AUTHOR: — Daniel (Guest Blogger)
Season 1990-91 saw Manchester United return to competition in Europe again after a 5 year gap. In 1985 they had lost on penalties to Hungarian side Videoton in the UEFA Cup. The reason for this gap was due to a 5 year ban on English teams competing in European competitions, due to persistent crowd trouble, culminating in the Heysel stadium disaster at the 1985 European Cup Final. This ban was lifted in 1990 and as holders of the FA Cup, United were allowed to compete in a competition for winners of the domestic cups in each European country – The European Cup Winners’ Cup. This was a competition that Alex Ferguson had already won before, beating Real Madrid in 1984 with his Aberdeen team. At the time, the European Cup was limited to only the winner’s of each European League and was a straight knockout competition. Following the expansion of the UEFA Champions League, the European Cup Winners’ Cup competition was abolished in 1999.
United would start this European campaign against another Hungarian side Pecsi Munkas. United overcame Pecsi quite easily, beating them home and away. In the next round they faced Welsh cup winners Wrexham – who United again beat home and away. In the quarter finals, it was more testing opposition – French cup winners Montpellier, led by their great defender Laurent Blanc. In a bad tempered match at Old Trafford in the 1st leg, Montpellier held United to a 1-1 draw. The return leg in France was a great night for United as they won 2-0 with goals from Clayton Blackmore and Steve Bruce. In the semi-finals United faced Polish cup winners Legia Warsaw. The away leg was first and it was another impressive performance – a 3-1 away win, with goals by Hughes, Bruce and McClair. At home, they drew 1-1 which sent them through to the final, where they would face Spanish cup winners Barcelona at Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam.
Barcelona, with players like Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup in their side, were seen as clear favourites for this match, but this clearly did not effect the United manager, players or fans, as it would prove to be a European final to remember for all of them. United had already faced Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1984 and this had been extremely memorable meeting. After a 2-0 defeat in the 1st Leg at the Nou Camp, in the 2nd Leg, United destroyed Barcelona, captained by Diego Maradona, 3-0 at Old Trafford in one of the greatest ever European nights there. The final in Rotterdam in 1991 would follow on from that night in 1984 at Old Trafford in the same way.
Before the match even started, a huge factor was that of the 43,500 crowd inside the stadium in Rotterdam, about three quarters of them were United fans who, despite the rain in the mostly uncovered stadium, were there to give their team the best possible vocal support. It truly was another Red Invasion. Without any doubt, this must have given our players a lift. The weather too must have been a factor. This has been mentioned by some of the United players, who noticed before the start of the game that the Barcelona players were not happy with the cold weather and rain – something the United players were very used to in England.
The United line up that night was – Les Sealey, Denis Irwin, Clayton Blackmore, Steve Bruce, Mike Phelan, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Brian McClair, Mark Hughes and Lee Sharpe. Seven English players, two Welsh players, one Scottish and one Irish player. In future seasons, UEFA’s foreign players rule would create big problems for United, but not that night. For the match, having lost the toss to wear their red home kit, United wore a special one off all white kit. The match itself was a great one to watch – following the usual United pattern of being dramatic and tense.
The first half was close and ended 0-0. Midway through the 2nd half United took the lead – it looked like being a headed goal by Steve Bruce, but as it was about to cross the line, Mark Hughes made sure by blasting it into the net. After the match, Bruce admitted that he thought the goal was his, until he saw Hughes’ name on the scoreboard. There was no doubt about the 2nd goal though – a spectacular one from Hughes, who had blasted the goal in from a very acute angle. United’s 2 goal lead only lasted 5 minutes though, as Ronald Koeman got one back for Barcelona. It meant an extremely tense last 10 minutes for United. The United players withstood the Barcelona onslaught, putting in a truly heroic performance, especially goalkeeper Les Sealey. Only a few weeks earlier he had been badly injured in the League Cup final, with his knee being cut open to the bone. Despite this injury which should have kept him out, he bravely declared himself fit to play, with a heavily strapped up knee. Sealey did his team mates, the manager and the supporters proud that night. Another player who also did was Clayton Blackmore, who cleared the ball off the line with only a few minutes to spare. This was to be Blackmore’s best ever season for United, especially with his performances and goals in this competition. Barcelona also had a goal disallowed for offside near the end, but United hung on to their lead and therefore became winners of the Cup Winners’ Cup. So, Bryan Robson went up to lift Manchester United’s 2nd European trophy and it marked a great night for everyone connected with Manchester United. It was particularly satisfying for Mark Hughes. He had spent one season at Barcelona, 1986-87, before being loaned out to Bayern Munich for a season and then sold back to Manchester United. He had definitely got some revenge for his difficult time at Barcelona.
United’s victory that night was, without doubt an inspiration for them to go on to even more greatness in the 1990s and beyond, led by Alex Ferguson, who has also admitted this recently. Barcelona would go on to win the European Cup the following year at Wembley, so it proved how well United had done that night. United would face Barcelona again several times in the 1990’s. In the 1994-95 season they were in the same Champions League group as each other. The match at Old Trafford ending in a 2-2 draw, whilst the game at the Nou Camp ended in a 4-0 victory for Barcelona. Barcelona that night were in top form, led by their 2 star players the Bulgarian Hristo Stoitchkov and the Brazilian Romario. By comparison, United were without some of their best players – Eric Cantona was suspended due to a ridiculous ban after the terrible treatment he received at Galatasaray. Due to the limited foreigners rule – Peter Schmeichel and Roy Keane were left in the stands. 4 years later at the same group stage, it showed how much United had developed – both matches were classic 3-3 draws and helped United progress to the knockout stages, on their way to the historic treble, whilst Barcelona went out.
Daniel is a match going red since the mid 80s and writes for The Faithful blog.