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Why the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup is so important in Manchester United History

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

1991 Cup WInners Cup

As Superstar Speakers prepare to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of this incredible acheivement with the 1991 Cup Winners Cup Legends Tour, we look back at the circumstances that lead up to this historic achievement and how it shaped the future of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United


In 1991 Manchester United won the Cup Winners Cup. It was the first European Cup for Sir Alex Ferguson in his time at Manchester United and was the start of the glorious era of Sir Alex at Manchester United – however with the later success he had with the treble, back to back Premier League wins, the Class of 92 and the 2008 Champions League win – the 1991 Cup Winners Cup tends to get forgotten about, yet it is one of the most important trophies in the modern era of Man United and English Football

*** Click the link for Tickets to the on the Legends Tour ***

Manchester United Legends

The FA Cup 1990

Sir Alex Ferguson’s first trophy at Manchester United and the first time they had won the trophy since 1985 (the year before Sir Alex joined the club)

This is the trophy that (as urban legend suggests) saved Alex Ferguson’s job at Manchester United – He had been at the club 4 years and was having little success, to the point the vultures were circling and calls for his sacking were getting louder.

‘Man United were struggling in the league under Alex Ferguson – who’d been in charge for more than three years with no success – and were hovering above the relegation zone, having lost 11 of their league games by the time their FA Cup campaign began away to Nottingham Forest on 7 January, 1990. United hadn’t won for eight games prior to the Cup tie and, with results bleak in other competitions, it was believed success in the competition was vital to Fergie’s survival.

- TalkSport

Nottingham Forest were still under the guidance of the legendary Brian Clough and had reach the FA Cup Semis in 1988 and 1989 having knocked Man United out in the 1989 Quarter Finals. The also won the EFL cup in 1989 and would again in 1990. In short it looked like Manchester United would be out of the competition straight away, quickly followed by Sir Alex Ferguson being out of a job.

However, as is often the case in football, things didn’t go how the experts predicted and Mark Robins scored to give Manchester United a much needed win over Nottingham Forest.

Manchester United went on to power through the competition meeting Crystal Palace in the final – Who had just defeated league champions Liverpool in a 4-3 classic, once again leaving Man United as the underdogs

The final was an end to end affair with Palace going 1-0 up after 18 mins, only for Bryan Robson to equalize at 35 mins, Mark Hughes scored to put Man Utd in front at 62 mins. Palace then equalized at 72 mins then took the lead at 92 mins. Mark Hughes, ever the big game player, scored once again to level the final at 3 -3 and earn Manchester United a replay and keep Sir Alex Ferguson in touching distance of his first Utd trophy.

The replay of the final famously ended with Lee Martin scoring one of his two goals for the club, and arguably his most important as it is the goal that won Sir Alex’s first trophy with Manchester United, proved the catalyst for the continued success Sir Alex had, proved that the Manchester United Youth team set up was working (which Sir Alex was passionate about, and years later wold provide the greatest collection of footballers in English History, and arguably saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s job and changed Manchester United history.

Without winning the FA Cup Manchester United wouldn’t have qualified for Europe the following year

*** Lee Martin tell us what happened AFTER his incredible goal ***

The Heysel Stadium Disaster

The 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus is considered “the darkest hour in the history of the UEFA Competitions” - Wikipedia

Thirty-nine people died and 600 were injured when fans were crushed against a wall that then collapsed during the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, after crowd trouble culminated in a surge by Liverpool supporters towards the Italian team's fans. - BBC

The result of this tragedy left all English clubs banned from European competition – with the 1991 tournament being the first one where they were allowed to compete again.

All eyes were on Manchester United as they made there way into the final as this was the way that the English Teams could make a positive statement that they deserved to be in European Competition, that the tragedy was in the past and that Manchester United were on the verge of something special.

Sir Alex Ferguson had previous won the trophy with Aberdeen so he had the experience in a major final and new what it took to win in Europe, this win would be the first European Trophy for Manchester United since the days of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Alex Stepney in 1968

Alex Ferguson had turn Manchester United around from a sleeping giant to having the eyes of the world on them.

