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

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

When Mark Robins scored for Manchester United at Nottingham Forest’s County Ground in January 1990, it reportedly kept their Scottish manager in his job. It’s almost unthinkable that the man now known as ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson was anything but successful, but after more than three years in the Old Trafford hot seat, he had yet to deliver silverware.

The FA Cup third round goal by Robins was just the beginning of a run that would take the Red Devils to Wembley, and after a replay, Ferguson finally had his hands on that elusive trophy, one hugely coveted in English football in the era before the dominance of the Premier League and the Champions League.

As well as swelling the Manchester United trophy cabinet, the FA Cup triumph also provided the bonus of qualification to the Cup Winners’ Cup. United weren’t so lucky after winning the FA Cup in 1985, given that English clubs were banned from battling for European trophies following the Heysel Disaster. However, in July 1990, UEFA announced that the ban was lifted, paving the way for English clubs to compete with their continental counterparts once again.

Perhaps tellingly for United, their manager was no stranger to European competition. Ferguson won the Cup Winners’ Cup with Aberdeen in 1983, eliminating Bayern Munich en route to a final in which they beat Real Madrid on a rainy Gothenburg night. The Dons followed up that memorable victory by winning the subsequent European Super Cup by beating German side Hamburg. Ferguson had succeeded in upending the mighty Old Firm and putting Aberdeen on the map, a precursor to his challenge to unseat Liverpool as the pre-eminent force in English football.

In the first round of the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup, United were drawn against Hungarians Pécsi Munkas, who qualified by winning their domestic cup, the first and only honour in their history. The Old Trafford faithful weren’t enamoured by the prospect of the visiting minnows, the 28,000 in attendance in the first leg approximately 12,000 short of that season’s average gate and ultimately the second lowest turnout of the season.

United were ahead after just 16 minutes after a Paul Ince pass found the feet of Clayton Blackmore, the right-footed left-back unleashing a swerving long-range effort that wrong-footed the Hungarian goalkeeper. Blackmore was once again instrumental for United’s second, the Welshman’s lofted pass into the penalty area controlled and converted by Neil Webb to double United’s lead on the night.

The second leg took place on 3 October 1990, the day that East and West Germany officially unified, as United travelled to Hungary, less than a year after the country had shunned communism to become a republic. The game, an afternoon kick off, was played out in daylight and settled by a solitary Brian McClair goal in the 77th minute. Blackmore was once again the scourge of the Hungarians, crossing for the Scot who produced a good leap to head the ball home.

The second round drew United against a side closer to home. Wrexham – based 50 miles south-west of Manchester – had lost the Welsh Cup final to border club Hereford United, although The Bulls were not allowed to represent Wales in the Cup Winners’ Cup due to being English, allowing the Dragons to take their place.

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The first leg once again gave United home advantage, with less than 30,000 souls in attendance, three days after the infamous Battle of Old Trafford, when a 21-man brawl involving United and Arsenal caused the hosts to be deducted a league point.

Brian McClair opened the scoring for United after a corner had been headed into his path by Steve Bruce. Mark Hughes, playing against his hometown club, was felled in the penalty box after a forceful run, and Bruce converted the resulting penalty to double the lead. Wrexham almost pulled one back through Chris Armstrong – who enjoyed spells in the Premier League with Crystal Palace, Tottenham Hotspur, and Bolton Wanderers – although the post saved goalkeeper Les Sealey’s blushes.

The goal of the game, to make it 3-0 after 60 minutes and ensure a comfortable victory for United, came from an unlikely source. Centre-half Gary Pallister lurked on the edge of the 18-yard box and, picking up the loose ball following a corner, launched a superb 20-yard half-volley into the top corner.

Mark Robins opened the scoring in the second leg at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, lunging in at the far post from close range following a trademark surging Ince run and cross. Wearing the white and blue “leaf” kit recently replicated in jacket form by Adidas to much fanfare, United finished the scoring through Steve Bruce, who netted from close range after the goalkeeper had parried defensive partner Pallister’s header from a corner.

The quarter-final opponents, Montpellier, would provide the sternest test of the competition so far. The French side, with future World Cup winner and United player Laurent Blanc and eccentric Colombian Carlos Valderrama in their ranks, forced a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in March 1991, picking up a valuable away goal in the process.

