Manchester United: the 26 barren years

Manchester United: the 26 barren years

For fans below the age of 30, it’s perhaps unthinkable that Manchester United would go five years without winning the title. Therefore it must seem inconceivable to imagine a Manchester United who once went two and a half decades without securing the ultimate prize in English football. Yet during the early 1990s, that was the reality facing those at Old Trafford.

Between the years 1968 and 1993, United fans watched eight sides win the First Division title. Try as they might, five men could not recreate the glory days akin to those in Sir Matt Busby’s era, and supporters in the Stretford End watched as their great rivals Liverpool won 11 league titles without a response from United.

Upon Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, Gary Neville aptly described the atmosphere around the club when he grew up: “It [Manchester United] had 26 years, where there was an angry crowd. You see this crowd here today by the way, that’s not this crowd I grew up with in the 1970s and 80s.”


 Sir Matt Busby: the end of an era 


In 1967, Manchester United won their seventh First Division title and moved level with Liverpool as the most successful side in English league history. For Matt Busby, it was to be his fifth and final league triumph as United boss. Busby’s final title-winning side included the likes of Harry Gregg, Billy Foulkes, Nobby Stiles and the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best. United had started poorly in the 1966/67 season, yet went on a 20 game unbeaten run to finish the season in first place.

However, Busby’s team could not build on their success and surrendered the title to rivals Manchester City the following year. A 2-1 defeat on the final day of the season by Sunderland allowed City to pinch the title in 1968. United’s European Cup success that year went someway in helping fans forget their side’s domestic woes. Busby had finally achieved his career-long ambition of leading United to the pinnacle of European football. However, the man who had been at United for nearly 25 years was beginning to contemplate a life after football management.

Busby’s squad suffered a European hangover the following season and could not produce the sort of form that had made them title winners just two years previously. The squad was ageing and star man George Best was starting to show the sort of volatile episodes that would sadly ravage his career.

In January 1969, the inevitable yet unthinkable happened, as Manchester United’s greatest ever manager announced he would retire at the end of the season. Disappointingly for Busby, his final year would not end in success. United endured a woebegone year which ultimately saw them finish 11th.

With Busby’s exit looming, there was an apprehensive aura surrounding the club that was often conveyed through timid and dire performances. As Best wrote in his autobiography: “That lovely atmosphere we’d had in the dressing room at Manchester United had just disappeared.” It was evidently the end of an era, and sadly for the club’s supporters, it would take another great Scot to resurrect the club, nearly three decades later.


 Life after Busby 


The man who was given the impossible task of replacing Busby was reserve team manager Wilf McGuinness. McGuinness had himself been a ‘Busby Babe’ and was forced to retire at the age of just 22 due to injury.

Things began badly for the new United boss as he failed to win any of his first eight matches. Despite the substandard start, the team managed to finish 8th and made the semi-finals of the League and FA Cup. Unfortunately for McGuinness, the club was trying to adapt to their first managerial change in 24 years. His ability to successfully manage the team was negatively impacted on by the unsurpassable legacy left by Busby. His presence was still felt at Manchester United as he had taken up a role as a director at the club upon retirement. To the detriment of McGuinness, Busby still involved himself in first team matters.

Read  |  Sir Matt Busby and the art of making anything possible

Prior to the FA Cup semi-final against Leeds, Busby overruled his replacement and allowed Best to play the match. This was in spite of the fact that the Northern Irishman had forbidden McGuiness’ orders to head directly to the team bus. This undermined the new boss’s authority at the club and he began to lose the players’ respect. McGuinness was also unfortunate to inherit an average squad from the 1968/69 season, and was not given significant transfer funds to try and lure new players to the club.

As a result, United started the following season poorly. McGuinness and the squad had little rapport and any issue was reported to Busby, rather than the United manager. Results began to decline and McGuiness’ only hope was to win a trophy. Therefore he must have been confident when United drew Division Three side Aston Villa in the semi-final of the League Cup. However, Villa incredibly beat the Red Devils over two legs, and following a 4-4 draw against Derby just three days later, McGuinness was sacked.

Busby came back for the remaining few months of the season, and despite United only winning five of their previous 23 games, he helped inspire the side to win 11 of the next 19. Busby managed to produce match-winning performances from the Holy Trinity once again, as he steered the side away from a relegation fight and into an eighth-placed finish. His final game must surely have brought a tear to the eye of even the most robust United fan. A 4-3 victory against Manchester City, with Best, Charlton and Law all getting on the score sheet, was a fine way for Busby to finally bow out.

