It’s harder to stay at the top than it is to get there, so they say. Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United team must have been hoping that popular phrase was without foundation, given their struggle to win the league title.
Yet if there was one thing they had proved in winning the clubs’ first Championship in 26 years in 1993, it was that they were up for a challenge and capable of overcoming it.
Ferguson bolstered his squad with Roy Keane, the highly sought after Nottingham Forest, breaking United’s transfer record with the £3.75m purchase. The major improvement arguably came from within the clubs’ own players – a perfect alignment of players at the peak of their powers proving to be an unstoppable force in the domestic game.
Peter Schmeichel was at the top of his game, rated by most as the best goalkeeper in the world – the long standing partnership between Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce was as good as it was going to get, and helped form a formidable backbone alongside the experience of Paul Parker and Denis Irwin, two of the game’s last great defending full backs. Bryan Robson may have seen his better days in the late eighties but was still capable of a shift; while Keane’s arrival was seen as the Irish player proving a natural successor.
Paul Ince never played as well for the club as he did in 1993/94 and the same could be said of Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes; though all three would depart in the summer of 1995, their contribution to the cause in the clubs first double season cannot be understated. Ryan Giggs’ development was drawing comparisons with George Best and to this day it is fair to say that Giggs’ 93/94 season was as thrilling as any player has given in a Premier League season – and once again, the catalyst for the improvement of his team-mates was Eric Cantona, who had himself evolved from missing link to unstoppable magician.
United’s season started in the same fashion the previous one had ended; a glut of goals, shows of speed, portrayals of power and other alliterative descriptions could all be found in their first Premier League games. Only a draw in a fast paced entertaining encounter with newly promoted Newcastle punctuated a run of 12 consecutive wins (including the 7 that closed the previous campaign). United weren’t just winning but winning convincingly and winning good games, too. Their opening day win at Norwich was followed by August trips to Villa Park and The Dell where maximum points were achieved; the 3-1 win at Southampton saw three stunning efforts scored by Lee Sharpe (himself enjoying a superb season, the volleyed goal at Southampton following a double at Villa), Cantona and Irwin.
Defeat at Chelsea in September was little more than a blip; United reacted like a wounded animal and steamrolled their way to what was to prove an unassailable advantage in a twenty two match unbeaten run in the league. The Reds lost a League Cup first leg match at Stoke but that itself provoked an unbeaten run that lasted until March and covered 34 games in all competitions. Cantona was truly at the peak of his powers, scoring goals against Arsenal and QPR that would live long in the memory but also turning in starring performances against Sheffield Wednesday and notably Manchester City in November.
City were crowing; United had suffered the indignity of an away goals exit in the European Cup against Galatasaray, and were clearly feeling the effects as Niall Quinn scored twice to give the blues a 2-0 half time lead. United – inspired by Cantona – came back strongly, with Eric scoring twice and then Roy Keane converting a winner with just three minutes remaining. The win was the seventh of eight consecutive wins but United then began a sequence of a drawn and then a won league game, which continued for 10 games over Christmas. Blackburn Rovers, United’s closest challengers, also came closest to ending the unbeaten run when they travelled to Old Trafford on Boxing Day. Rovers led for most of the game, and United could not score for love nor money. Having thrown everything but the kitchen sink, they even threw that in too in the shape of Peter Schmeichel going up for a corner; Schmeichel didn’t score but his presence caused panic in the Rovers box, enough panic for Paul Ince to pounce and convert the equaliser in a particular purple patch of goalscoring for himself.
Another memorable draw followed at Anfield on January 4th; by the 24th minute, United were in a commanding 3-0 lead thanks to a header from Steve Bruce, a fantastic goal from Giggs and a peach of a free kick by Denis Irwin. Liverpool recovered to get a point – just a couple of weeks later, Liverpool’s neighbours Everton were due to visit United for a league fixture, but that game was preceded by the terrible news that Sir Matt Busby had passed away on Thursday, 20th January.
Busby’s passing rocked the club to its core. Some of its most famous sons and figures spoke out in remembrance.
Although none of us played under the great man we all knew him well. He was at the club every day and I will always remember him. He was a man who had time for everyone and anyone and I have never heard a bad word said about him. He will never be forgotten.
I found him a wonderful and incredible man, a character of substance and charisma. There have been some outstanding managers in this country but without doubt he was the greatest there has ever been. People talk about greatness and in football it is a very misused word, but it is what you felt in the presence of Sir Matt Busby. He had an aura. He was the lord of them all. I am just glad we won the League Championship before he died and I am pleased he was at Old Trafford last May to see it.
