A The Manchester United manager takes his expensively assembled side to Villa Park, needing three points to stop their slide down the table and give the fans something to cheer on. Sound familiar? Ralf Rangnick has a tricky task this weekend, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as the task Alex Ferguson faced when he went to Villa in the winter of 1989.
After three years at United, it looked like Ferguson was following in the footsteps of his predecessors. He was apparently unable to get an air out of his team – which the press said had cost a fortune – and they were drifting dangerously close to the relegation zone. It was no wonder some fans decided enough was enough. Pete Molyneux’s famous banner during a home defeat to Crystal Palace in December 1989 painted a very clear picture: “Three years of apologies and it’s still crap. Your Ra Fergie.
United were abysmal during the winter months of the 1989-90 season. They played 11 league matches between November 25 and February 3 and failed to win any of them. The most frustrating thing for the fans was that the players were able to raise their level against the best opponents. United played Liverpool at Anfield two days before Christmas and should have won the game, ultimately having to settle for a goalless draw. That performance was a microcosm of the decade for United: able to compete with their close neighbours, but unable to sustain that intensity and focus outside of that scorching atmosphere. It must have been infuriating for United supporters.
As if to prove the point, United traveled to Villa Park three days later, on Boxing Day 1989, and suffered a demoralizing 3-0 defeat. They were without influential skipper Bryan Robson – another key part of their problems in the 1980s – and their performance was pitiful. The dissenting voices on the terraces grew louder.
Villa Park would be nice to Ferguson later in his managerial career, but not during his winter of discontent. Villa were flying high under Graham Taylor, battling at the top of the table with the two previous league champions, Liverpool and Arsenal. To make matters worse for Ferguson, they were doing it with Paul McGrath – a player he had sold – rallying their defence. Taylor signed McGrath for £425,000 in the summer of 1989 and he gradually began to demonstrate why he would become a hero at the club.
McGrath thrived alongside fellow centre-backs Kent Nielsen and Derek Mountfield. With goalkeeper Nigel Spink playing behind a solid five-man defence, the groundwork was in place for a surprising title bid. Experienced Gordon Cowans in midfield, flanked by Tony Daley and the unexpected success of left winger Ian Ormondroyd, provided the ammunition for Ian Olney and David Platt, another player who had come through the exit door at Old Trafford.
Platt was starting to establish himself as a star for the future, winning the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award at the end of the season before his life-changing experience at Italia 90. He used to making dashing runs from midfield and arriving in the box at the right place at the right time – as he showed against United.
With hundreds of people locked outside Villa Park, the midday kick-off was delayed for 15 minutes before the crowd of 41,247 piled into the ground. From the start, it was clear that Ferguson’s struggling team was going to have a very long afternoon. Without Robson, Neil Webb or Danny Wallace, their lack of drive and creativity was evident throughout. Nielsen kept Mark Hughes quiet and the visitors only managed four shots in the game – none of them off target.
United reached half-time unconcerned but the deadlock was finally broken in rambling fashion in the 56th minute. After a Cowans free kick was cleared by Mike Phelan, headers from Mountfield and McGrath led to Platt being disallowed by Jim Leighton. But the rebound fell on Olney, who headed home from a tight angle, scoring his ninth league goal of the season.
Villa doubled their lead seven minutes later. Olney pulled Daley away and, after the winger hovered over Phelan, he squared for Platt who held off Viv Anderson and left Leighton on the seat of his pants to score his 12th league goal of an already memorable campaign. United had no response to the onslaught.
The last goal came in the 78th minute. Platt was involved again, dismissing a cross from Daley for full-back Kevin Gage, who drilled home from the edge of the box. Three goals in 22 minutes condemned United to a fourth league defeat in five matches.
Villa fans loved it. A chant of “Fergie, Fergie, out of work!” echoed around the Holte End, but cries of “What a load of rubbish” from traveling supporters would have been more ominous for Ferguson. As Ferguson and his players headed for the tunnel after the 3-0 thrashing, many angry fans made their feelings known.
“Sparkling Villa are giving United a hangover,” said the Guardian headline, as the press swirled around Ferguson. “United’s board cannot continue to ignore an embarrassing six-game losing streak…not when they paid £13m to win the league,” John Wragg wrote in the Express. “Villa is a team built on solid foundations, character and ability. United are a team built on sand. The knives were sharp.
Ferguson was equally blunt in his assessment of his team. “It was another example of the lack of consistency that has plagued United over the years,” he complained. “Half a dozen of our lads don’t seem to realize that you play Liverpool-type games with this club all the time. After Anfield, and considering the game obviously wore us out, it was a terrible disappointment.
Ferguson kept his players inside the dressing room for 40 minutes – not that it did much good in terms of league performances. With two draws and three defeats in their next five league games, United have dropped to 17th place, just one point from the relegation zone.
However, as United struggled in the league, they gained momentum in the FA Cup and, at the end of the season, it was Ferguson and not Taylor who claimed silverware. Villa ended the season as runners-up to Liverpool in the league, while United beat Crystal Palace in a replay of the FA Cup final to claim their first major trophy of the Ferguson era.
Having looked likely to lose his job over Christmas, Ferguson had somehow started one of the great dynasties in English football history. Football really is a fun old game. Rangnick hopes he can spark a similar revival by taking his beleaguered players to Villa Park this weekend.