United were intent on restoring themselves as one of England’s top sides again and targeted two of Britain’s best managers in Jock Stein and Don Revie to become the next permanent boss. However, when neither of them accepted the job, Busby turned instead to Frank O’Farrell, who had just gained promotion to the First Division with Leicester.

O’Farrell’s short reign at United was to be cursed with same misfortunate as befell McGuinness. Busby was still involving himself in first team matters, and O’Farrell felt he was not given sufficient funds to rebuild the team. The squad was two years older than when Busby left and unfortunately, O’Farrell’s few signings were not effective replacements compared with what had gone before.

Nevertheless, he started his regime well in Manchester and by Christmas 1971, United were top. However, the wheels fell off during the second half of the season and United finished eighth for the third year in a row. The following season also started tamely as the team failed to win any of their first nine matches.

United could also no longer rely on the Holy Trinity, who had so often been the luminaries behind the side’s success. Charlton was 35 and announced his retirement at the end of the season, Law missed the majority of the campaign with a knee injury, and Best did not play after November as his party habits were now sliding out of control.

The fail nail in the coffin came for O’Farrell in December 1972. Following a 5-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, he was relieved of his duties after just 18 months in charge. The Irishman felt let down by both Busby and the club, and later claimed he was in an impossible situation. “Most of the players’ best days were behind them. But you cannot replace players like Bobby Charlton and Denis Law quickly. You cannot do things overnight and I took the job on that basis, but got dismissed after 18 months,” he later claimed.

The United board acted quickly and appointed Scotland manager Tommy Docherty. Docherty had previously built a successful side at Chelsea and it was hoped he could do the same in Manchester. His dominion over United began successfully, as he guided the side away from relegation in the second half of the 1972/73 season, but there was now a feeling of despair and insecurity at Old Trafford.

United’s great rivals, Liverpool, won the First Division title that year, and in doing so became the most successful side in English league history. The deflated atmosphere was compounded further at the end of the season as Charlton left the club after 17 years and Law was sold to Manchester City.

Read  |  The fleeting career but eternal brilliance of George Best

The Red Devils once again failed to find adequate replacements for players who were United legends, and the team began to slide even further down the table. Best was now a shadow of his former self. The winger had retired twice before the age of 26, and on 1 January 1974, he played his final match for the club.

His declining performances and blasé attitude in United’s hour of need meant he was missed by few in the Stretford End. However, by this stage supporters had more pressing concerns. United were in the midst of a relegation battle, and by mid-January the club had won just three of their last 21 games.

Docherty tried to strengthen the side and signed striker Lou Macari that month, but it did not help their fortunes. By March, it was apparent that the side were doomed to life in the second tier, and despite a late revival, United were sentenced to their fate in the penultimate game of the season, by Manchester City no less. Contrary to popular belief, Denis Law’s back-heel was not the final nail in the coffin, as the Red Devils would have been relegated regardless.

Incredibly, just six years after being crowned European champions, United were relegated. The club simply could not move on from Busby’s era of unprecedented success, and the man who built United failed to select a worthy successor.


 A change in fortunes 


Despite the discontent surrounding Old Trafford, the club’s relegation in many ways marked the beginning of a new era for Manchester United. Busby kept faith with Docherty following the club’s relegation, and it was proved to be an inspired decision. In spite of the previous year’s struggles, Docherty remained loyal to his squad and only made one summer signing in Stuart Pearson. Instead, he looked to his youth ranks and gave Sammy McIlroy, David Greenhoff, Jimmy Nicholl and Arthur Albiston their opportunities in the first team.

United’s sole season outside of the top flight since the Second World War proved to be surprisingly enjoyable for those in the Stretford End. Docherty’s men cantered to the league title, winning it with a month to spare. United fans were also treated to attacking football, compared to the dour days of O’Farrell’s tenure. “I tried to urge caution,” Docherty said years later in regard to his offensive philosophy. “But our attacking style of play meant we would concede goals. To be honest I wasn’t that bothered if we conceded two, so as long as we scored three.”

The following year, Docherty’s youthful side astonishingly ran Bob Paisley’s Liverpool close to the league title. It was only in the final few matches of the season that it became apparent United could not claim the title. Manchester United ultimately finished third, and an FA Cup final appearance had brought a fresh wave of hope at Old Trafford.