*** Brian McClair on the 1991 Cup Winners Cup ***

The Final

Manchester United Vs Barcelona. May 15th 1991. Feijenoord Stadium, Rotterdam.

The 1991 Manchester United team has to be considered as one of the all time great teams under Sir Alex Ferguson, it tends to get forgotten about due to the arrival of the epic Class of 92 that burst onto the scene in the next few years

The starting 11 were Les Sealey, Denis Irwin, Clayton Blackmore, Steve Bruce, Mike Phelan, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Lee Sharpe

Each one a Manchester United legend – the 1991 Cup Winners Cup team represents a collection of great players all at their peak at the same time, a team who had gone undefeated throughout the entire tournament

However the Barcelona team would prove to be no push over

With a starting 11 of Carles Busquets, Nando, Jose Ramon Alexanko, Ronald Koeman, Albert Ferrer, Jose Mari Bakero, Jon Andoni Goikoetxea, Eusebio, Julio Salinas, Michael Ludrup and Txiki Begiristain and managed by Johan Cruyff – this team would go on to become European Champions in 1992

Manchester United had a secret weapon in Mark Hughes. The Welsh Striker had previously been signed to Barcelona between 1986 and 1988 but had a relatively unsuccessful period there, on his return to Old Trafford Hughes proved why he was one of the best strikers on the world and scoring incredible goals on a regular basis for the Red Devils. Hughes had a point to prove against his former club – and went ahead and proved it in a perfect fashion

*** Lee Sharpe and Clayton Blackmore on the 1991 Cup Winners Cup***

Despite Man United being relentless in attack, the first half ended 0-0 and it wasn’t until the 67 minute that Bryan Robson’s Free Kick found the head of Steve Bruce, followed by a tap in from Hughes to put United ahead

(there was some dispute over the ownership of the goal – but it is officially credited to Hughes)

In the 74th minute Hughes doubled the lead and made it 2 – 0 with a sublime goal, as he used his blistering pace to beat Busquets and then hammer home the winning goal from a tight angle on the edge of the penalty box

Koeman scored (what proved to be) a consolation goal for Barca in the 79th minute, but it wasn’t enough and Manchester United won the first European Cup since 1968 and the first of many for Sir Alex Ferguson

*** Click the image to see our choice of Sparky's greatest goals ***

Mark hughes Goals

Why this win is important for Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson

In 2 years Sir Alex Ferguson had taken Manchester United from a struggling team to European Champions. It was his firm belief in a robust youth system and exceptional management skill that helped build the momentum from the FA Cup in 1990 through to the 1991 Cup Winners Cup.

This momentum lead to more trophies including the clubs first ever EFL Cup in 1992, the European Super Cup in 1991 and then becoming the first ever winners of English Football's Premier League in 1993.

Whilst his 1991 Cup Winning team started aging and leaving the club in the early 1990s, Sir Alex started introducing younger talent into the mix – based on the proven success of Mark Robins, Lee Martin and more, a second wave of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ started making their mark in the first team including Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville

Success continued for Sir Alex with a league and cup double in 1994 and 1996 and the famous 1999 treble winning season in which, once again, the entirety of English football looked to Sir Alex and Manchester United to represent this great footballing nation

It is no doubt that the great manager looked back to the pressures and success of the 1991 Cup winners Cup experience to prepare him for that night in (ironically) Barcelona against Bayern Munich on 26th May 1999

This is why the 1991 Cup Winners Cup is so important to Manchester United – it was the full stop on any doubts that people had about Sir Alex Ferguson’s caliber as a manager, it solidified the career of one of Britain’s great footballing men and helped him build towards a great footballing era in the history of Manchester United

It all started with the 1991 Cup winners Cup

Check Out all the information on the upcoming Manchester United legends tours - as we travel the country celebrating the 30th Anniversary of this important trophy win

Manchester United Legends Tour

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Mar 17, 2021

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