“After the game, I went straight home, got into bed and put the pillow over my head…analysing my team selections, my preparation for matches and my tactics, I couldn’t see a major fault. I had worked hard at making sure my worry was not manifesting itself in the dressing room and I felt my demeanour was good. But we weren’t winning enough games.”
That Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks to the example of Sir Alex Ferguson has become a running joke, but if he ever dips into his signed copy of Managing My Life, his lord and master’s volume from 1999, this passage must resonate deeply. It describes Ferguson’s emotions in the aftermath of the 5-1 defeat Manchester United had suffered at the hands of Manchester City in September 1989.
Such a result in the Manchester derby cannot be ruled out this weekend for Solskjaer, and though it would not be such a shock, it would deepen the sense of malaise over United, a club that lost its mojo over six years ago, and has plunged £900m into becoming an also-ran and a laughing stock.
During the 1990s and 2000s, United fans would giggle at Liverpool’s talk of turning a corner and getting back to basics, as their great rival faded in Ferguson’s wake.
The joke has been on United for some time, with Liverpool headed for the title. City are playing a brand of football beyond United fans’ wildest dreams, are now valued as the world’s most sports club to throw a darker shadow over the lack of direction at Old Trafford. Beating Tottenham on Wednesday, with both Solskjaer and Marcus Rashford getting one over on Jose Mourinho, was a rare glimpse into the light for a club enveloped by the crashing realisation that its dominance lies a long way away, both in the past and in the future.
When was the last time it was so bad? That Maine Road defeat, the goals scored by luminaries like David Oldfield (x2), Trevor Morley, Ian Bishop and Andy Hinchcliffe, was a darkest hour before the light, as an expensively built United team collapsed. The league title had not been won since 1967 and felt as far away as ever, though by the end of the season a team that finished 13th, a place above City, had won the FA Cup, the first silverware under Ferguson.
Pete Molyneux was the fan who held up the banner that read “3 YEARS OF EXCUSES AND IT’S STILL CRAP … TA RA FERGIE” during a home defeat to Crystal Palace in December 1989. His is an infamous part in the club’s history. He even tried to cash in on his fame a few years later, penning a book in which he laid out his embarrassment. Ferguson, never one to let a grudge settle, sent back the copy that had been sent to his office. Even during those days of relentless success, where foes like Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and Liverpool – especially Liverpool – were vanquished, he never forgot the darkness.
The memories of failure drove him on to his greatest successes.
The Manchester United of the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons are recalled with a grimace by fans of a certain age. Old Trafford was rarely full, the Stretford End not often the cauldron of noise and bodies it could be on the glory nights. Like Solskjaer, Ferguson had been left the rump of a good team by predecessor Ron Atkinson, who was sacked in November 1986 after a run of results that bore close resemblance to those Solskjaer has presided over this season. But he had also been handed a squad with problems.
The 1980s were a time when footballers’ refuelling habits would not have met the standards of today. The pub and not the training ground was where the esprit de corps was forged. Ferguson, though not shy of a glass of red himself, rid himself of two club legends in Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath for that reason, as well their perhaps not unconnected propensity for injury.
Meanwhile, Ralph Milne became a symbol of Ferguson’s failures. A winger who had been a star of Dundee United’s golden era of the early 1980s froze south of the border, and sadly had problems with alcohol that Ferguson’s due diligence had failed to pick up. The late “Ralphie Milne”, as still celebrated by fans as a cult anti-hero, faded dreadfully after starring on New Year’s Day 1989 during a 3-1 defeat of Liverpool.
Milne was one of the players who become natural wastage for a club trying to finds its way back to prominence. Both the Mourinho and Louis van Gaal regimes were full of discarded and jettisoned players, though at far greater cost than the £170,000 Milne cost from Bristol City. United finished 11th in 1988-89, a season in which not even a combination of Brian McClair, the previous season’s top scorer in the First Division, and Mark Hughes, rescued from exile at Barcelona, could fire them up the league.
At that time, a popular terrace chant was “’68, ’68, life has never been so great”, a song looking back on the club’s 1968 European Cup. Fans found themselves looking back, just as they do now with celebrations of Solskjaer’s feats in 1989, and singing about Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who left Manchester ten years ago and has barely looked back.
In that 1988-89 season, there was a similar flush of youth to that which has provided some insulation for Solskjaer, but names like Tony Gill, Russell Beardsmore, Deiniol Graham, Mark Wilson or even Lee Martin, who scored the goal that won the 1990 FA Cup final, are not celebrated as a ‘Class of 1988’ in the style that Gary Neville and co continue to be.
They became victims of a manager who had to be ruthless if he was to himself survive. Such a fate may well await the likes of Mason Greenwood, Scott McTominay and Brandon Williams should Solskjaer be forced to relinquish the reins and another manager comes in with his own ideas and favoured players.
It may be 30 years ago now, but United’s previous darkest hour has plenty of echoes in the present. The club’s fans must hope that the echoes continue in what happens next.