Those from the red half of Manchester had grown impatient at the club’s decline, which was often expressed through fan violence. Nevertheless, under Docherty, supporters were hoping that United’s 10-year dry spell without a league title would come to an end in 1976/77. They were to be left disappointed, however.

United failed to continue their impressive performances from the previous season, and despite encouraging spells during the campaign, they could only finish sixth. Docherty still held the support of those at Old Trafford for building a side that was pleasing on the eye whilst operating on a shoe-string budget. He also endeared himself to fans by winning the FA Cup in 1977, which was the first significant trophy in nine years, and stopped rivals Liverpool from winning the treble.

However, it was to be Docherty’s last year at the helm, after it was revealed the United boss had been having an extra-marital affair with the club physiotherapist’s wife. Docherty has since joked that he was the “only man sacked for love.”

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After the media frenzy that surrounded Docherty’s departure, United opted for a safe option in Dave Sexton, who had led Queens Park Rangers so close to winning the First Division just a year before. Sexton was a quiet and reserved individual, who never fully gained the support of United fans. In his first year at the club, he led United to a disappointing 10th place. The squad was still essentially the same as that which had finished four places higher the year before, something which many in the Stretford End were keen to highlight.

The following season saw Sexton try and stamp his own impression on the squad, and irked United fans further by selling Gordon Hill to Derby – who were now managed by Tommy Docherty. Hill had finished as the team’s top scorer in each of the last two seasons. Sexton recruited several players during the 1978/79 season, including Joe Jordan, Gordon McQueen and Mickey Thomas.

However, the Red Devils improved little on the field and could only muster a ninth-place finish. An FA Cup final appearance did help Sexton’s precarious position, despite United ultimately losing 3-2 to Arsenal on the day. Liverpool finished the 1970s with a fourth league title in seven years. United fans were already envious of their rival’s success as Liverpool headed into the most successful decade in the club’s history.

Sexton recruited again ahead of the 1979/80 season and bought Ray Wilkins for a hefty £750,000. Docherty’s squad were beginning to disband and Sexton was establishing his own side. United began the season optimistically by winning four of their first six. Nevertheless, Sexton was still criticised by fans for his perceived boring brand of football. United were to be involved in an epic title clash with Liverpool that year, which – unsurprisingly in that era – ended with the Merseyside club finishing on top. It was now 13 years since Manchester United had won the First Division title, and there was even talk of a curse over the club.

The following season proved to be Sexton’s last at Old Trafford. His negative style of play resulted in too many draws and saw United slip into eighth place, but he left as the first Manchester United manager to pay over £1 million for a player – yet Garry Birtles did not manage a single goal in his first season at the club. 

Despite finishing the season with seven straight victories, the United board made the decision to fire Sexton at the end of the campaign. The manager had paid the price for not winning a major trophy in four years, and there was feeling amongst many at Old Trafford that the team was no better than when he first arrived.


 The Atkinson era 


The man who would fill the vacant space in the Old Trafford dugout was Ron Atkinson. Atkinson had led his former side, West Brom, to third and fourth placed finishes in the previous two seasons. United were also changing at the boardroom level and appointed a new chairman in Martin Edwards.

The new commander-in-chief instantly distanced himself from the dreary days of Sexton’s reign by hiring Atkinson. Edwards’ appointment also marked a change at the club, as Busby was no longer selecting the team’s new manager. Manchester United were beginning to grow out of their former manager’s shadow, which in many ways had engulfed and stunted the club since 1969.

Atkinson was renowned for his attacking football at West Brom, something which United fans yearned for. He brought a period of champagne football to Old Trafford.

However, his tenure began in difficult circumstances, as Atkinson was informed on his first day that influential players Mickey Thomas and Joe Jordan were leaving the club. In replacement, Atkinson signed Frank Stapleton from Arsenal and raided his former club West Brom for Remi Moses and Bryan Robson. 

Read  |  Norman Whiteside: world beater at 17, retired by 26

Robson was signed for a then-British transfer record of £1.5 million. United enjoyed an optimistic beginning under their new manager and spent much of the early part of 1981/82 season in first place. Ultimately the Red Devils lacked the consistency of Liverpool, who once again won the title. United finished third, which was an improvement of five places from the year before.

The following season proved similar once again for United fans. Atkinson’s side finished third for a second year in a row and again could not keep pace with a formidable Liverpool team. United’s great rivals also beat them in the League Cup final that season. However, they were to add silverware in 1983, as they defeated Brighton in the FA Cup final. Atkinson had added Paul McGrath and Arnold Muhren during a season that would see a 17-year-old Norman Whiteside establish himself as first team regular.

