What if Sir Alex Ferguson loses the 1990 FA Cup final with Manchester United?

Joey Gulino
·6 min read
(Michael Aguilar/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Aguilar/Yahoo Sports)

With a loving nod to Marvel Comics, we at Yahoo Soccer decided to ask, “What If?”

In this issue: What if Sir Alex Ferguson had lost the 1990 FA Cup final with Manchester United?

Nowadays, Sir Alex Ferguson is rightly held up as one of the greatest managers in the history of soccer.

Back in 1990, his time was running out.

Ferguson had been at Manchester United for well over three years. The board wanted success. Ferguson hadn’t delivered it, apart from a second-place finish in the 1987-88 English First Division, which tickled more than it troubled eventual champion Liverpool.

United reached the FA Cup final in 1990 — back when the FA Cup was held in higher esteem — but dipped to 13th in the league that season, so Ferguson’s prospects seemed rather unambiguous.

Win the FA Cup, or lose your job.

Never mind that former United chairman Martin Edwards has since refuted his rumored hard-line stance. There was undeniable pressure on Ferguson to beat Crystal Palace at Wembley.

So what if he didn’t?

We won’t touch the white-knuckle first match, a 3-3 draw salvaged by Mark Hughes’ equalizer for United in the 113th minute of extra time. Instead, our timeline diverges beginning with the replay. (That’s how the FA Cup did things back then.)

Goalkeeper Jim Leighton remains at fault for mistakes that led to Palace goals. Ferguson still has just cause to bench Leighton for the replay in favor of Les Sealey.

So he does, and it’s a rather cold-blooded decision, just as it was at the time. Leighton was a fixture of Ferguson’s Aberdeen sides in the early 1980s, but that trust and familiarity has been broken. Ferguson isn’t messing around with his job on the line, even if it fractures their relationship forever. (And it did in real life; Leighton admitted he hasn’t spoken to Ferguson since his release in 1992.)

In the replay, Andy Gray’s deflected free kick spins a couple feet left of Sealey this time and goes in. From there, Palace keeps United off the scoresheet — no moment of magic from left back Lee Martin this time — and wins 1-0 to win the first FA Cup in club history.

Edwards takes a long, hard look at sacking Ferguson. Maybe he hires Steve Coppell, the longtime United player who’d just beaten his former club as Palace manager. Maybe he hires someone else. Ultimately, Edwards doesn’t pull the trigger. Ferguson remains in charge.

Only Ferguson’s trigger is damaged, too. Sealey didn’t save the day. Ferguson’s big decision has backfired. And it lingers well into his future.

Sir Alex Ferguson won the Premier League 13 times. If the 1990 FA Cup final didn't go his way, it might have been very different. (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)
Sir Alex Ferguson won the Premier League 13 times. If the 1990 FA Cup final didn't go his way, it might have been very different. (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

The feisty disciplinarian Ferguson became in real life is never fully realized. Neither is the canny motivator, nor the tactically flexible mastermind. Hughes still has a strong season in 1990-91, which lifts United to the upper-mid table and keeps Ferguson in the job. Peter Schmeichel still arrives in August 1991, because he’s still a relative unknown and United has a major need at goalkeeper.

But the underlying ethos of development in Ferguson’s project goes wayward. In reality, he signed mega-prospect Ryan Giggs from the academy in November 1990. In this timeline, Giggs has to wait until the following summer, and when he does sign, Ferguson leans on veterans to ensure his job survival.

At least Giggs gets a chance. Playing it safer, Ferguson doesn’t go after Eric Cantona or Roy Keane in the transfer market, whose volatility raises flags as red as United’s home kits. He’s already got his fill of beefs with the likes of midfielder Paul Ince, and Ferguson can only guide a talented but tumultuous United dressing room so far in ensuing seasons, contending for Champions League places instead of trophies in the newly formed Premier League.

But the most significant blow involves the vaunted Class of ‘92. The generationally talented group of youngsters stays intact thanks to United’s strong youth coaching, and David Beckham’s brief flirtation with other academies dissolves quickly when his parents, rabid supporters of United, steer him straight.

Ferguson plainly sees the potential in Beckham, Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt. His keen eye never wavered. But nerves get the best of him in the transition.

Back to real life for a second. One of the masterstrokes of Ferguson’s legendary career was selling stars like Ince and Hughes in June 1995 and pinning the campaign — a pressure-packed campaign at that, with Blackburn Rovers having unseated United to win the Premier League the year before — on the backs of his young stars.

In our divergent timeline, Ferguson doesn’t have the cachet or the courage to do so. Giggs is already a star, but the others are cycled in in stilted fashion. The Red Devils come nowhere close to Newcastle’s title-winning points haul. They fall even further off the pace once Newcastle signs star striker Alan Shearer in 1996, the same summer Arsène Wenger arrives at Highbury and overhauls Arsenal.

Ferguson is finally sacked in 1997, after 11 years with Manchester United. We neglected to mention Ferguson did win the League Cup in 1994, but the honor was warped by the monied slipstream of the new Premier League era. It’s no longer good enough. A couple Champions League berths didn’t cut it, either. Serious contention for major prizes just wasn’t there.

It’s a world without Fergie time. No squeaky bums in the seats at Old Trafford.

Thankfully, it’s a world we don’t have to live in.

Ferguson won the Premier League 13 times, the Champions League twice, and — oh yeah — the FA Cup five times. His passion and pragmatism won trophies across two different epochs of soccer history, first when you had to develop the best team and later when you had to buy it.

If he isn’t the greatest manager ever, then the question is framed against him. He’s not the revolutionary that Gusztáv Sebes, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff were. He’s not the opportunistic mercenary of the modern day, like Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti are. He shares pretty much everything else great about those men, however.

Ferguson had to go through what he called the “darkest period” of his professional life to achieve it. And it was a period that could have gone a number of different ways.

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