City Ground 7th January 1990: If ever one goal changed history, this was it. Manchester United arrived at Nottingham Forest for an FA Cup tie as a team in crisis: without a win in eight games, United were 15th (yes, 15th) in the league table. Injuries to the likes of Bryan Robson and Paul Ince meant that the prospect of a victory at Forest looked remote, and media speculation suggested that defeat would mean the end of Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford.
However, a Mark Robins header ten minutes into the second-half secured an unexpected win for the visitors and kept the manager in a job. This wasn’t Robins’ only contribution during the cup run, as he also scored the winner in the semi-final replay against Oldham Athletic. United went on to lift the trophy after beating Crystal Palace in the final, courtesy of another replay and the rest, as they say, is history.
How different would English football look had Forest, and not United, triumphed in that cup tie more than 21 years ago? Had Ferguson gone, it’s fair to say that United may not have enjoyed the success that they did in the 1990’s and beyond. The title finally returned to Old Trafford in 1993 after a 26-year wait, but that drought could have been much longer if Ferguson had been replaced, and his successor hadn’t made his mark.
Would this in turn have led to Arsenal or Jack Walker-funded Blackburn Rovers becoming the dominant force in the English game? Would Liverpool and Everton have had the chance to regroup and repeat the glories of the 1980’s? Maybe, but we’ll never know.
As for Ferguson himself, it would have been interesting to see how he tried to resurrect his career, had he failed in Manchester. Five months after the cup-tie at Forest, Scotland made their customary first-round exit from the World Cup, a campaign which included a loss to Costa Rica. Had Ferguson been available at this point in time he would undoubtedly have been the frontrunner to replace Andy Roxburgh.
It’s more likely though that Ferguson would have remained in club management. He had outgrown Scottish football and he may have struggled to land another top job in England, so a move abroad may have appealed.
The English football landscape would look very different today, had Robins not stooped to head home a cross from Mark Hughes that night in Nottingham. Manchester United fans must be glad he did.