McClair put United in front after just one minute, following good work from promising young winger Lee Sharpe – who would be named PFA Young Player of the Year at the end of the season. Ryan Giggs – also noted for his superb left-foot, pace and crossing ability – made his first team debut just four days before the Montpellier clash, and would go on to usurp Sharpe and become one of the most decorated players in the club’s history.

With just eight minutes on the clock the scores were level, after Lee Martin – the hero from the 1990 FA Cup final replay whose goal had ensured United’s participation in the Cup Winners’ Cup – scored a bizarre own goal after appearing to be under no pressure whatsoever. Martin suffered an innocuous back injury in pre-season, just months after his FA Cup heroics, and he was never the same player again. The emergence of Blackmore, the confidence-sapping own goal in this very game, and the 1991 signing of left-back Denis Irwin all but ending his Manchester United career.

Montpellier were backed by a partisan crowd in the second leg, and the players were spurred on by an alleged bonus of £35,000 per man to beat United and progress to the semi-finals. The French Cup holders flew out of the traps, although United drew first blood deep into first-half stoppage time, cancelling out the home side’s away goal from the first leg.

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Hughes was fouled, the referee awarding a free-kick to which Blackmore stepped up to take. The Welshman’s fierce strike, from more than 40 yards, was spilt by the goalkeeper and ended up in the net. There were wild celebrations on the bench, and the cliché about it being a good time to score rang true.

After the break, Blackmore was involved once again, drawing a penalty after being fouled in the box. Another set piece for United, this time converted by Bruce who, in the process, bagged his 12th goal of the season, nine of which had come from the penalty spot. Montpellier now needed three goals and, faced with the pressure of elimination in front of a hostile home crowd, and the realisation that £35,000 each was slipping out of their hands, their discipline began to evaporate.

Twenty-year-old Jean-Manuel Thetis performed a cardinal footballing sin by spitting at Hughes, the youngster’s red card dashing any faint hopes the French side had of mounting a comeback.

The semi-final once again took United behind the old Iron Curtain in April, with the Red Devils paired with Polish side Legia Warsaw in the final four. Another afternoon kick-off in Eastern Europe beckoned, and United had to fare without inspirational captain Robson, who swapped the pitch for the television commentary booth by virtue of being suspended.

Legia, wearing all green, took the lead after 37 minutes against the run of play after a superb driving run and neat side-footed finish by Jacek Cyzio, who couldn’t quite believe his luck, sinking to his knees in sheer disbelief. McClair, who had almost opened the scoring after stinging the fingertips of Legia’s ‘keeper, hit back a minute later with his fourth goal of the tournament. McClair turned the ball in following confusion in the box, maintaining his record of scoring in every round.

As United’s domination began to show, a penetrating trademark Sharpe run was halted by Marek Józwiak. Legia’s number four held back the winger after a poor touch had given the ball to the Englishman, the referee producing a red card on account of the Pole being the last man. Piercing whistles from the crowd followed the theatrical production of the card from the referee.

A stunning, powerful strike from Hughes, after he had cut inside, dummied the ball to gain space and shot from 20 yards, put United ahead on the night, before Bruce almost put the tie to bed completely by making it 3-1 from close range. Remarkably, it was Bruce’s 18th goal of the season, a phenomenal record for = a centre-half, even if the majority had come from the spot.

The second leg was an anti-climactic affair, not just because United were in the driving seat and overwhelming favourites to progress to the final, but also because of events three days previously. The Red Devils had spurned the chance to win a second domestic trophy in as many years, and add the League Cup to their honours list, after losing 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley. Legia clearly arrived at Old Trafford with limited ambitions, intent on keeping the scoreline respectful.

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Despite those factors, the home fans were in fine voice, and 44,000 packed out Old Trafford with the prospect of a first European final since 1968 almost a reality. The result was never in doubt, especially considering United were then unbeaten at home in continental ties throughout their entire history. Sharpe sent a rasping shot into the roof of the net from just inside the box to make it 1-0, the goalkeeper reaching the powerful effort with his fingertips yet unable to keep it out.

United eased off, perhaps sensing the job was done, which allowed Legia a route back into the game. The Polish side’s number nine outran Pallister and finished neatly through the legs of young goalkeeper Gary Walsh to make it 1-1 on the night, and 4-2 on aggregate.

