For many in London, the 17th of May back in 1990 was a normal, cool Thursday. But for Manchester United and then manager Sir Alex Ferguson, it was their day of reckoning. The Reds were in the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace, a match where a lot was on the line – for Ferguson, it was his job.
Ferguson, who was brought in four years prior, was thought to be United’s saviour – a messiah that would bring United back to the top after years of mediocrity.
And yet, despite splashing the cash to reinforce his squad season after season, United failed to clinch any trophy. Furthermore, they weren’t even getting close. Indeed, the Reds have only won six of their first 20 games during the 1989-90 season, a period which saw them lose embarrassingly against fiercest rivals Manchester City 5-1 – sending them to 15th in the table, just a few places shy of relegation.
“It was the darkest period I’ve ever suffered in the game,” the Scotsman recalled.
With many calling for his head, United were under a lot of pressure to sack Sir Alex – and United would’ve missed the opportunity to witness his legacy. For his part, then club chairman Martin Edwards admitted the club came close to doing just that.
“If it had gone on for another season or whatever without any success at all, the pressure would have been there to do something.
“There was a lot of pressure there to make a change. People were saying he had come in from Scotland, was he the right man to manage a big club in England, so we had all this outside pressure,” Edwards said.
Despite the opposition and discontent coming from the club’s fans, Ferguson still managed to lead his side to their first FA Cup final in four years. No matter their league form, the stature of the club meant they were favourites to clinch the coveted title. After all, they were facing Crystal Palace, who were competing in the first FA Cup final in their club’s entire history.
Five days before, on 12 May, United almost lost their chance to claim silverware – and Fergie was almost sent home packing back to Scotland. Indeed, after a tense 2-2 draw in regular time, Palace were about to do the unthinkable as they took the lead two minutes into extra time. It was not until the 109th minute – a mere 11 minutes from defeat, that United’s Mark Hughes would score the equaliser and force a replay.
And so there Ferguson was, back in the dugout at Wembley on 17 May, hoping for his side to deliver. He had done the needed tactical tweaks. He had told his men all the instructions – it was now a matter of execution.
Ninety minutes later, United won with the narrowest of margins, a 1-0 victory. And Ferguson’s job was safe, as Edwards said, “Winning the cup that year was the saviour.”
What if Ferguson failed that year? What if United’s under-21 player Lee Martin did not score that pivotal goal in the 59th minute to hand the Reds the FA Cup? Would United have gone on to become one of Europe’s top clubs? Would have they gone on and win a record 20 top-flight league titles?
We would never know.