‘Oh, Manchester so much to answer for…’ In May 1982 a bequiffed 18year-old called Johnny Maher knocked on the door of 384 King’s Road, a nondescript terraced house in Stretford, Manchester. Inside was a 23-year old misfit by the name of Stephen Patrick Morrissey who inhabited the fringes of Manchester’s fragmentary postpunk music scene. Within three years these two sons of Irish immigrants were conquering the world as the band ‘The Smiths’.
The Smiths with their extraordinary statements of lyrical and musical intent became influencers for a generation who would go on to create the Manchester music scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Bands like the Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, James and the Charlatans would make Manchester the centrepiece of the universe.
By 1990 the rave scene had conquered the mainstream and the Hacienda had become the Mecca of the music world. Seven miles out the road at Old Trafford they were still trying to replace Matt Busby looking for that elusive league title last won in 1967; O’Farrell, McGuinness, Sexton, Docherty and Atkinson had all come and failed. The latest to sit in the Old Trafford hot seat was Govan born Alex Ferguson who had begun his managerial career the same year the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders were ‘sitting in’ led by another son of the Govan, Jimmy Reid. Reid through his oratory and leadership orchestrated the last victory of workers over owners and in the process humbled a Conservative government.
Ferguson had been left the nucleus of a good side at Old Trafford with the names Hughes, Whiteside, Stapleton, McGrath and Robson easily rolling off the tongues of the Stretford enders. United’s failings in the league were made up for through their success in the cup with a thumping 4-0 replay victory in 1983 over Brighton Hove Albion. Two years later Kevin Moran became the first man to be sent off at Wembley at a Cup final, his tackle on Peter Reid seemed innocuous though his case wasn’t helped by the Evertonian’s somersault dive, but many still couldn’t believe the actions of the referee Peter Willis as he flashed the Irishman a red card. Frank Stapleton became a makeshift centre half alongside Paul McGrath marking Everton’s twin towers Graeme Sharpe and Andy Gray out of the game. The ten Red Devils won out in the end with probably the greatest left foot strike ever seen at the old Wembley by 20-year-old Belfast kid Norman Whiteside who wrote himself into United folklore.
By 1990 as Clint Boon’s Inspiral Carpets organ illuminated the studios of Top of the Pops, Ferguson was culling the nucleus of Atkinson’s cup winning teams and putting his faith in youth. ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ had arrived on the back of a 1986 youth cup victory with Lee Martin, Russell Beardsmore and Mark Robins parachuted into the first team, while the other Lee (Sharpe) arrived from Torquay.
However Ferguson, like his predecessors, was finding the going tough at M16. The Scot had broken the Old Firm monopoly north of the border with Aberdeen and conquered Europe with the men from the Granite city defeating Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners Cup Final of 1983. By the time he arrived at the City Ground in Nottingham for a third round FA Cup tie the knives were out, and the dreaded vote of confidence had been given from the Chairman Martin Edwards.
The scribes in the press box were ready to write the obituary of another United managerial failure but young Ashton-Under-Lyne born forward Mark Robins was playing to his own script. In front of 23,072 he silenced the ‘Trent End’ with a 56th minute header to decide the tie. Ferguson and United would go on to win the 1990 FA Cup Final with one of the young fledglings Lee Martin scoring the winner against Crystal Palace. The rest as they say is history.
In Manchester’s Nags Head pub nearly 30 years on, the revellers inside reminisce in rooms where the walls tell the history of the red side of the city. Mick Wilcock a man who pronounces that ‘he lost his first wife because of Manchester United’ sits in the corner talking about those great days of the 80’s and 90’s when football had soul and ‘jibbing’ on the national transport system was the order of the day.
While the television in the corner booms out an advertisement from Sky Sports promoting their Super Sunday menu with families travelling to games in Ford SUVs, Mick throws his eyes to heaven. Sean Kelly a man who left the troubles of Northern Ireland for the mills of Manchester and made the pilgrimage for Matt Busby’s greatest hour at Wembley in 1968 exclaims: ‘Sky think football was created in 1992 when is the last time you heard names like Best mentioned… they’ve ruined football’. Matt Battle arrives into the pub with his friend Paul Murphy. Matt’s hero was Best as a youngster and he’s been a red for more than fifty years; he made his holy communion in the same Catholic school in Burnage as the Gallaghers of Oasis fame.
In the corner of the pub local musician Tony Easom strums his guitar remembering the Busy Babes with his song ‘Who’ll Carry this Flag,’ an ode to Jimmy Murphy as Jimmy’s grandson Paul (Murphy) listens with a tear in his eye. Like Busby, Ferguson has now retired upstairs at Old Trafford and Ole Gunner Solksjaer – a man who Ferguson dubbed his ‘Norwegian Super Sub’ – is the latest incumbent to trying to fill his enormous shoes. United and Ole have been struggling, league form has been patchy, and the team sits outside the top four and that golden ticket to Champions League football.
Ole like Ferguson has turned to youth to help United turn a corner, hoping for a new set of prodigies to emerge. It may be thirty years ago, but it seems like nothing has changed.