How Man United's history was forever altered by the 1990 FA Cup final
Comparisons between the Manchester United who eventually beat Crystal Palace in the 1990 FA Cup final and the current club who play the same opponents in Saturday's final have been freely made, yet are largely ill-fitting.
There are some similarities: The £200 million-plus spent during Louis van Gaal's time at Old Trafford and a then sky-high summer 1989 spree of £7 m on five players had done little to improve a club struggling to meet expectations. United had finished 13th in the First Division, 31 points behind champions Liverpool and the manager was doubted by many fans.
Yet Alex Ferguson then and Van Gaal now are at different stages of their careers. Ferguson was 48, and would have 23 more years in the dugout at Old Trafford; Van Gaal, 64, has talked of retiring to his villa in Portugal ever since joining the club in the summer of 2014. Even if winning the FA Cup buys him another year in charge, he will be gone soon enough.
Ferguson could set a course toward his future successes, while the modern United merely crave a trophy to soothe the failings of the club since Ferguson retired as manager in 2013. And these days, the FA Cup, the event that once stopped a nation, is a lesser concern in a time when both the Premier League, which in 1990 was two years away from its formation, and the Champions League dominate the landscape.
Ahead of Saturday's final, just before kickoff, Ferguson, these days a club director, and former Palace boss Steve Coppell, will walk out with the trophy. The past week's build-up has been one long nostalgia trip back to when that pair were competing managers in a classic final drawn 3-3 after extra time, before United won a Thursday night replay 1-0.
Ferguson will hope the current United can lift the trophy that he eventually won five times, with 1990 the first of 38 winners' medals as United manager. Coppell, the former United winger who was just 34 when taking Palace to their first and only major final, has not managed a club since being sacked by Bristol City in 2010, but has recently been advising current Palace manager Alan Pardew on an ad-hoc basis.
Pardew, the hard-running midfielder whose winning goal in a 4-3 semifinal thriller with Liverpool fired the Eagles to Wembley, made glowing mention of Coppell when his current Palace team beat Watford 2-1 in last month's semifinal.
"We paid a bit of homage to that side with the flick-on for the corner," said Pardew of Yannick Bolasie's headed opener, assisted by Damien Delaney. "Steve Coppell can take a bit of credit for that one. This is a different team, with a different spirit, but the characteristics are similar to 1990."
The neutral might hope that Saturday's showpiece can repeat the pulsating, heart-stopping entertainment that the initial 1990 final provided. United were nothing like the winning machine that Ferguson would eventually build. Among United fans, the overriding emotion was blind panic. It took a Mark Hughes double to rescue United. In extra-time, he made it 3-3, his goals sandwiching strikes from Ian Wright.
Wright, who had recently recovered from a broken leg and came on as a second-half substitute, showed why he would eventually be regarded as one of the best English strikers of 1990s, especially with his first goal, which was a searing solo run through the heart of United's defence.
"If I hadn't achieved anything else in my life, that memory would have been enough for me," he said this week. Wright, who was sold to Arsenal the following year, will be a TV pundit on Saturday.
Wright's second, a volley from close range, was a moment that ended up deciding the destination of the trophy, and perhaps the future of United with it.
Goalkeeper Jim Leighton, who Ferguson had brought south from Aberdeen in 1987, had lost the flight of a cross by Palace winger John Salako, these days an assistant to Pardew. Leighton had committed a similar error for the goal which had earlier allowed Gary O'Reilly to score an opener that was levelled by a Bryan Robson header. Ferguson, spotting a motionless and uncommunicative Leighton in the dressing room post-match, wearing the downcast expression of "a beaten man," as the elder Scot wrote in his 1999 autobiography, was driven to make the type of ruthless decision for which he would become notorious.
The following Thursday saw Leighton dropped by Ferguson, and in a time of no goalkeeping substitutes, from the squad entirely. "It was an animal instinct, I had to discard poor old Jim," Ferguson said in the aftermath. "My conscience is clear. I have never done anything like it before and I don't want to do anything like it again -- ever."
In the replay, a single Lee Martin goal defeated a Palace team that was unable to reproduce the energy of Saturday's match, as stand-in United goalkeeper Les Sealey kept a clean sheet. That first trophy win gave Ferguson and United a taste for success. The manager would swiftly become much more comfortable in making that type of brutal decision.
On the Thursday, Leighton sat in sorrowful silence in Wembley's Royal Box as Sealey seized his moment, finishing Leighton's United career with it.
Leighton, in the build-up to this year's final, has refused all requests to talk about the decision; he has not spoken to Ferguson since he was finally released by the club in 1992. His banishment was the forerunner to feuds that the manager would have in the future with the likes of Paul Ince, David Beckham and, most famously, Roy Keane. Even Robson and Steve Bruce, the leader of the defence, found their United careers ended ingloriously. Both were club captains when each was left out of the 1994 and 1996 FA Cup final squads, respectively -- never given a Wembley chance to make their final United bows.
While Palace has stayed far closer to the club it was in 1990, with Pardew saying this week that "we were all very close friends and it made this club," United itself is an utterly different entity. Back in that era, United were already the best-supported club in English football, but not nearly on the scale of the multi-billion operation of 2016.
Robson, who lifted the trophy in 1990, has returned as a club ambassador but most of the rest have long moved on. Martin the match-winner was never again a first-team regular, while Hughes, United's saviour that Saturday, was shown the door when suddenly sold to Chelsea in the summer of 1995. His strike partner that afternoon, Brian McClair, lasted longest of all, as a first-team player until 1998, and then leading the club's youth academy until 2015.
As 1990 and Leighton's sorry fate precluded, Ferguson was always likely to be left last man standing.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.