United’s three consecutive defeats without scoring have made headlines for all the wrong reasons and a season that promised so much is now looking like it could implode in spectacular style. So what do we know about the last time it happened at this time of the season (the three defeats in 2001/2002 were in November and December) and how similar was United’s situation to the one which they find themselves in now?
It’s late spring. The season is coming to an end and United are some way off the race for the league title and have long since been dumped out of both cup competitions.
No, this isn’t Van Gaal’s United of 2015. This is April 1989 and the ‘Red Devils’ have just lost their third consecutive game and what’s more, failed to score a goal in the process – the last time` a United team managed such an unenviable feat.
Rather like this season, expectation going into the 1988/89 season was high. United had finished second behind Liverpool in Alex Ferguson’s first full season in charge the previous year and the addition of Scotland international goalkeeper Jim Leighton along with the return of Mark Hughes from his wilderness years in Europe had rightly fuelled optimism in the United ranks.
And although European qualification was not possible then – due to the fact that English clubs were still banned from European competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster – what is now referred to as a ‘top four’ finish seemed more than achievable.
But like this season United were to start slowly, drawing at home to QPR on the opening day of the season before losing 1-0 at Anfield a week later. However, a five game unbeaten run, which included three consecutive wins in September, was enough to lift them up the table and provide validation for those who had come into the season with so much optimism.
But, as with this current campaign, it was to be one of many false dawns as United flattered to deceive on so many occasions. A weakness perfectly summed up by a nine-match winless run which followed this brief spell of success and included eight draws and a defeat between September and November of 1988.
And as Christmas approached, Reds fans really weren’t sure what to expect from this Jekyll and Hide United outfit come the New Year. But true to form, the United juggernaut, which had seemed to be drifting towards the hard-shoulder with the hazard lights on, suddenly found another gear. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Disappointing results against Coventry and Arsenal just before Christmas looked to suggest the demise was terminal, and with games against some of the teams battling for the league title over the festive period to come, many feared the worst.
But incredibly United managed to record six wins from seven games between Boxing Day and mid-February, which included notable victories over Nottingham Forest and a fantastic 3-1 comeback win over Liverpool on New Year’s Day. At this stage there was genuine optimism that United would be able to mount something that resembled a title challenge due to run of form that lifted them from mid table obscurity to third in the league.
Unbelievably though, after looking to have turned yet another corner, United were to record just three more league victories in what was to be a springtime to forget both in the league and cup.
Having lost to Wimbledon at Plough Lane in the League Cup back in the autumn, many United fans who were not as optimistic of a league challenge began to realise that the FA Cup would be the club’s only realistic opportunity for silverware.
Needing two replays to defeat Queens Park Rangers in the third round, they put four past Oxford in the next round before a crowd of over 52,000 saw the Reds squeeze past Bournemouth in a reply to set up a mouth-watering quarter-final with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
In fact, United’s three biggest attendances for the season came in the FA Cup, highlighting its importance to the fans. But a Gary Parker strike and a controversially disallowed Brian McClair ‘goal’ saw United crash out of the competition in front of a mammoth 55, 040 gate – a defeat which basically signalled the end of United’s season in all but name.
So as the campaign spluttered towards its conclusion Ferguson took the opportunity to blood some of the youngsters who he was to place so much faith in down the years, with players such as Lee Sharpe, Lee Martin, Russell Beardsmore, Mark Robins and Tony Gill all breaking through into the first team and signalling the manager’s intent to give youth a chance. But this was to be the only real positive to come out of that spring.
And so it was that the last few months of the 1988/89 season became forgettable at best with only wins over Luton and Wimbledon (in front of a crowd of just 23,368) book-ending one of the most impotent spells in the clubs recent history, until, well, now actually.
A desperate 2-0 defeat at home to Derby was naturally overshadowed by events at Hillsborough that afternoon during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. But when football resumed once again following the worst sporting disaster the country had ever seen, things didn’t get much better for United.
Losing at Selhurst Park to Charlton was a new low as United had now failed to score in three games – drawing one and losing two. But it was only going to get worse. A crowd of just over 29,000 at Old Trafford were to witness another lack lustre display and yet another defeat without scoring, this time to Coventry City.
Their last four results now made dismal reading: 0-0, 0-2, 0-1, 0-1.
A 2-0 victory at home to already relegated Newcastle was to finally bring the curtain down on a season that promised so much, yet delivered so little as United were to finish 11th and it was clear the squad needed further strengthening to push for honours in the coming seasons.
The signings of Danny Wallace, Paul Ince, Mike Phelan and Neil Webb didn’t bring instant success for the season that followed – far from it as United for a time battled relegation – but we all know what winning the FA Cup that season did for the club and their beleaguered manager.
So with funds apparently available once more, expect United to delve into the transfer market again this summer as they go about ensuring such a poor run results remain something of a rarity in the club’s history.
Who knows, it might signal another two decades of success, as it did some 25 years ago.