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History of Manchester United F.C. (1986–1998)

Preceding article: History of Manchester United F.C. (1969-1986)
Succeeding article: Manchester United F.C. season 1998-99 (the Treble)

The arrival of Alex Ferguson

Alex Ferguson was hired from Aberdeen barely hours after Ron Atkinson was sacked, taking United from just above the relegation zone to 11th place. During the close season Ferguson signed Viv Anderson and Brian McClair for bargain prices, whilst Steve Bruce and Jim Leighton arrived during the following season. Behind the scenes Ferguson was busy boosting United's youth system, strengthening the ground staff and improving the scouting system.

Second place

In 1987-88, United finished runners-up in the league and finished nine points behind champions Liverpool. They never looked like overhauling Kenny Dalglish's men, and blew their best chance of success by losing to Arsenal in the Fifth Round of the F.A Cup. At the end of the season, fans celebrated the return of Mark Hughes after his spell abroad at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

Striker Brian McClair, 24 First Division goals for United in his first season at the club, and was the club's highest scorer in a single season since George Best some 20 years earlier. He had been purchased from Celtic for £850,000 - a considerable bargain, as he was originally valued at £2million.

Arthur Albiston, Peter Davenport and Kevin Moran were among the players to leave Old Trafford after the 1987-88 season.

United had expressed interest in signing the Newcastle United midfielder Paul Gascoigne, but the player was surprisingly sold to Tottenham instead. There had also been talk of signing the Rangers and England defender Terry Butcher early in the season, but Butcher was happy in Scotland and United signed Norwich's Steve Bruce instead.

Under Pressure

With a slump in form and a number of injuries in the 1988-89 season, Ferguson began introducing some of his youth players such as Lee Sharpe into the side. United had been expected to feature in the 1988-89 league title race, but after a promising start their form slumped after Christmas and they finished 11th in the final table. Their last chance of success was thrown away in March when they lost to Nottingham Forest in the F.A Cup quarter final.

The end of the 1988-89 season saw a further exodus of players. Gordon Strachan, the 31-year-old Scottish midfielder who had played in the 1985 F.A Cup winning side, decided that he needed a new challenge and accepted Leeds United's terms for a £300,000 move. Norman Whiteside, who had been instrumental in the two F.A Cup triumphs under Ron Atkinson but had endured a succession of injuries combined with a loss of form in recent times, was sold to Everton in a £600,000 deal. Paul McGrath, another player desiring a new challenge, opted for a £500,000 move to Aston Villa.

New signings were made in the summer as Alex Ferguson prepared to build a side which he felt was capable of winning trophies. He paid £2.3million for Middlesbrough's lanky centre-half Gary Pallister, £1.5million for Nottingham Forest's talented midfielder Neil Webb, and £1.8million for West Ham United's promising young midfielder Paul Ince.

Fergie silences the critics with cup win

However, he came under fire for some poor performances and there was also a media furore over a takeover bid by Michael Knighton. Chairman Martin Edwards agreed to sell the club to Knighton for £20 million, and Knighton even juggled a ball on the Old Trafford pitch, but the deal fell through when his financial backers pulled out. The addition of Neil Webb, Paul Ince, Gary Pallister, Mike Phelan and Danny Wallace in the 1989 close season was seen as vital for Alex Ferguson's hopes of mounting a serious title challenge, but Webb's form slumped dramatically after he was injured playing for England, and Pallister's form was initially poor, despite his transfer fee of £2.3m, then a British record for a defender. United started the 1989-90 season with a 4-1 win over champions Arsenal, but a 5-1 defeat to Manchester City in September triggered an awful run of form which pushed the club to the brink of the relegation zone. This depressing run of form sparked rumours that Ferguson would be fired, but United won the 1990 FA Cup, silencing the critics and beginning the most successful period in the team's history. United beat Crystal Palace in the final, who were managed by former United player Steve Coppell.

Ferguson later revealed that the directors told him that they had never considered sacking him. Although naturally disappointed with the lack of progress in the league, they were pleased with the way he had reorganised the club. But Ferguson feared that if it had not been for the F.A Cup triumph, the pressure to sack him would have become irresistible and he would surely have been ousted.

The only major signing at Old Trafford during the summer of 1990 was Denis Irwin, a 24-year-old full-back recruited from Oldham Athletic in a £500,000 deal.

Euro glory and floatation

1990-91 saw United progress further, although a lack of league consistency saw them finish sixth in the First Division. They lost to Second Division Sheffield Wednesday, managed by former United manager Ron Atkinson, in the League Cup final. But the season ended on a high note when United marked the return of English clubs to European football (following the ban arising from the Heysel Disaster) by beating Barcelona 2-1 in the Cup Winners' Cup final in Rotterdam. Mark Hughes scored both of the goals against his former club, and a late goal-line clearance by Clayton Blackmore prevented the match from going into extra time.

