slip, an extra yard of space, the width of a post can contain a world of possibilities, the endless alternative realities of infinite parallel universes.
Mark Robins’ is a minor character, a footnote in the history of football, but he is a very special footnote. Make no mistake, had he failed to score his goal on January 7th 1990, the world of football as we know it would be a markedly different place.
You can see this most significant, but most innocuous, of goals here: