One of the most important conversations in the history of Manchester United took place in the bar of the Royal Lancaster Hotel on the evening of May 12, 1990.
His deputy, Les Sealey, watched the game from behind one of the goals, sat with the photographers. Sealey was a 32-year-old journeyman keeper, on loan from Luton. In the previous 13 months, he had played twice.
Now, he was at the bar when Sir Alex Ferguson walked over.
“Do you know your loan spell is up?” he asked Sealey.
“Yes I did.”
“Do you want to be involved?”
“Definitely, if the club wants me to be involved, I’ll help in any way I can.”
“Don’t worry,” the United manager replied, “You’ll be involved.”
Ferguson called the decision to replace a goalkeeper he had known for a decade, with whom he had won titles and a European trophy at Aberdeen, with someone he had barely worked with: “an animal instinct.” His time at Old Trafford was almost up. In three-and-a-half years, he had vastly outspent his predecessor, Ron Atkinson, and won nothing.
United finished 13th in 1990 after a season in which the chairman, Martin Edwards, had been assailed by supporters in the directors’ box at Old Trafford. During a 2-1 defeat to Palace in December, a supporter had reached into a carrier bag and pulled out a banner that seemed to sum up the Stretford End’s mood: “Ta-ra Fergie”. Leighton thought Ferguson had lost the dressing room. Edwards reflected that it would have been “very difficult” to see how his manager could have survived defeat at Wembley.
Had Sealey not kept a clean sheet in the replay, had Lee Martin not finished off a wonderfully worked move, Ferguson would have joined Dave Sexton as a manager who should have done great things at Old Trafford but somehow left trophy-less.
Of the candidates to succeed him, Bobby Robson had signed a contract with PSV Eindhoven once the World Cup in Italy was done. Graham Taylor, who had taken Aston Villa to second in the league, was bound for the FA. George Graham and Terry Venables were dug in at Arsenal and Tottenham. With two league titles at Everton, Howard Kendall had been seriously considered to replace Ferguson when Michael Knighton made his abortive takeover of United in the summer of 1989 but Kendall had joined Manchester City.
The likeliest candidate was the man who would have beaten Ferguson to the FA Cup. Steve Coppell was then just 35, a former United player – scouted by Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby’s right-hand man. By now he would have promoted Palace to the big league and won the FA Cup. He was a university graduate whose teams played attractive football.
Six years later, Coppell did come to Manchester, where he found the atmosphere at Maine Road so toxic he resigned after 33 days. The boardroom at United was more stable. There is no reason to imagine Coppell would not have had some measure of success. In a pre-Premier League era, attendances were still the major source of revenue and even after a decade and a half of Merseyside dominance, Old Trafford’s were still bigger than anyone else’s.
Coppell, who excelled working with young footballers, would have inherited Ryan Giggs whom Ferguson had visited on his 14th birthday to snatch from under the noses of Manchester City, the club where he was training. He would have inherited the ‘Class of 92’ – David Beckham, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt. Whether anyone else would have had the courage to throw them into action as quickly as Ferguson did, is open to question.
Some of Ferguson’s other great gambles, such as signing Eric Cantona, a man who had fallen out with every one of his previous managers, would probably not have happened. However, had he made a decent fist of United, Coppell, a former England international, may well have succeeded Graham Taylor in 1993. Bryan Robson, the man most of his teammates expected to take over from Ferguson, would have become manager of Manchester United years ahead of schedule. The newly enriched Blackburn and Newcastle would have fought over the league until the arrival of Arsene Wenger announced the long years of Arsenal’s dominance.
And what of Ferguson? There would always be a warm welcome at Aberdeen and the money at Glasgow Rangers would have been attractive but Ferguson’s time as a Rangers player had been unhappy. His wife, Cathy, was Catholic and he loathed the sectarianism at Ibrox. If he returned to his home city, it might have been to Celtic, where he would have transformed Parkhead while supporters serenaded him with choruses of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
This is an edited extract of On Days Like These: The Lost Memoir of a Goalkeeper by Tim Rich (Quercus Books, 2023). Available now.