Sir Matt became almost a father to me. I must have sorely tried his patience at times but he never abandoned me. The older I get, the more I appreciate what he did for me. He became larger than life but not to himself or those close to him. It isn’t just the big things he has done but the little things. I loved the man.
Speaking ahead of the game against Everton, Ferguson said, “The result of today’s game is irrelevant. I want my players to go out and play the way that Sir Matt would want them to. This game is for his memory and for what he did for football”.
United were of course blessed with a supreme advantage in the league having been top since the 23rd August so maybe Ferguson’s relaxed, carefree attitude was in part due to that, but nonetheless the Reds turned on a fantastic display, somehow only winning 1-0 with a goal from Ryan Giggs.
Ferguson was keen to reflect on the good performance afterwards but was left in no doubt about what Sir Matt might have made of it. “He’d have been pleased about the entertainment, I’m sure about that. He’d have been pleased at the effort they put it, the commitment was terrific, but he’d have had a rueful smile and said ‘We’ve seen it before – the chances we missed were incredible!’”.
It later transpired that there had unfortunately been incidents at Anfield and Ewood Park – Manchester City fans had disrespectfully chanted during the minutes silence for Busby before their game with Liverpool, and Leeds fans did the same before their clash with Blackburn. United closed January out 16 points ahead of Blackburn, although Rovers had 3 games in hand over the Champions.
Giggs continued to impress and scored one of the seminal goals of his career at Loftus Road in a 3-2 win and days later followed that up with a superb angled effort in the first leg of a League Cup semi final with Sheffield Wednesday. United were firing on all cylinders and finally hit the peak with one of the most fantastic displays of football. It was a United side with their full strength XI of Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs, Cantona and Hughes which took on Wimbledon in the FA Cup 5th round at Selhurst Park and they simply tore the “Crazy Gang” to ribbons.
Having failed to exert their dominance into goals, the game threatened to take a nasty turn; Eric Cantona had been caught on camera stamping in the previous round against Norwich (leading Ferguson to label BBC pundit Jimmy Hill a “prat”) and Vinnie Jones, who was playing for the Dons, went after the Frenchman with a vicious scissor kick. Cantona escaped unhurt; perhaps as staggeringly, Jones escaped unpunished, but it wasn’t long before Cantona was exacting revenge in the best possible way – his control and volleyed goal just before half time was one of the very best he scored for the club. That goal settled down United who put on an exhibition in the second half; Ince scored from a Giggs corner but it was Irwin’s goal, that followed a passage of sublime passing and control from the number 3, that really stood out in the memory. It wasn’t the first time United had turned it on in the Cup, having scored a sublime goal at Bramall Lane to get some revenge for the previous years Cup exit.
Dark days followed that game; United rescued a point at Upton Park with Paul Ince scoring a late equaliser, and they qualified for the League Cup Final too but suffered defeat at home to Chelsea on the 5th March. Cantona was missing from the field against Chelsea due to a suspension for accrued yellow cards and in the next game – a Cup tie against Charlton – Peter Schmeichel was sent off as well. On Cantona’s return in the League he again wowed the Old Trafford crowd with his performance in the 5-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday – taking the tally the Reds had put past the Owls to 13 in 4 games that season – but it was in the next two league games, away at Swindon and Arsenal, where the wheels threatened to come off United’s title challenge.
Both games ended 2-2 and both games saw Cantona sent off; the Swindon incident involved a stamp on John Moncur (who had voted Cantona his PFA Player of the Year!) and the Arsenal incident came for a second yellow that, on second viewing, seemed incredibly harsh. Still, Cantona was to miss five games for his indiscretion.
The League Cup Final followed the Arsenal draw and United were sans Schmeichel; the Dane’s absence was felt as Aston Villa exacted some revenge for their league defeat the previous year with a 3-1 win at Wembley. A 1-0 win against Liverpool did little to soothe the concerns that United were heading into a crucial period without Eric – and those fears proved to be well founded as Blackburn won against the Reds 2-0 to close the gap at the top of the table to just 3 points.
Oldham were United’s next opponents with a league game on Easter Monday a dress rehearsal for their FA Cup semi final clash the following week; a routine win for the Reds in the league game was followed by a laborious, at times tortuous, 2 hours of football at Wembley.
United had actually opposed the venue of the semi final – having already visited Wembley for the Charity Shield and the League Cup Final, the club felt it was asking too much of supporters to fork out for yet another trip to London. After 118 minutes they might have agreed, too – Neil Pointon had struck in the 106th minute to give the Latics the lead, but with less than a minute remaining in the game, Mark Hughes struck a magnificent volley to equalise and set up a replay at Maine Road three days later.
