Man Utd v Nottingham Forest in 1990

Was this our most crucial third-round tie?

Friday 06 January 2023 09:00

As 1989 turned to 1990, Alex Ferguson was a man living close to the edge of his emotions; by the end of the decade he was a knight of the realm; his sporting immortality secured by Manchester United’s unprecedented Treble.

Such glories were barely conceivable in the gloomy first days of January 1990, as he prepared for a daunting FA Cup trip to Nottingham Forest. Scan Sir Alex’s first two United-focused books, Six Years at United and Managing My Life, and you can feel the memory of his anxieties burning from the page.

Late 1989 is described as “the blackest period of my life.” “My moment of crisis.” Following the infamous 5-1 defeat to Manchester City at Maine Road, he admits he was “in total shock and completely gone”. 

“I listened in horror as we drew Nottingham Forest away,” he remembered. 
United were tasked with beating 'knockout specialists' Forest.
And little wonder. The team that travelled to the City Ground on 7 January was without a win in eight games, and United had failed to score in six of those matches. To make matters worse, a desperate injury crisis meant several players were unavailable. Most notably, club captain and talisman Bryan Robson. But also summer signings Paul Ince and Neil Webb, plus Colin Gibson, Mal Donaghy, Lee Sharpe and Danny Wallace.

Brian Clough’s Forest were knockout football specialists, just months away from retaining the League Cup. In the FA Cup, they’d reached the semis for two consecutive seasons, and eliminated United at the quarter-final stage the previous March.

The media sensed blood. ‘Fergie the flop!’ ran a Daily Express headline. ‘The Scottish Cup, which Aberdeen won four times out of five between 1982 and 1986, helped make Alex Ferguson’s reputation as a manager,’ sniped The Guardian. ‘Now the FA Cup could be the final blow to his career at Old Trafford.’ Discontent had been brewing in the stands, too. 

“It was grim,” remembers home-and-away fan Anthony Murphy. 

“The ‘Fergie out’ chants kicked off at the Crystal Palace match on 9 December, when he dropped Mark Hughes. That’s when the crowd snapped. It gained momentum at Villa Park on Boxing Day.

“I wasn’t one of the chanters but, to be perfectly honest, if United had lost to Forest and Ferguson had been sacked, I wouldn’t have been bothered. It had been three-and-a-bit years, and pretty dreadful... easily the worst period I can recall watching United.”
Fellow supporter Steve Black cannot remember hearing the anti-Ferguson chants, but says the pressure was omnipresent: “Yes, there were some fans saying, ‘I don’t think he’s ever going to do it’. And we wouldn’t have been outraged if he’d been sacked, but most didn’t want that. But the press had really started to get stuck into us, almost relishing the fact Ferguson wasn’t going to do it, and we’d have to change again.”

However, while the media’s hostility may have been designed to force a dramatic change of manager, it ultimately had the opposite effect. Because all those present on that Sunday afternoon by the River Trent use the same word to describe what came next: defiance.

“It was a cold day, with a real nip in the air,” remembers Murphy. “But there was a real defiance on the terraces. We went down on the train to Nottingham. I remember running out of cigarettes, which was catastrophic to me, at the time!

“There was a feeling of dread as we went to the ground but, after about 15 minutes, I remember thinking, 'United are going to turn up here. They’re giving Forest a game! Can we get a draw and get them back to Old Trafford?' The thought of winning there was, to me, out of the question. People forget, but Forest were a good side: Stuart Pearce and Des Walker at the back, Clough and Jemson banging them in. United were at sixes and sevens.”
Plagued by absences, it seemed the odds were against United.
Defiance was not in short supply in the away dressing room, either. Pre-match, Ferguson had overheard BBC pundit Jimmy Hill claiming United looked “beaten in the warm-up”. In classic siege-stoking fashion, Ferguson wasn’t slow to inform his players. 

“I think Jimmy Hill had had a go at Ferguson before that on Match of the Day, and that seemed to galvanise some support behind him,” notes Steve Black. 

“We went into that game knowing his time could be up, but the support that day... I just remember it being feverish. We wanted to win so much for Ferguson, because we didn’t want it to end yet. Every United fan I knew was mad up for it, like we hadn’t been in years.”

On a bog-like pitch, United’s patchwork side grew into the game, with under-fire, big-money signing Gary Pallister delivering one of his best performances since joining from Middlesbrough the previous summer. Early in the second half, the decisive moment arrived. Lee Martin funnelled the ball to Mark Hughes down the United left. Looking up and spotting the run of young forward Mark Robins, Hughes swerved a delicious pass into the area with the outside of his right foot. The ball bounced up from the turf, and Robins carefully nodded it downwards, underneath the fruitless dive of Forest goalkeeper Steve Sutton.
Watch Mark Robins score the winning goal for United.
“Nobody could believe it,” laughs Murphy. 

“United had been in good voice all day, but Forest didn’t know what had hit them after that, in terms of the noise. I can remember us singing: ‘Forever and ever, we’ll follow the boys.’ I hadn’t heard that since around 1985! I don’t want to go too poetic here, but that day did feel like a reawakening, a rebirth.”

After the FA Cup exit to Forest the previous season, crowds had dwindled below 30,000. But now there was a kernel of hope – enough to set United on the way to Wembley and Ferguson’s crucial first trophy.

“The attendances boosted after Forest,” continues Tony, “and there was a real boost to morale on the terraces. I’ve got to emphasise: it was a massive win. Nobody with any rational sense would have gone to the bookies and backed United. It would have been a sentimental bet.”

“We had more shocking results after that, but this little Cup run was developing,” explains Steve Black. 

“Did that game save him? No. But that Cup run was the start of us finding a way to win. Oldham were miles better than us in the semi-final, and Palace [were too] in the final. But we kept getting equalisers or goals in extra-time, or just holding on in certain games. It was part of his blueprint and what came later. Somehow he instilled something in them so they never gave up.”
That third-round win over Forest marked a turning point in Sir Alex Ferguson's fortunes, with unprecedented success right around the corner.

In the years that followed, the importance of this single result has taken on almost mythical status, but as the fans who were in the away end at the City Ground that Sunday attest, the never-say-die attitude that Ferguson instilled in each and every one of his subsequent United teams was sparked. 

Robins’ goal in the East Midlands certainly kept Ferguson’s United story afloat. Perhaps more importantly, fans, players and manager had come together in a resolute display of unshakeable spirit.

Nobody could have foreseen what lay ahead for English football’s sleeping giant and arguably its greatest-ever manager. But on one nerve-wracking afternoon in Nottingham, all our future glories probably hung in the balance.

Thankfully for Cantona and Keane, the Class of ’92 and many more – not to mention millions of fans around the world – thousands of travelling Reds simply refused to see their team be beaten.

“All we had was defiance and pride,” smiles Murphy.

“And that was what won United that game.”