Alex Ferguson during the 1989/90 season.

How Ferguson's Reds changed course of history

Thursday 02 January 2020 12:41

Thirty years ago, Manchester United faced a third-round away tie against the team that had knocked us out of the FA Cup in the previous campaign.

Alex Ferguson's team had been beaten in the last eight by Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in 1989 but had a chance to avenge that loss, albeit after being handed an extremely tricky tie in the draw.

At least in that respect, history is repeating itself this weekend. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men were eliminated at Molineux in last year's sixth round and return to the Black Country determined to overcome an obviously difficult challenge against a talented side.

Watch Mark Robins's famous goal against Nottingham Forest.

Much has been said and written about that day at the City Ground on 7 January and the pressure Ferguson faced. After all, United were without a win in eight games, since a 3-1 success at Luton Town on 18 November.

Looking at the headlines and previews in the build-up to the tie, the agenda was clear.

One screamed 'D-Day for under-fire Ferguson' and spoke of the Scot facing his Waterloo. Another said you would conclude the result was a foregone conclusion if you had seen how Forest performed against Liverpool in a recent game.

"Things look bleak for Ferguson," concluded respected Irish writer Eamon Dunphy in one column. "Clough's Forest will probably win this afternoon."

England's goalkeeping great Gordon Banks was certainly dismissive when asked to select his FA Cup winner at Wembley in May. "United have no chance," he said. "They are at a low ebb."

This "crunch" encounter was also one the Reds would be approaching with a squad depleted by injuries.

Bryan Robson only joined the FA Cup run at the semi-final stage.

Captain Bryan Robson was always a big miss for United and his persistent groin problem meant he had been out since a good team performance in a 0-0 draw at Liverpool, a couple of days before Christmas.

"Without him, United, all too often, look like a joke," was a line in one of the newspapers as Ferguson contemplated risking his skipper for such a critical game.

There was speculation Robson would be patched up in order to start but his manager said on the eve of the Forest clash: "If Bryan says he is fit, he will play. It goes without saying we'd rather have Bryan in the side than be without him. But that does not mean we are going to roll over and surrender if he does not play, though."

Neil Webb, Paul Ince and Danny Wallace - all summer signings - were already sidelined. Lee Sharpe was injured in the week leading up to the clash.

Jim Leighton made a crucial save against Nottingham Forest.

Ferguson turned to youth with Russell Beardsmore drafted in and it was another homegrown product, Mark Robins, who, of course, scored the all-important winner to defeat Forest and go down in folklore, considering the success one clever nod of his head would, ultimately, spark.

"That is the most important goal I have scored," commented Robins afterwards. "It was an instinctive thing. I didn't think about trying to place it, I just headed it. It was a brilliant ball from Mark Hughes. I couldn't miss really."

It was only Robins's third full game in the first team and, in truth, little else is replayed from the game. How differently things might have turned out had Forest converted one of several late chances to equalise.

Jim Leighton denied Garry Parker and Nigel Jemson twice missed the target from promising positions. Nigel Clough felt he deserved a penalty after a challenge by Gary Pallister and, most dramatically, Jemson had the ball in the net with five minutes remaining, only for referee Lester Shapter to rule it out for a foul on keeper Leighton.

Mark Robins also scored the winner in the semi-final replay against Oldham Athletic.

Meanwhile, Robson, as it turned out, was some way off getting fit again. He did not return to the side until the semi-final with Oldham Athletic in April.

Yet the Reds managed without him, despite being drawn away from home in every round of the competition. Three Uniteds - Hereford, Newcastle and Sheffield - were all eliminated in single-goal victories.

Ferguson's men did it the hard way, earning his first trophy as manager of the club and ushering in an era of unprecedented success, proving you never know what is around the corner in football.

Here's hoping Ole's side can use the Wolves tie as a springboard for more silverware, particularly with the Carabao Cup semi-finals with Manchester City also rapidly approaching.