Barcelona, United’s opponents in the final, were managed at the time by legendary Dutchman Johan Cruyff, the best player in the world less than two decades earlier, and a man who was in the midst of repeating the trick as a manager and creating what would become known as the Dream Team.

Barça won their first LaLiga title in six years in 1991 and would go on to win the next three domestic championships as well as the 1992 European Cup after defeating Sampdoria at Wembley. However, this night was to be no dress rehearsal for what would transpire 12 months later.

The Catalan giants boasted the likes of Ronald Koeman, Albert Ferrer, Michael Laudrup, and current Manchester City director of football Txiki Begiristain in the side, and had eliminated Trabzonspor, Fram Reykjavik, Dynamo Kyiv and Juventus en route to the final. Luckily for United, Bulgarian wizard Hristo Stoichkov was unavailable for the final, but would wreak his revenge three years later as the three-foreigner rule stunted United’s European Cup ambitions.

The location for the final was Rotterdam’s De Kuip, home of Feyenoord, the grey, rain-soaked Wednesday night more akin to a Manchester evening, suiting the English side. In the days before budget airlines, more than 25,000 United fans travelled across the North Sea on ferries, taking the Hull-Rotterdam or Harwich-Hook of Holland routes. Inside the stadium, the United contingent dominated, creating a cacophony of noise and colour, with hundreds of flags hanging from every possible vantage point, and the red smoke of flares greeting the players as the teams emerged from the tunnel.

United, dressed in white, almost took the lead through McClair as the Scot blazed a Pallister through ball over the bar. Ironically, in the build-up to the game, Cruyff had mischievously questioned the passing ability of Bruce and Pallister, the latter laying down a marker to the opposition coach.

After 67 minutes, Robson floated a free-kick into the box, which was met by the head of Bruce, and 1991 PFA Player of the Year Hughes turned it in on the line. Barcelona’s goalkeeper Carles Busquets – father of current star Sergio – was in no man’s land.

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If the first goal was opportunistic and perhaps a little cheeky, stealing the ball from a teammate and showing the selfishness that is the hallmark of all great penalty box predators, the second one was pure Hughes. The Welshman, who had spent the 1986/87 season with Barcelona, rounded the wildly out of position Busquets before powering the ball in from a tight angle. Despite two good touches, it looked like Hughes had taken the ball too wide, but the forward put his laces through it to double United’s lead just seven minutes after scoring the opener.

With 79 minutes on the clock, Koeman scored a free-kick, with Sealey making a hash of the set piece in the game that would prove to be his last for United. Cruyff looked unmoved on the Barcelona bench, yet his side made the last 10 minutes uncomfortable for United, Blackmore having to clear off the line following a rare mistake from the usually dependable Bruce.

United held out, Robson lifting a cup adorned with red ribbons. Koeman’s free-kick proved to be merely a consolation, although he’d repeat the trick one year later in altogether happier circumstances for Barcelona.

The memorable night in Rotterdam ensured that Manchester United opened the decade with a European trophy – and the club would spend the rest of the 1990s on a quest for the holy grail of the Champions League after ending an excruciating 26-year wait for the league title in 1992/93.

In the same year that United lifted the European Cup, following a dramatic 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in the Camp Nou, the Cup Winners’ Cup was sadly in its final throes. The competition that began in 1960 drew its last breath in 1999, the expansion of the Champions League dominating Europe and rendering all other continental trophies all but meaningless in terms of fans, media coverage and sponsors.

The Cup Winners’ Cup’s legacy during its 39 years of existence was that it encouraged many countries to create a domestic knockout tournament where they didn’t have one before. It refreshingly produced a variety of winners: 32 teams triumphed in the 39 years of the competition, with only a handful of clubs winning the trophy more than once, and never in successive years.

It allowed clubs to travel to exotic – and not so exotic – far-flung locations, a stark contrast to the monotony of today’s Champions League which seemingly draws the same teams alongside each other on an annual basis as power becomes concentrated in the hands of fewer clubs.

For Manchester United, the Cup Winners’ Cup campaign gave the fans some unforgettable nights, as well being vital in giving the team a taste of European success, culminating in that special night in May 1999.

By Dan Williamson @winkveron

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