United fans were buoyant ahead of the 1983/84 season. Atkinson had built an attacking and entertaining side, and by virtue of winning the FA Cup, had brought European football back to Old Trafford. The previous third place finishes left United fans believing that 1984 could see them break the 17-year period without a league title. Those at Old Trafford now resented Liverpool’s stranglehold on the top flight, but with Paisley leaving, many hoped that United could take advantage of any instability shown by their great rivals. They were once again to be left disappointed.

Despite an encouraging start, which saw United beat Liverpool in the Charity Shield, Joe Fagan slipped seamlessly in at Anfield and won three trophies in his first year. However, United fans remained optimistic about life under Atkinson. Although they had dropped one place, the Red Devils had halved their points gap to first place from the previous season. 

The club also enjoyed a successful European run and reached the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. The run represented the first time since 1968 that United had made it past the second round of a European competition, and it included that famous night against Diego Maradona’s Barcelona in March 1984. Atkinson added Arthur Graham from Leeds and had handed youth graduate Mark Hughes his first opportunity at senior level.

However, United’s stringent transfer policy would suppress their chances of winning that elusive league title. Atkinson sold instrumental midfielder Ray Wilkins to AC Milan that year and replaced him with Gordan Strachan, who was signed from Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. Jesper Olson and Alan Brazil were also added to Atkinson’s ranks.

Even though United had led the First Division for a stage during each of the previous three seasons, the team never seriously offered a title challenge during 1984/85. Atkinson’s side finished fourth again and 14 points off top spot. United fans were also left frustrated that a Merseyside club once again claimed the First Division title.

This year was to see Howard Kendall’s Everton overthrow Liverpool to gain the domestic crown. United did manage to beat Everton in the FA Cup final, which offered Atkinson some leeway from those fans who were beginning to grow frustrated with his tenure.

The United manager was now in his fifth year at the club and was beginning to come under pressure from supporters for not guiding the club towards that elusive league title. After 10 games of the 1985/86 season, it looked like Atkinson was about to end the 19-year hoodoo. United won every game during August and September and gained 30 points along the way. The side didn’t drop any points until a 1-1 draw with Luton in October, and didn’t lose any of their first 15 games. The title appeared to be on its way to Manchester; Liverpool were in transition and Everton couldn’t continue their impressive form from last season. However, United imploded.

Bryan Robson was ruled out of the second half of the season due to injury, and after not losing any of the first 15 games, the Red Devils lost 10 of their next 23. United ultimately finished fourth, with Liverpool winning their sixth title in eight years. Many United fans now felt that Atkinson was no longer the man to take them forward. In their eyes, the club had not progressed in four years, and many were distraught at Liverpool’s level of dominance over the last decade. The club’s form had spiralled in the second half of the season and Mark Hughes decided to leave the club in the summer of 1986.

Read  |  Mark Hughes: the introvert who saved Alex Ferguson’s job

It was somewhat surprising that Atkinson kept his job and began the 1986/87 season in the Old Trafford hot seat. The side’s poor form continued from the previous season and Manchester United lost six of their opening eight league games. Despite a brief upturn in form during October, Atkinson was sacked in November 1986 following a League Cup defeat by Southampton.

Despite his failings in the last few years at Old Trafford, Atkinson had provided fans with genuine moments of hope in their hunt for the league title. In many ways, he cursed himself by not progressing from his first two years at the club, in which he overachieved. He had to deal with the increasing weight of expectation from one of the country’s best-supported clubs, who had become obsessed with winning the league.

However, he changed the culture of United from the mediocre days of Sexton and raised expectation levels again at Old Trafford. His record of never finishing outside the top four in his five seasons, as well as winning two FA Cups and guiding the club into their first meaningful European run since Busby’s era, can be considered a successful tenure.

Atkinson also had to balance the books at United during his reign as boss and later claimed: “I had five years in charge at United, spent a few quid and did enough shrewd business to get most of it back.” He also hired Eric Harrison, the man would go on to create the famous class of ‘92.

Ultimately, Atkinson paid the price for not winning the First Division title in five attempts. The United boss was unfortunate to manage the club during an era of such dominance by Liverpool. United fans were growing ever impatient at their title hiatus, and their eternal rival’s incessant level of success further enraged those in the Stretford End. The man chosen to replace Atkinson would famously go on to knock Liverpool ‘right off their fucking perch’.


