A star is born: United debutant shines in derby day draw
As derby day looms Retro Red focuses on a match between the two city rivals in November 1971, a game that could be seen as something of a last hurrah for both sides of the Manchester footballing divide.
As United prepare for their trip to The Etihad Stadium, some fans will reflect on some rather hefty defeats to the Blues in recent seasons.
In fact, aside from Robin Van Persie’s last minute free kick winner a couple of seasons ago and a late header from Paul Scholes in 2010, away days across the city have been pretty fruitless of late.
So with many Reds thinking that a draw might be the best result a transitional side can come away with – here’s a look back at one of the most entertaining stalemates in derby day history that took place 43 years ago almost to the day.
Like now November 1971 also saw a Manchester United team very much in transition. The manager that had built one of the greatest teams in Europe, who reached their pinnacle in Wembley just three years earlier, had stepped down and an ageing team were struggling to come to terms with a new regime and what was to be a succession of new managers.
The old guard of Best, Law and Charlton were still seen as the holy trinity of the side, but this was mostly for sentimental reasons, and in truth the backbone of the side that had tasted so much success at home and abroad were on their last legs and the team needed fresh faces.
City on the other hand were still enjoying something of a purple patch. Their own talented trio of Bell, Lee and Summebee were keeping the City faithful entertained and the team were picking up silverware here and there – having beaten United in an epic two-legged semi-final of the League Cup on the way to winning the trophy just a few years previously.
But amid the old soldiers on parade for United that day there was one ray of light, a youngster from Northern Ireland making his debut in the number 10 shirt.
Sammy McIlroy actually had the honour of being Matt Busby’s final signing for the club in 1969, but had to wait several seasons to make his first appearance, and the bear pit of Maine Road on that chilly autumn afternoon was to be it.
So as the two sides lined-up to battle it out for cross-town honours in their 85th league meeting, the 63,000 or so fans that were in attendance anticipated something of a classic and they weren’t disappointed.
Another veteran of the 1968 European Cup campaign that day was Alex Stepney, and the keeper was called upon early to deny Francis Lee on a couple of occasions. But it was the new boy who would make the first real impression on the game.
A move heavily influenced by George best, who had earlier been clattered by Lee, a decision which saw the city striker booked despite claims (and a diving motion on the pitch) that suggested the Irishman made the most of it, was rounded off with the 18 year old driving into the bottom corner of Corrigan’s net from 10 yards.
Another fine save from Stepney, this time bravely diving at the feet of Colin Bell, made sure United went in at the break 1-0 up.
And almost immediately after the interval United found themselves 2-0 to the good, when a McIlroy dummy fooled the City defence and Brian Kidd slotted home – things seemed to be going from strength to strength.
But things were to turn on a contentious decision mid-way through the half when Francis Lee threw himself to the floor in the United box, but referee Ray Tinkler decided he was fouled and pointed to the spot without hesitation.
And within minutes the hosts were level, Colin Bell latching onto a through ball to round Stepney with ease. By this stage there looked only one winner.
In a dramatic sequence of events in the closing stages, it was United who once again took the lead thanks to a wildly deflected McIlroy effort. Only for City to profit from a Stepney mistake after he failed to collect a corner with Mike Summerbee cracking home the equalizer with five minutes left.
It’s fair to say a draw was befitting of a great game played at an electric pace by two fully committed teams, but in truth, two sides that were both entering into something of a long spell of mediocrity.
Just a couple of seasons later United would be relegated, ironically on the same day as they faced the Blues at Old Trafford. And they would continue to struggle to compete with sides such as Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Everton and Liverpool throughout the decades that followed as the team deteriorated and subsequent managers failed to rebuild.
City would spend the remainder of the 1970s fielding attacking line-ups that entertained the Maine Road faithful, yet delivering little. And following the 1976 League Cup win over Newcastle they would wait over 30 years for their next major trophy.
As for the young McIlroy debuts don’t come much more unnerving than the Manchester derby. But after coming through his baptism of fire with flying colours – scoring once and assisting twice – he instantly endeared himself to the United faithful, going on to enjoy many years at the club and scoring 57 goals in 342 appearances.
But after more than a decade at Old Trafford his time appeared to be up when United splashed out £1.5 million for Bryan Robson.
However, in typical fashion the Irishman banged in a hat-trick against Wolves on October 3rd 1981 – the very same day United’s future “Captain Marvel” and his ultimate replacement signed for the club.