As Manchester United face another tortuous rebuild this summer, various figures have been predicting how long this process will take. Ralf Rangnick, looking enviously at Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, said last month it could take ‘six years’ to catch up with their rivals.
It seems fitting then that German’s final game comes against Crystal Palace, a team that played a pivotal role in another restructuring at United. The media narrative throughout the 1990 FA Cup run, which ended in a final versus Palace, was simple. If United failed to win the cup, Alex Ferguson would be sacked.
Ferguson has since argued his job was secure whatever the outcome. But pressure was definitely building on the Scot.
New signings, including defender Gary Pallister and midfielder Paul Ince, were taking time to gel. Despite finishing second in his first full campaign of 1987-88, two seasons later the Red Devils finished 13th, just five points above the relegation zone.
A trophy of any sort was needed. There were many similarities between United and Palace that season. Both finished level on points in the First Division.
Both teams also partook in thrilling semi-finals. United drew 3-3 with Oldham Athletic, before a 2-1 win in the replay. Palace meanwhile pulled off a sensational 4-3 upset against league champions Liverpool.
Going into that final, Ferguson was also increasingly agitated about Jim Leighton, his first choice goalkeeper. After questionable displays throughout the season, including in the semi-final, Ferguson believed the former Aberdeen man had “lost confidence and his decision-making had become suspect.”
Ferguson was vindicated after just 18 minutes when Leighton measly attempt at defending a set-piece gave Palace the lead via a Gary O’Reilly header. Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes put United in front with half an hour left.
However, a young Ian Wright put Palace level ten minutes later before giving them the lead in extra time. Hughes salvaged a draw for United. The final went to a replay.
Ferguson dropped Leighton for the replay for Les Sealey, who was on loan from Luton Town. Ferguson later said that Sealey’s “cocky” attitude gave him confidence in abundance, with Leighton “not in the right mental state” for another final.
Defender Lee Martin scored the winner at Villa Park. The rest, as they say, is history. United’s 1-0 replay win in a far less dramatic affair gave Ferguson the legitimacy he needed to carry on the long rebuild.
Though the FA Cup has lost some of its allure since 1990, it should not be underestimated how important any trophy win is in asserting a team as a resurgent force. Winning despite adversity and being ruthless are key ingredients to success – qualities that United showcased in their victory against Palace.
As United enter a new rebuild, they should remember it is the unpopular calls that can often pay off. On his ruling to drop Leighton, Ferguson declared: “The easy decision was to play him again. The hard decision won us a trophy.”