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May 8, 2013

Fergie's 'darkest period'

At the start of 1990, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (long before he was made a Knight of the Realm) was in trouble and his side were struggling at the wrong end of the Division One table. A run of eight games without a win saw the once-great Red Devils staring relegation in the face. The accepted story is that Ferguson would have been sacked if they had been knocked out of the FA Cup by Nottingham Forest on January 7. The game proved to be a reprieve from those calling for his head, but - possibly until the recent 6-1 hammering by rivals Man City - the time remains by his own admission his 'darkest period' as a manager.

The majority of Sir Alex Ferguson's first years at Manchester United were spent in a position he has since taken great pleasure in becoming unfamiliar with. Ferguson's first job at Old Trafford was to overturn the run that previous incumbent Ron Atkinson had placed them in and he succeeded in lifting the Red Devils from the relegation zone into 11th place at the end of 1986-87.

Revamping every aspect of life at the club, from training regimes to the scouting network and youth set-up, while paying particular attention to the boozing antics of a select few, Ferguson brought discipline back to the changing room. The signings of Steve Bruce, Brian McClair and Viv Anderson, among others, helped lift them to a worthy second place in the First Division, yet nine points behind champions Liverpool.

Unable to continue that kind of challenge, though, an inconsistent side slipped to 11th in their next season. At times, Ferguson's men looked like they could be title contenders; at others they would not have been out of place in Division Two. Clearly, their final position in the table was far less than expected and, with the side described as ''hard working, methodical and dull'', Fergie's cautious style was hardly winning over the fans either.

Ahead of the 1989-90 season, Ferguson's attempts to put the club's boozing history to bed came to a head and he sold Stretford End favourites Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath. Gordon Strachan had previously been offloaded to Leeds for £200,000 and the loss of such star names, while ultimately good for the club in the long-term, were not viewed as a positive step in the short-term, despite the signings of Neil Webb, Mike Phelan and Paul Ince. Since he arrived three years previously, Ferguson had bought 16 players (at a cost of around £13 million) and sold 18 with only Bryan Robson and Mike Duxbury remaining from the team he inherited.

The overhaul initially looked as if it would bear fruit with a 4-1 drubbing of Arsenal on the opening day of the new season, but four defeats in their next six games (including a 5-1 thrashing by Man City at Maine Road) saw the detractors begin to gain support. Ferguson bemoaned the club's heavy injury problems - especially with Webb snapping his Achilles tendon a few games into his United career while on England duty - but an infamous banner declaring "Three years of excuses and it's still crap... ta-ra Fergie" was soon displayed at Old Trafford, and the calls for the manager's sacking grew louder.

Yet, back against the wall, Fergie undertook what would be the first of many rearguard actions. In October and November, United turned around their early-season form and won four of seven going into December. It mattered little to the baying press pack as their one defeat, to Charlton, in the midst of the run saw The Daily Express's Steve Curry write an article entitled 'Fergie the Flop!' which referenced the fact that he had ''the worst record of any United manager of modern times''. Curry threatened that when the paying public become ''disenchanted, as they are doing now, then the wind of change blows in over Stretford".

Indeed, December brought with it a cold wind. Ferguson had claimed that it was ''a hell of burden running a club that hasn't won the title for 23 years and thinks it should do every season.'' But soon he would have more of a weight on his shoulders and he struggled to make his expensively assembled machine run smoothly.

The lead-up to Christmas saw four defeats in five - to Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Spurs and Aston Villa - with only a 0-0 draw which they dominated at Anfield a positive sign. The reaction was more anger from the fans typified by Richard Kurt who remembered in his book 'United We Stood' the reaction to the 3-0 hammering by Spurs: ''Humiliated three-nil, we jeered them off the pitch and vented our rage at the manager and chairman [Martin Edwards]."

More pressure from the media followed, which ultimately saw The Daily Express's John Bean write under a headline of 'Fergie's last stand' on December 28 that a bad result in ten days' time against Nottingham Forest in the Third Round of the FA Cup would make his position ''untenable''.

''League games at Wimbledon on Saturday and against QPR at Old Trafford on New Year's Day are important to Ferguson's immediate future,'' wrote Bean. ''But United's Cup result against Nottingham Forest is absolutely crucial... and he knows it.''

Ferguson, for his part, admitted as much: ''Everyone seems to have set the Cup tie as my trial. I can cope with that because I know that I am doing the job the right way and the motivation of the players is no problem. We simply have to get on with it and remember that the game will be as hard for Forest as it will be for us.'' After a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon and a 0-0 draw with QPR that saw United's team booed off by their own fans, they faced their FA Cup test with the threat of the axe looming. With United having won just nine of 35 games since their 2-1 home defeat by Norwich in February, the form book favoured Forest who were in mid-table in the league and in the process of winning the League Cup for the second season running.

On hostile turf at the City ground, and with a controversial Sixth Round exit at the hands of Brian Clough's men the previous year still fresh in memory, the pressure was on Fergie as Kurt remembers: "The sense of the time was that a knock-out by Forest would release the Edwards butcher's chopper."

The game itself was not an especially memorable one, with the tension palpable. New defensive signing Gary Pallister helped to keep the Forest attack at bay and, according to The Guardian's David Lacey, ensured that the home side ''did not get a serious sight of goal until the end of the match when they pushed forward in desperate numbers". With Des Walker playing a similarly solid role for Forest at the back, Lacey described the first-half as ''tightly contested and dour to the naked eye... [it] made dreary watching on television''.

However, the break that United (and Ferguson) needed came soon into the second half as Lee Martin kept the ball in play and fed Mark Hughes, who struck a devilish pass with the outside of his right boot across the box to the waiting Mark Robins. Robins, one of the original batch of 'Fergie's Fledglings' - alongside the likes of Martin and Russell Beardsmore - had only just turned 20 and was making only his third first-team appearance, but nodded home calmly to put United ahead. The Red Devils would hold on to the 1-0 scoreline, despite a late disallowed goal from Forest's Nigel Jemson jangling the nerves, and claimed a vital win.

Fergie's focus on youth had paid off in what many considered to be the defining match of his United career. ''[United] renewed faith with their supporters, thousands of whom cheered the players off at the end in an atmosphere of delirium tinged with slight disbelief,'' wrote Lacey. ''For the moment, the harbingers of doom will give their manager a break.''

What happened next? United's next game resulted in a 2-1 defeat to Derby County at Old Trafford and it would be a further two until they claimed a win - away at Millwall. Ferguson later described December 1989 as "the darkest period [he had] ever suffered in the game" but the new year would be the start of a mini-revival as he led his team to six wins out of their next ten games to finish the season in 13th place, five points ahead of relegated Sheffield Wednesday. Any dwindling thoughts from the board that Ferguson was not the right man for the job quickly vanished as he picked up his first trophy for the club by defeating Crystal Palace in a replayed FA Cup final, having played every round in the competition away from home.

The Cup win proved to be the catalyst for much more and, while then-chairman Edwards later insisted that he would still have given Ferguson more time if they had lost to Forest, the importance of that campaign cannot be understated. A year later, Fergie gave himself yet more breathing space by winning the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1991, but the Premier League and his path to greatness was on the horizon; the rest is history.

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