In the winter of 1991, Manchester United stood atop the English Football League, and appeared ready to finally grasp the title which they had been eyeing enviously for so long. It was Alex Ferguson’s sixth season in charge of Manchester United, the first four of which had passed without any sort of trophy, while United had last won what was still then the First Division almost twenty-five frustrating years ago, under Matt Busby in 1966-67.
Just a couple of seasons before, in December 1989, United had ended the decade barely outside the relegation zone. Earlier in the campaign, a banner displayed inside Old Trafford had read ‘Three years of excuses and it’s still crap…ta-ra Fergie’, which was as much of a threat as a complaint, for the press constantly speculated that the manger was on the verge of the sack. Ferguson later described it as ‘the darkest period I have ever suffered in the game’.
But following a now almost mythical goal by Mark Robins against Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup, Manchester United went on to win the FA Cup trophy at the end of the 1989-90 season, and the following year added the lustre of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, triumphing over the might of Barcelona 2-1 in the final.
Come the onset of the 1991-92 season, Ferguson believed that his side now possessed sufficient tools and the right mentality to win the league. Brian Kidd had been promoted to the role of assistant manager, as Archie Knox departed for Rangers, preferring to assist Walter Smith. Ferguson completed two major signings in Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel plus Paul Parker, a nippy full-back. 17-year-old Ryan Giggs, hot on the heels of Lee Sharpe, was ready to establish himself in the first team. And the recently arrived Soviet winger Andrei Kanchelskis was rapidly making an impression down the right flank.
They added to an experienced back line comprising Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, and Denis Irwin, a steely midfield which combined an ageing Bryan Robson, steady Neil Webb, and the fierce engine of Paul Ince, and Mark Hughes and Brian McClair, the side’s first-choice strike force, led the attack.
For so much of 1991-92, everything went so well. United topped the league from the first game of the season, and at no point during the extent of the campaign dropped below positions 1 and 2. But while they dominated the first half of the season and ended the year in first place, Ferguson felt that they were lacking firepower, a problem only exacerbated by the Old Trafford pitch.
They were incessantly linked with Southampton’s Alan Shearer, but the young England striker wanted to remain on the south coast until the summer before deciding where to move. So as a quick fix, Ferguson considered bringing in Mick Harford – a peculiar proposition, given that he was nearing his 33rd birthday, hardly prolific, and playing for relegation-threatened Luton Town.
Harford was scoring goals for Luton, but had last managed double figures in a season way back in 1985-86. Yet Ferguson explained:
‘Our pitch was terrible. That’s why I tried to sign Mick Harford. To try and play football on that pitch was impossible and I thought if I got Mick, we could have just played it up there and let Mick whack the centre-halves out of the road. That was a mistake. We should have signed him.’
For in the end, after pulling out of negotiations for Harford and battling falteringly back and forth, Leeds pipped United to the league.
Having scored 19 goals in the last six league games of 1991, United managed just 18 in the next 20, while Leeds were aided by the assists of a supremely talented Frenchman: Eric Cantona, a mid-season £900,000 signing from Nîmes. In truth Cantona played an influential but relatively bit-part role, as Leeds relied on the goals of Lee Chapman and the midfield quartet of Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed. Howard Wilkinson remains the last English manager to win the top division.
That summer, Alan Shearer rejected Ferguson’s overtures – and not for the last time – in favour of Blackburn Rovers and Kenny Dalglish. Sheffield Wednesday would not even countenance the sale of David Hirst. United instead spent £1 million on a 23-year-old Dion Dublin from Cambridge, and floundered until November, when for £1.2 million they captured Cantona from Leeds.
The move only came about when Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby telephoned his United counterpart Martin Edwards, enquiring about the availability of Dennis Irwin. Irwin was the last player Ferguson was willing to let go, but still in need of a striker, he instructed Edwards to ask about Cantona, and within days the deal was complete. The same curious gambit a few years later resulted in Keith Gillespie travelling north as United acquired Newcastle’s Andy Cole.
With Cantona inspiring the attack for the remainder of 1992-93, a surge from tenth place saw United claim the inaugural Premier League title. Losing only twice after Cantona’s arrival, they ended up on top by ten points. Ferguson would reflect on the improvement to the playing surface which allowed his side, from the mid-90s until the end of the decade, to play expansive, free-flowing, trophy-laden football, saying
‘The pitch is fantastic now. Tony Sinclair [the head groundsman] has done a great job and it’s been of benefit to us. The pitches have been one of the factors in the improvement of the game. With the speed of the game nowadays, you need good pitches.’
But despite all the success he went on to enjoy, he could still lament missing out on Mick Harford. In his first autobiography, published in 2000 and entitled Managing My Life, he reflected of the 1991-92 season, ‘If I had acted as purposefully as I should have done, we would have won the league’.