 Alex Ferguson: the storm before the calm 


Alex Ferguson was appointed as Manchester United manager within a few hours of Atkinson’s dismissal. He had been linked with job during the previous summer but had remained at Aberdeen, as the role had not been made available.

Ferguson had achieved the almost impossible in Scotland by managing to break up the Glaswegian dominance over the Scottish Premier Division. Aberdeen won three titles during his eight years at the Pittodrie, as well as four Scottish Cups, but his greatest success at Aberdeen came in 1983, when his side won the Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid in the final.

Ferguson took over a Manchester United side who were in 20th position in the league. Those from the red half of the city were even beginning to fear that they could be pulled into a relegation fight. Ferguson’s first obstacle at the club was confronting the prevalent drinking culture amongst the players.

Key first team members such as Robson, Whiteside and McGrath were known to be the head conspirators of United’s boozy social scene. “I realised the [drinking] problem was so serious that it had to be confronted without delay,” Ferguson claimed in his autobiography.

The Scot did not see an immediate upswing in results, as he picked up just four points from his first four games, but one defeat in the next 13 saw United move up to 10th. Ferguson’s side finished a respectable 11th in his first season at Old Trafford, made even more impressive considering he made no significant purchases throughout the campaign.

The following season saw Manchester United sign Viv Anderson, Brian McClair and Steve Bruce, as Ferguson began to construct his team. The signs were positive for those at Old Trafford as United finished second, having lost only five games all season. However, it was a familiar story for those in Manchester, as Liverpool claimed yet another league title.

Read  |  How Sir Alex Ferguson became the greatest winner in Britain

The feelings of familiarity and frustration were to continue at Old Trafford as United failed to expand upon the previous season’s displays. Despite Mark Hughes returning to the club in the summer of 1988, Ferguson’s side slipped to 11th place in the league. The team were third in February, but their form crumbled, United winning just three of their last 14 league games.

The poor end to the 1988/89 season raised doubts over the Scot’s ability at the helm and increased the feeling at Old Trafford that Liverpool’s hegemony on the title would never subside.  United’s run without winning the First Division now stretched to 22 years, something Ferguson was well aware of. “People talk about a curse over United. Quite honestly, I do not know how to seriously view that sort of superstition,” he said in 1989.

That summer saw a massive rebuilding job, something that was initially unwelcome at Old Trafford, as crowd favourites McGrath and Whiteside departed. Strachan also left, moving to Leeds, and Remi Moses was forced to retire due to injury. Ferguson replaced those experienced individuals with Gary Pallister, Neil Webb, Mike Phelan and Paul Ince, none of whom were older than 26.

Just three years after moving from Aberdeen, Ferguson retained only two players – Mike Duxbury and Bryan Robson – from the team he met in 1986. United started the season well, beating Arsenal 4-1 on the opening day, but the Red Devils only won one game between then and mid-October as the side slipped to 17th. The club also faced the humiliation of a 5-1 defeat to Manchester City in late September.

An upturn in form saw United climb to ninth by mid-November but that was followed by an 11-game winless run, during which time a banner was unfurled at Old Trafford saying, ‘Three years of excuses and it’s still crap … ta-ra Fergie’.

The pressure had been growing on Ferguson, who would later refer to the winter of 1989/90 as the “darkest period I have ever suffered in the game”. A 0-0 draw against QPR at Old Trafford saw the home side booed off the pitch. Rumours were rife that the United boss would be fired should his team lose their next game, which took place a week later, against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.

Mark Robins’ winner that night has always been credited as the goal which saved Ferguson’s job, something the Scot has refuted. Although the side’s league form did not drastically improve, United went on to win the FA Cup, which relived some of the pressure on Ferguson’s 13th place finish. “We will never know how close I was to being sacked because the decision was never forced on the United board. But without that triumph at Wembley, the crowds would have shrivelled. Disaffection might have swept the club,” Ferguson later claimed in his autobiography.

Despite the optimism surrounding Old Trafford in May 1990, the United boss was still under immense pressure to improve the unsatisfactory league performances. Many fans did not believe Ferguson was the man to topple Liverpool’s empire, which in 1990 had expanded to include an 18th league title.

