When Aston Villa humbled Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United
A Manchester United manager takes his expensively assembled team to Villa Park needing three points to stop their slide down the table and give fans something to cheer. Sound familiar? Ralf Rangnick has a tricky assignment this weekend, but it’s nowhere near as tough as the task Alex Ferguson faced when he went to Villa in the winter of 1989.
After three years at United, it looked as if Ferguson was going the way of his predecessors. He was seemingly unable to get a tune out of his squad – which the press regularly pointed out had cost a fortune – and they were drifting perilously close to the relegation zone. It was little wonder some fans had 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 excuses and it’s still crap. Ta Ra Fergie.”
United were abysmal in the winter months of the 1989-90 season. They played 11 league matches between 25 November and 3 February, and did not win any of them. The most frustrating thing for fans was that the players were capable of raising their game against the best opponents. United played Liverpool at Anfield two days before Christmas and should have won the game, eventually having to settle for a goalless draw. That performance was a microcosm of the decade for United: able to compete with their near neighbours, but unable to sustain that intensity and concentration when out of that red-hot atmosphere. It must have been infuriating for United supporters.
As if to prove the point, United went to Villa Park three days later, on Boxing Day 1989, and suffered a demoralising 3-0 defeat. They were without influential skipper Bryan Robson – another key component of their problems in the 1980s – and their display was pitiful. The dissenting voices on the terraces were growing ever louder.
Villa Park would be kind to Ferguson later in his managerial career, but not during his winter of discontent. Villa were flying high under Graham Taylor, tussling at the top of the table with the previous two league champions, Liverpool and Arsenal. To make matters worse for Ferguson, they were doing so with Paul McGrath – a player he had sold – marshalling their defence. Taylor signed McGrath for £425,000 in the summer of 1989 and he gradually started to demonstrate why he would become a hero at the club.
McGrath flourished alongside his fellow centre-backs Kent Nielsen and Derek Mountfield. With goalkeeper Nigel Spink playing behind a strong five-man defence, the foundations were in place for a surprising title bid. The 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 gone through the exit door at Old Trafford.
Platt was beginning 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 had a habit of making surging runs from midfield and arriving in the box at the right place at the right time – as he showed against United.
With hundreds locked outside Villa Park, the midday kick off was delayed for 15 minutes before the crowd of 41,247 crammed into the ground. From the off, it was clear that Ferguson’s struggling team was in for a very long afternoon. With no Robson, Neil Webb or Danny Wallace, their lack of drive and creativity was evident throughout. Nielsen kept Mark Hughes quiet and the visitors only mustered four shots in the game – none of them on target.
United made it to half time without conceding but the deadlock was finally broken in scrappy fashion in the 56th minute. After a Cowans free-kick had been cleared by Mike Phelan, headers from Mountfield and McGrath led to Platt being denied by Jim Leighton. But the rebound fell to Olney, who slotted home from a tight angle, scoring his ninth league goal of the season.
Villa doubled their lead seven minutes later. Olney set Daley away and, after the winger had flown past Phelan, he squared for Platt who held off Viv Anderson and left Leighton on the seat of his pants to slot home his 12th league goal of an already memorable campaign. United had no answer to the onslaught.
The final goal arrived in the 78th minute. Platt was involved again, laying off a Daley cross for full-back Kevin Gage, who drilled home from the edge of the box. Three goals in 22 minutes had condemned United to a fourth league defeat in five matches.
Villa fans loved it. A chant of “Fergie, Fergie, on the dole!” echoed around the Holte End, but the cries of “What a load of rubbish” from the travelling supporters would have been more worrying for Ferguson. As Ferguson and his players trudged towards the tunnel after the 3-0 drubbing, many angry fans made their feelings known.
“Sparkling Villa give United a hangover,” declared the headline in the Guardian, as the press rounded on Ferguson. “United’s board cannot continue to ignore an embarrassing run of six games without a win … not when they’ve paid £13 million to win the league,” wrote John Wragg in the Express. “Villa are a team built on strong foundations, character and ability. United are a team constructed on sand.” The knives were being sharpened.
Ferguson was just as brutal in his assessment of his team. “It was another example of the lack of consistency which has bedevilled United down the years,” he complained. “Half a dozen of our lads don’t seem to realise that you are playing Liverpool-type matches all the time with this club. After Anfield, and allowing for the fact that the game obviously drained us, this was a terrible disappointment.”
Ferguson kept his players inside the dressing room for 40 minutes – not that it did much good in terms of their league performances. With two draws and three defeats in their next five league matches, United slumped to 17th place, just a point off the relegation zone.
However, while United were struggling in the league, they were gaining momentum in the FA Cup and, come the end of the season, it was Ferguson and not Taylor who claimed some silverware. Villa finished the season as runners-up to Liverpool in the league, while United beat Crystal Palace in an FA Cup final replay to secure their first major trophy of the Ferguson era.
Having looked likely to lose his job at Christmas, Ferguson had somehow begun one of the great dynasties in English football history. Football really is a funny old game. Rangnick will be hoping he can provoke a similar revival as he takes his beleaguered players to Villa Park this weekend.