Also in 1991, United floated on the London Stock Exchange, with a valuation of £18 million. This move brought the club's finances into the public eye, and made it vulnerable to takeover speculation.

Nearly but not quite

At the end of the 1990-91 season, goalkeeper Les Sealey signed for Aston Villa after rejecting a new one-year contract; he had been hoping for a two-year deal but opted for a transfer when he was offered better terms elsewhere. His successor was Peter Schmeichel, the 27-year-old Brondby and Denmark international goalkeeper. Also joining the ranks was QPR and England full-back Paul Parker, also 27, who had impressed at the previous summer's World Cup. United started the season well, and were top of the league in the New Year, but a failure to score goals, coupled with a fixture log jam which included four games in eight days toward the end of the season caused a slump in results and they finished second to Leeds United. They won the League Cup, defeating Nottingham Forest 1-0 in the final, but this was no consolation and the season was considered a disaster. One of the few good things for United was the emergence of the extremely talented 18-year-old Welsh winger Ryan Giggs, who was voted Young Player of the Year.

Desperate not to endure the same misery in the following season's new Premier League, Ferguson delved into the transfer market and was determined to sign a top striker. First he tried to sign David Hirst from Sheffield Wednesday then Alan Shearer from Southampton, but the player moved to Blackburn Rovers instead. Ferguson raised a few eyebrows when he shelled out £1million on a player with no top flight experience - Cambridge United striker Dion Dublin.

Champions at last

Manchester United had a mixed first few months in the Premier League, slipping up and down the top ten of the 22-club division. But the £1.2 million acquisition of Eric Cantona, the Frenchman who had helped Leeds win the previous season's title, in late November helped United improve their league form and cruise to the league title after a 26-year wait. Young winger Ryan Giggs was voted PFA Young Player of the Year for the second year running.

After the end of the season, United paid an English record fee of £3.75 million for Nottingham Forest's 22-year-old Irish midfielder Roy Keane. Alex Ferguson saw Keane as a long-term replacement for the aging Bryan Robson, who at 36 was no longer an automatic choice.

New striker Dion Dublin missed much of the season, due to a double leg fracture suffered against Crystal Palace when he fell victim to a reckless tackle from Eric Young. However he still gained a title medal.

Veteran striker Mark Hughes, fast approaching 30, had another strong season as he topped the club's goalscoring charts with 15 league goals.

The double

Manchester United led the 1993-94 Premiership table virtually all season long, with Eric Cantona scoring 25 goals in all competitions and the likes of Paul Ince, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe providing their own fair share of goals. United finished as champions with a seven-point gap over runners-up Blackburn and completed the double by beating Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup final. Eric Cantona, who scored two penalties in the final at Wembley, was voted PFA Player of the Year. Sadly, the season is also remembered for the death of Sir Matt Busby on January 20 1994. United also reached the final of the League Cup, but with Peter Schmeichel suspended, and Andrei Kanchelskis sent off during the game, they lost to Aston Villa 3-1.

Ferguson felt that his current squad were good enough to challenge on all fronts in the season which followed the double, and made only one close season signing, paying Blackburn Rovers £1.2million for 24-year-old defender David May. He signed May in the hope that he would develop into a suitable replacement for the ageing Steve Bruce.

Veterans Les Sealey, Clayton Blackmore, Bryan Robson and Mike Phelan all left United at the end of the 1993-94, after spending a collective total of 36 years at the club. Youngsters Colin McKee, Neil Whitworth, Brian Carey and Darren Ferguson all moved on to new clubs.

Season of headlines ends without a trophy

The 1994-95 season rarely saw Manchester United out of the headlines, although they were not always the sort of headlines the club wanted.

Eric Cantona was banned for 3 months initially by the club themselves, only for the FA to impose a further 5 month suspension, and ordered to serve 120 hours' community service for kicking Matthew Simmons, a Crystal Palace hooligan who had taunted him with racial epithets after being sent off in a January fixture at Selhurst Park. United were also without players like Paul Parker, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis for long periods of time due to injury.

On a brighter note, United broke the English transfer record again by paying £7million (£6million in cash plus £1million-rated winger Keith Gillespie) for Newcastle United's free-scoring striker Andy Cole. He had been signed just two weeks before the Cantona incident as an eventual replacement for Mark Hughes, but with Cantona suspended it was Hughes who ended up being Cole's partner for the rest of the season. Cole didn't take long to get amongst the goals, bagging five goals in a premiership record 9-0 trouncing of Ipswich FC at Old Trafford in 1995.

United almost made it three Premiership titles in a row, but just couldn't get the better of West Ham United who held them to a 1-1 away draw on the final day of the season. The disappointment was made all the more frustrating because champions Blackburn had lost their final game of the season to Liverpool (the former club of manager Kenny Dalglish) and a victory for United would have seen Alex Ferguson's side win the title. The FA Cup also slipped out of United's grasp when they lost 1-0 to unfancied Everton in the final at Wembley. This left United without a major trophy for the first time since 1989.