To this day, those in Merseyside are still waiting to add to that collection, as their current barren spell extends year by year. The start of the 1990s saw Liverpool’s domain over English football begin to slide. Kenny Daglish and Alan Hansen retired, whilst key players such as John Aldridge, Ray Houghton and Bruce Grobbelaar left the club and were never adequately replaced. As Liverpool’s reign came to an end, a void was created in English football, which one man was intent on filling.

The 1990/91 season started with the usual trepidation around Old Trafford. Denis Irwin had been the club’s sole signing in the off season, in what proved to be a promising year for the Red Devils. Inconsistent form meant United never came close to establishing themselves in the title race, but Ferguson’s side had certainly improved on the previous campaign; United finished sixth and had not dropped below that position since late December.

Ferguson’s stature was beginning to grow at the club after yet another successful cup campaign. United won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, ending a 23-year wait for European glory. The team also made it to the League Cup final, where they were beaten by Ron Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday. The season was also significant for a 17-year-old Ryan Giggs, who made his debut in March 1991. The Welshman’s emergence – much like Lee Sharpe’s the year before – was proof of the importance that young talent played during Ferguson’s era.

Read  |  How Cup Winners’ Cup glory ignited the Ferguson era and rekindled Manchester United’s European obsession

The United manager had proved himself more than capable of winning cup competitions, but the following year he set his sights on United’s Holy Grail. Paul Parker and Andrei Kanchelskis were added to United’s ranks, as well as a little-known goalkeeper named Peter Schmeichel.

The season started brightly for United as they won eight of their first 10 league games and drew the remaining two. However, the Red Devils could not maintain that form, and draws became more prevalent during the rest of the season. Despite that, Ferguson’s men were still top by mid-April with just five games to go. However, for United fans it was a familiar story as the side crumbled, losing their next three games and handing the title to rivals Leeds.

It may have been a sickening blow for those at Old Trafford but the 1991/92 season represented the club’s most consistent title challenge since the 1960s. United had not dropped below second place all season and had set the benchmark for the following campaign. The season’s silver lining for supporters in Stretford End was to see Liverpool end in sixth place, their lowest finish in 29 years.

Ferguson strengthened his reputation further still by adding a League Cup medal to his ever-growing collection. United had now won a trophy in each of the last three seasons, but none of them were the one fans yearned for the most.

Ahead of the 1992/93 season, Manchester United bought Dion Dublin to strengthen their attacking resources. Despite the auspicious atmosphere surrounding Old Trafford at the time, United started the first ever Premier League campaign poorly and lost their opening two games of the season. In response, the Red Devils won five on the bounce between mid-August to September, counteracted by drawing the next five consecutive matches.

After a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa in early November, United were in 10th and pessimists in the Stretford End began reciting the habitual ‘we’ll never do it’ stance. However, a few weeks later, United signed the talismanic Eric Cantona. The Frenchman was recruited after Dublin broke his leg in early September. Cantona oozed class and serenity and proved to be the final indispensable piece of Ferguson’s master puzzle.

From that defeat at Villa Park, United won eight of their next 10, moving into second place in the process. Ferguson’s side maintained their superb form and they began March in pole position. A lacklustre month saw the team draw three in a row and began April in third; with seven games left, it was a three horse race between Manchester United, Aston Villa and Norwich.

United beat Norwich in a crucial tie on 5 April to put themselves one point behind leaders Villa. The following game saw United trailing Sheffield Wednesday 1-0, when 10 minutes of added time were announced at Old Trafford. Steve Bruce famously scored two late headers that gave United the win and provoked the now famous jumping celebrations from Ferguson. The Scot later referred to his defender’s brace as the turning point in the title race.

United went on to gain maximum points from their final five games and finished a massive 10 points above Villa, whose plight faltered in the final stages of the campaign. Finally, after 26 years, Manchester United were English league champions.

Those fans who had endured the torture of being denied their most coveted piece of silverware for nearly three decades were richly rewarded for the wait. United won six of the next eight Premier League titles, and by the time Ferguson retired in 2013, the club were the most successful side in English league history. The Scot won an astonishing 13 league titles with Manchester United and emphatically knocked Liverpool off their proverbial perch.

Those in the Stretford End today could be advised to draw warnings from United’s plight in the 1970s and 80s when an indispensable Scot was forced to retire. The struggles faced by David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were not too dissimilar from those which greeted Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell, nearly half a century ago.

Perhaps Old Trafford will not wait 26 years for another taste of Premier League glory. Or maybe the last four years will one day be viewed in history as the origins of another great domestic barren spell from England’s most successful club.

By Michael Plant @MichaelPlant82

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