When Brian McClair joined Manchester United in the summer of 1987, he wasn’t just a key signing in Alex Ferguson’s quest to bring the title to Old Trafford for the first time in two decades; he would also end a goalscoring drought which had dogged the club since they’d last won the league back in the days of Best, Law and Charlton.
Prior to Ferguson’s arrival at United there had been little to talk of in terms of glory, with just a handful of cup victories and a number of near misses in the league providing the only real highlights in almost 20 years at Old Trafford when it came to silverware.
It was a far cry from the swinging sixties, which had seen Sir Matt Busby’s men claim two league titles, the FA Cup and the European Cup by beating Benfica on a memorable night at Wembley. These achievements had been built on the goals of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best.
But the retirement of Busby in 1969 would trigger the demise of this once great side, with a number of those who had played such a pivotal part in the success of the 1960s suffering an epic fall from grace during one of the most chaotic periods in the club’s long and illustrious history.
A succession of managers came and went, including former player Wilf McGuinness and ex-Leicester boss Frank O’Farrell, whose spells in charge were as brief as they were forgettable as a dramatic drop in fortunes followed; none more so than the 1970/71 season, which saw European Cup winner and former Ballon d’Or winner Bobby Charlton top the club’s scoring charts with just six goals.
Even the arrival of charismatic Scot Tommy Docherty did little to revive their ailing fortunes as, despite a more swashbuckling and easy-on-the-eye approach, he was unable to avoid the inevitable as the Red Devils were relegated in 1974, United dropping out of the top tier for the first time since the 1930s.
Despite bouncing straight back at the first attempt, the rest of the decade proved relatively fruitless for United with the exception of an FA Cup final win over Liverpool in 1977. But as the 1980s dawned, it was clear that something drastic needed to happen in order to buck this worrying trend.
A couple of false alarms had provided the club’s long-suffering fans with a glimmer of hope, not least in 1985 when United won their first 10 games of the season under Ron Atkinson before a monumental collapse saw them fade dramatically after Christmas as the goals dried up at a time when Mark Hughes, who scored 17 in the league that season, looked to be on-course to rewrite history.
So when Alex Ferguson arrived from Aberdeen to replace Atkinson, who was sacked in November 1986, he was more than aware that if his side were going to mount a serious challenge to the likes of Liverpool and Everton, who were dominating the English football landscape at the time, he needed a player who knew where the net was, and fast.
After bringing in England full-back Viv Anderson from Arsenal in an attempt to shore-up a rather leaky defence, Ferguson also wasted no time in securing the services of a natural goalscorer, and there was one man in particular that he had in mind from his time in Scotland as manager of Aberdeen.
Brian McClair had joined Celtic in June 1983 from Motherwell as the Bhoys looked to replace Arsenal-bound Charlie Nicholas. Scoring 32 goals in his first season at Parkhead, he quickly endeared himself to the Hoops’ faithful, eventually bagging 126 goals in 204 appearances for the club and finishing top scorer in each of the four seasons he played for Celtic.
On 1 July 1987, the Airdrie-born striker was unveiled alongside Viv Anderson as the two major signings that summer as their new manager set about transforming the fortunes of a club that had been in the doldrums since the days of Best, Busby and the Beatles. It wasn’t long before he found out just what working for Ferguson would entail.
“At the end of my first week I couldn’t walk because I was so full of lactic acid,” McClair would later admit when recalling his first pre-season with United. “It was horrendously difficult. Viv Anderson came in the second week and he and I were staying in the same hotel. When he asked me what training was like, I said it was the worst I’d had in seven years as a pro with Motherwell and Celtic. He just laughed. Two days later Viv was literally staggering to his room in pain.”
The 1987/88 season started slowly for United, with McClair failing to get off the mark in two consecutive draws, but a 2-0 home win over Watford in their third game would see him open his account for his new club, one of seven strikes in the next nine games as Ferguson’s men embarked on an impressive run which would see only two defeats in their first 16 matches.
The problem was, Liverpool had begun the season in even more emphatic fashion, taking maximum points from 10 of their first 11 games and blazing a trail that would mean by Christmas they were all but out of sight of United, who were enjoying a decent start in their own right under their new boss. But three draws and a defeat saw United hit the buffers while losing even more ground to the rivals down the M62, while McClair endured his longest dry spell of the season, failing to find the net in seven league matches on the spin.
The post-Christmas period began with a Boxing Day defeat away at Newcastle, which all but ended any faint hopes Ferguson’s men had of overhauling Liverpool, though they would be beaten just twice more as United, and McClair in particular, enjoyed a blistering run of form through to the end of the season.
Four successive wins over Arsenal, Coventry, Derby and Chelsea, followed by a draw away at Spurs, would see McClair take his tally to 13 league goals as Best’s record of 20 league goals in a season, which had hung around the club’s neck like a millstone, suddenly appeared to be in sight.
United won eight of their final 10 games thanks to 10 goals from their new striker, including one against Luton on 12 April, which would see him reach the elusive 20 top-flight goals mark, before adding four more to his total as the season came to an end. McClair scored 24 league goals in his debut season and a total of 31 in all competitions, but once more, the league championship eluded United as they finished in second place, nine points behind Liverpool as the club’s long wait for another league title, which they hadn’t won since 1967, continued.
However, his exploits ensured McClair would take his place in the annals of Old Trafford history by breaking Best’s record, something which numerous strikers had tried and failed to replicate in the intervening years and which had undoubtedly resulted in United’s failure to win the top prize for so long.
Ultimately, the goals he brought to the club, not just in his debut season but during 11 years at Old Trafford, would prove to be the difference for a side that would go on to lift the FA Cup two years later followed by the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991. It paved the way for Ferguson’s men to win the Premier League title in 1993, the first of four McClair would win during his time with Manchester United.
By Matthew Crist @Matthewjcrist