That replay caused all kinds of changes to the fixture calendar and some with their benefit to United; the Reds were due to play at Leeds who had gone almost two weeks without a game, and without Cantona, their chances looked slim. However, it was at least something of a plus that in taking on Oldham, the problem of tired legs wouldn’t be just that of United’s. Furthermore, the Reds could recall Andrei Kanchelskis – himself suspended too, for a red card picked up for handball on the line in the League Cup Final defeat – and the Ukranian made the difference, running the show and scoring a superb goal in a 4-1 win. Bryan Robson scored in the rout; his 99th, and ultimately final, goal for the club.
Such a heavy run was bound to take its toll; and a lacklustre defeat at Wimbledon on April 16th was tempered by the news that Southampton had defeated Blackburn and the game, at least, was the last that Cantona would miss. It was no surprise that his return a week later coincided with United’s upturn in form; having scored twice against them earlier in the season, Cantona’s double saw off Manchester City, and United then recorded wins at Leeds and Ipswich to put the league within touching distance.
Knowing that a win against Southampton would seal it, United were again robbed of the opportunity to seal the league at Old Trafford by their opponents inability to drag the race on; Blackburn’s defeat at Coventry exactly a year to the day after Aston Villa had lost to Oldham to crown United champions had given Ferguson’s men their second consecutive Championship. The Reds celebrated with a 2-0 win over the Saints but the “coronation” wasn’t until the last game, a 0-0 draw with Coventry City which saw United rest a number of players for the Cup Final the following week. One player not rested was Robson; playing his last game for the club, his team-mates seemed keen for the legendary midfielder to get that 100th goal but it wasn’t to be.
The League sown up, United cruised to a 4-0 win against Chelsea in the Cup Final, with two goals from Cantona, one from Hughes (the Welshman completing a unique record of having scored on each of his four trips to Wembley that season) and a late sealer from McClair. Cantona, so often the inspiration, was not prepared to rest on his laurels, “What we have achieved is fantastic, but I hope we can go on and do even better. Not just the Championship but the European Cup, the FA Cup and perhaps even the Coca Cola Cup as well. I want us to win everything there is to win. This United side is the best I’ve played in and it can get better – if you can’t get any better as an individual or a team, then it’s time to stop playing. When you begin your career, playing in a big match like this i what you pray for – it’s what you play for and it’s what you live for.”
Ferguson said of the match winner, “Eric has been struggling with a sciatica problem in his back. He was really struggling and we were considering taking him off. Chelsea were the better side before half time but the first penalty settled us. In fact I thought we were getting on top before we were awarded that penalty. And Eric Cantona was the man for the job. He is so confident and calm.”
Captain Steve Bruce was keen to soak up the moment. “We’re young enough – apart from myself! – and what we have is very exciting. If somebody had told me ten years ago that I would walk up those steps and lift up the Cup I would have told them not to be daft. This is all like a dream. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself. This is a fantastic achievement by the club. The players deserve credit and what can you say about our gaffer? He has done everything.”
|Date||Opponents||H / A||ResultF – A||Scorers||Attendance||Leagueposition|
|15 August 1993||Norwich City||A||2 – 0||Giggs 26′, Robson 58′||19,705||5th|
|18 August 1993||Sheffield United||H||3 – 0||Keane (2) 16′, 43′, Hughes 85′||41,949||1st|
|21 August 1993||Newcastle United||H||1 – 1||Giggs 40′||41,829||3rd|