United raked in £2million in September when striker Dion Dublin was sold to Coventry City in a £2million deal. Dublin's chances of regular first team football had been sabotaged by a broken leg and the arrival of Eric Cantona, so he opted for a move to Highfield Road as he knew he would be virtually guaranteed a place in Phil Neal's team.

The double double

Before the 1995-96 season began, United announced the sale of three of their star players - Paul Ince to Inter Milan, Mark Hughes to Chelsea and Andrei Kanchelskis to Everton - for a combined fee of £14million. The sale of these players proved controversial, and some fans even called for Ferguson to be sacked.

Alex Ferguson was expected to splash out a large sum of money on a world class player—Roberto Baggio, Marc Overmars, Darren Anderton, David Platt (who had been a United youth player in the mid 1980s) and Paul Gascoigne (who had snubbed the club in favour of Spurs in 1988) were all linked with moves to United. But United began the season without a major signing and a side made up of young players like David Beckham (20), Gary Neville (20), Philip Neville (18), Paul Scholes (21) and Nicky Butt (20) lost 3-1 at Aston Villa on the opening day of the season. Many pundits wrote United's title chances off and expected big spending clubs like Newcastle, Liverpool and Arsenal to win the season's honours. Alan Hansen's assessment "you'll never win anything with kids" on Match Of The Day on 19 August 1995 was the most memorable.

Alex Ferguson was defiant of the critics, and following the return of Eric Cantona in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool in early October, United went into overdrive. They chased Newcastle United for the top-of-the-table position and didn't give up hope even when trailing Kevin Keegan's side by 10 points at Christmas.

But as the season heated up Alex Ferguson entered into some mind games with Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan claiming certain teams in the Premier League tried harder to beat Manchester United than any other team. Prompting a furious Keegan to respond with "I will love it if we beat them, love it".

United finally went top of the Premiership in mid-March, shortly after beating Newcastle at St James' Park, and their title success was confirmed with a 3-0 away win at Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough on the final day of the season. A week later United beat Liverpool 1-0 in the FA Cup final to become the first ever English club to win the league title/FA Cup double twice. Eric Cantona, who scored 19 goals in 1995-96 (including the FA Cup final winner), was voted Footballer of the Year by football journalists who were impressed at the way he had returned from his suspension. Cantona was made team captain following the departure of veteran Steve Bruce to Birmingham City.

Bruce was not the only player to walk out of the Old Trafford exit door in the summer of 1996. After five years at the club (the final two of which had been plagued by injury), full-back Paul Parker joined Derby County on a free transfer. Winger Lee Sharpe, frustrated with not appearing in as many games as a player of his calibre might expect, became the most expensive player to leave Old Trafford when he joined Leeds United for £4million.

1995-96 was one of the most successful seasons in the history of Manchester United, and the success was perhaps made even sweeter by the fact that so many people had written the club's chances off almost before the season began.

Another title

Manchester United won their fourth Premiership title in five seasons in 1996-97, with little-known Norwegian striker Ole Gunnar Solskjær forcing his way into the side after his £1.5million move from Molde F.K. and scoring 19 goals in all competitions. Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Gary Neville all had an impressive seasons while Eric Cantona and Andy Cole both fell below their expected standards. There was disappointment in the UEFA Champions League as they demolished FC Porto 4-0 on aggregate before falling in the semi-finals to eventual winners Borussia Dortmund.

The club's most expensive acquisition in the summer of 1996 had been Karel Poborský, the 23-year-old Czech winger signed from Slavia Prague for £3.5million. But he was unable to claim the right-wing position from the brilliant young David Beckham and moved to Benfica after just 18 months at Old Trafford.

At the end of the season, Eric Cantona sent shock waves throughout the footballing world by announcing his retirement from football just a few days before his 31st birthday. Cantona explained his relatively early retirement by saying that he wanted to retire while still at his peak, and not wallow away into mediocrity. He was replaced by the respected England international Teddy Sheringham, a £3.5million signing from Tottenham who was initially disappointing but would later start to repay his fee in style.

Arsenal pip United to the title

The 1997-98 season saw Manchester United overhauled by Arsenal in the Premiership and finish empty-handed for only the second time in the 1990s. Shortly after this disappointment, Alex Ferguson went on a spending spree of £28.35 million (twice breaking the club's transfer record) by signing Dutch defender Jaap Stam from PSV, Trinidadian striker Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa and Swedish winger Jesper Blomqvist from Parma. He was determined to avoid disappointment in 1998-99, although even he could surely not have predicted just how successful United would be.

The summer of 1998 saw the departure of the club's two longest-serving players. Brian McClair ended his 11-year association with United by returning to his first club Motherwell, while Gary Pallister returned to Middlesbrough after nine years at Old Trafford. Pallister had cost £2.3million on his arrival in 1989, and despite being in his 33rd year Bryan Robson had been prepared to pay £2.5million for his services - so United had made a £200,000 profit.

Footnotes

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