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'Three years of excuses and it's still crap': Mourinho dredging up unwanted reminders of the darkest days

Failure to beat Newcastle today will see Manchester United equal a record that’s been in place since Alex Ferguson’s self-confessed ‘darkest period’.

Image: * Steve Etherington

IT WAS A long-suffering fan called Pete Molyneux who unfurled it. He’d had it for a while, contemplating when was the right time.

When United surrendered the lead at Old Trafford and lost 2-1 to Crystal Palace on 9 December 1989 – their eighth defeat of the league season – he’d finally had enough.

The message on the makeshift banner – a bed-sheet daubed with black paint – is pretty infamous now. 

3 YEARS OF EXCUSES AND IT’S STILL CRAP … TA RA FERGIE”

Unsurprisingly, Molyneux had to put up with quite a bit of abuse once Alex Ferguson turned a corner and began to oversee a glorious period of success for Manchester United. But it’s worth remembering that at the time, the dissent was shared by the bulk of the club’s support.

United had already succumbed to the demoralising derby thrashing at Maine Road and Ferguson was running out of ideas. In the aftermath of that defeat, he went home, got into bed and put a pillow over his head.

He’d spent big and nothing was working. Between December and February, United went ten games without a win. But it wasn’t just the results. It was the general toxic atmosphere engulfing the club.

Ferguson made a commitment to putting his own stamp on the side but new recruits needed to bed in and the one thing the manager didn’t have was time. Gary Pallister was a record signing but was struggling to deal with the pressure and was torn to shreds against Manchester City. Afterwards, he suffered relentless abuse from his own fans and still refers to the game as the lowest point of his career.

Soccer - Barclay's League Division One - Charlton Athletic v Manchester United An understandably tense Alex Ferguson watches on as his side lose 2-0 to Charlton in November 1989. Source: S&G

Later in the campaign. in front of almost 46,000 at Old Trafford, United suffered a 3-0 loss in the League Cup to Tottenham and were mercilessly booed off at full-time.

And it was coming from all angles.

After another setback – this time to Charlton at The Valley – the Daily Express carried an article with the headline ‘Fergie The Flop’ and detailed how a change in management was inevitable owing to the discontent in the stands.

At a shareholders meeting in December, both Martin Edwards – then chairman – and Ferguson faced the wrath of supporters. This was also the season when property tycoon Michael Knighton seemed set to take over before the entire deal fell to pieces: more embarrassment for a club already in the mire. Fed up and furious, the fans fumed and lashed and pointed fingers that night. And there was no hiding.

It seemed a point of no return. Ferguson, so often a strong, rallying figure, was sheepish and apologetic. There was nothing left to say. United were adrift and everything was unravelling.

Of course, we all know how the story ended. Mark Robins scored the winner in the FA Cup Third Round against Nottingham Forest and United went on to win the trophy.

But, print the legend, etc. It’s not quite the full truth.

United were fortunate to beat Forest that night. Nigel Jemson had a goal harshly ruled out after a mistake from Jim Leighton and who knows what would have happened in a replay.

“Some joy at last for Alex Ferguson”, is how Barry Davies put it during his commentary of the game. And it was accurate.

At best, it was respite. Some brief shelter from the storm.

And that was the story of the rest of that season: United barely scraping over the line. In the next round of the cup, they needed an 86th-minute winner from Clayton Blackmore to beat non-league Hereford United at Edgar Street.

The more important Robins goal came in the semi-finals when United couldn’t shake off Joe Royle’s Oldham. They drew the first game 3-3 and with the replay tied at 1-1 in extra-time, the callow striker came off the bench and grabbed another crucial but completely forgotten winner.

Even in the final against Crystal Palace, United were incredibly fortunate and needed an equaliser from Mark Hughes to level at 3-3 and force a replay.

Soccer - FA Cup Final Replay - Crystal Palace v Manchester United - Wembley Stadium Source: PA

And, in between all of that, there were other setbacks, including a subdued scoreless draw at home to QPR that led to more boos when everyone was finally put out of their misery.

That episode came in the middle of a confidence-sapping run that Jose Mourinho could equal later this afternoon: five home games without a win.

In 1990, Ferguson rescued himself by winning silverware. It covered the cracks. It was enough of a counter-argument when the whingeing started. The following season, they claimed the Cup Winners’ Cup and the success was both infectious and addictive.

The one key difference is that Mourinho has already played the silverware card. When his United were playing poorly and being left in the dirt by their rivals, he could still point to triumphs like the Europa League and League Cup as evidence that everything was working just fine.

West Ham United v Manchester United - Premier League - London Stadium Source: Chris Radburn

Now, he’s struggling for any counter-argument. Instead, he’s facing into unwanted reminders of what Ferguson referred to as his ‘darkest period’. And the same toxic atmosphere that clouded so much of that 1989/90 season is the biggest concern now. The fans are turned off. The critics are rounding. The boos have already began.

A win over Newcastle – so regular and nondescript before – has become a hopeful thing now. And even if United manage it later today, it’s hard to glean too much importance from it.

At best it’s respite. Some brief shelter from the storm.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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