|23 August 1993||Aston Villa||A||2 – 1||Sharpe (2) 17′, 74′||39,624||1st|
|28 August 1993||Southampton||A||3 – 1||Sharpe 5′, Cantona 16′, Irwin 49′,||16,189||1st|
|1 September 1993||West Ham United||H||3 – 0||Sharpe 7′, Cantona 44′ (pen.), Bruce 88′||44,613||1st|
|11 September 1993||Chelsea||A||0 – 1||37,064||1st|
|19 September 1993||Arsenal||H||1 – 0||Cantona 37′||44,009||1st|
|25 September 1993||Swindon Town||H||4 – 2||Kanchelskis 4′, Cantona 40′, Hughes (2) 51′, 90′||44,583||1st|
|2 October 1993||Sheffield Wednesday||A||3 – 2||Hughes (2) 50′, 67′, Giggs 70′||34,548||1st|
|16 October 1993||Tottenham Hotspur||H||2 – 1||Keane 65′, Sharpe 69′||44,655||1st|
|23 October 1993||Everton||A||1 – 0||Sharpe 53′||35,430||1st|
|30 October 1993||Queens Park Rangers||H||2 – 1||Cantona 53′, Hughes 57′||44,663||1st|
|7 November 1993||Manchester City||A||3 – 2||Cantona (2) 52′, 78′, Keane 87′||35,155||1st|
|20 November 1993||Wimbledon||H||3 – 1||Pallister 53′, Hughes 65′, Kanchelskis 80′||44,748||1st|
|24 November 1993||Ipswich Town||H||0 – 0||43,300||1st|
|27 November 1993||Coventry City||A||1 – 0||Cantona 60′||17,020||1st|
|4 December 1993||Norwich City||H||2 – 2||Giggs 30′, McClair 42′||44,694||1st|
|7 December 1993||Sheffield United||A||3 – 0||Hughes 13′, Sharpe 27′, Cantona 60′||26,746||1st|
|11 December 1993||Newcastle United||A||1 – 1||Ince 60′||36,388||1st|
|19 December 1993||Aston Villa||H||3 – 1||Cantona (2) 21′, 89′, Ince 90′||44,499||1st|
|26 December 1993||Blackburn Rovers||H||1 – 1||Ince 88′||44,511||1st|
|29 December 1993||Oldham Athletic||A||5 – 2||Kanchelskis 4′, Cantona 19′ (pen.), Bruce 39′, Giggs (2) 53′, 59′||16,708||1st|
|1 January 1994||Leeds United||H||0 – 0||44,724||1st|
|4 January 1994||Liverpool||A||3 – 3||Bruce 9′, Giggs 20′, Irwin 24′||42,795||1st|
|15 January 1994||Tottenham Hotspur||A||1 – 0||Hughes 49′||31,343||1st|
|22 January 1994||Everton||H||1 – 0||Giggs 27′||44,750||1st|
|5 February 1994||Queens Park Rangers||A||3 – 2||Kanchelskis 19′, Cantona 45′, Giggs 59′||21,267||1st|
|26 February 1994||West Ham United||A||2 – 2||Hughes 6′, Ince 87′||28,832||1st|
|5 March 1994||Chelsea||H||0 – 1||44,745||1st|
|16 March 1994||Sheffield Wednesday||H||5 – 0||Giggs 14′, Hughes 15′, Ince 21′, Cantona (2) 45′, 55′||43,669||1st|
|19 March 1994||Swindon Town||A||2 – 2||Keane 13′, Ince 62′,||18,102||1st|
|22 March 1994||Arsenal||A||2 – 2||Sharpe (2) 10′ 53′||36,203||1st|
|30 March 1994||Liverpool||H||1 – 0||Ince 36′||44,751||1st|
|2 April 1994||Blackburn Rovers||A||0 – 2||20,886||1st|
|4 April 1994||Oldham Athletic||H||3 – 2||Giggs 11′, Dublin 66′, Ince 67′||44,686||1st|
|16 April 1994||Wimbledon||A||0 – 1||28,553||1st|
|23 April 1994||Manchester City||H||2 – 0||Cantona (2) 40′, 45′||44,333||1st|
|27 April 1994||Leeds United||A||2 – 0||Kanchelskis 47′, Giggs 85′||41,125||1st|
|1 May 1994||Ipswich Town||A||2 – 1||Cantona 36′, Giggs 47′||22,559||1st|
|4 May 1994||Southampton||H||2 – 0||Kanchelskis 60′, Hughes 89′||44,705||1st|
|8 May 1994||Coventry City||H||0 – 0||44,717||1st|
FA Cup results :
|Date||Round||Opponents||H / A||Result
F – A
|9 January 1994||Round 3||Sheffield United||A||1 – 0||Hughes 61′||22,019|
|30 January 1994||Round 4||Norwich City||A||2 – 0||Keane 18′, Cantona 73′||21,060|
|20 February 1994||Round 5||Wimbledon||A||3 – 0||Cantona 42′, Ince 63′, Irwin 71′||27,511|
|12 March 1994||Round 6||Charlton Athletic||H||3 – 1||Hughes 46′, Kanchelskis (2) 71′, 75′||44,347|
|10 April 1994||Semi-final||Oldham Athletic||N||1 – 1||Hughes 119′||56,399|
|13 April 1994||Semi-final Replay||Oldham Athletic||N||4 – 1||Irwin 9′, Kanchelskis 15′, Robson 62′, Giggs 68′||32,311|
|14 May 1994||Final||Chelsea||N||4 – 0||Cantona (2) 60′ (pen.), 66′ (pen.), Hughes 68′, McClair 90′||79,634|
Player Stats :
|No.||Pos.||Name||League||FA Cup||League Cup||European Cup||Other||Total|
(Thanks to Dan Burdett, @Luzhniki2008 for ticket stubs and programmes)
1993/94 season review on video: