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The Cup Winners Cup – a forgotten tournament in the heart of United

Lockdown has had a significant impact on everyone, but lack of football has left a gaping hole in our lives. Beyond the matches themselves, checking Sky Sports News for the headlines, Geoff Stelling and the Soccer Saturday panel absorbing 3pm to 5pm, choosing matches for our accumulators – it’s an endless list to say the least.

During this time, television networks have attempted to fill the void by playing old FA Cup matches, Euro 96 and Sky have put repeats of entertaining matches from over the Premier League era. After dabbling in the Belarusian Premier League on my Sky Bet app, I felt that my adopted team of FC Minsk (they were the team on that day and wore a red kit) just simply had no match or thrill to my love of United and the Premier League.

I moved onto building up my collection of football shirts where I got my hands on a beautiful 1991 European Cup Winners Cup shirt. I was just shy of my 2nd birthday when Bryan Robson lifted the trophy at Feyenoord’s De Kuip Stadium against Spanish Giants, Barcelona. This made me want to delve further into the now defunct tournament and understand the impact it had on United and English football in general.

The Cup Winners Cup?

The Cup Winners Cup was abolished in 1999 due to the expansion of the Champions League and UEFA Cup, causing the tournament to become inferior. It’s crazy to think that people age 21 or lower weren’t even born when this event happened.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the Cup Winners Cup was put forward as the prize for clubs winning their domestic cup competition. Many countries used the Cup Winners Cup as a way of promoting their domestic cup competitions, which were either not taken seriously due to their infancy or didn’t exist at all.

As time went on and the competition grew, the more random it became. Finals we would never dream of weren’t infrequent and upsets weren’t uncommon. Take for example FC Magdeburg of East Germany beating AC Milan in 1974 or Real Zaragoza beating Arsenal in 1995. One of the biggest upsets in the competition was the inspiring Aberdeen side of the early 1980s, led by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson beating Real Madrid in 1983.

The Cup Winners Cup was the first European Tournament that Ferguson had won with Aberdeen and he would do the same with Manchester United in 1991. Whilst the 1983 Aberdeen victory was at the club’s peak in their dominant spell of Scottish football, Manchester United were in the very early stages that would lead up to them becoming a stalwart in the European Elite.

The Gates Had Opened Back Up

As well documented, the gates to European football were well and truly closed to English clubs in the mid to late 1980s following ugly scenes at the Heysel Stadium. In a contest between Liverpool and Juventus in the 1985 European Cup Final, the Heysel Stadium in a state of decay seen a concrete wall collapse under pressure. This resulted in the death of innocent Juventus fans and the 1-0 victory for the Old Lady was no consolation on one of football’s darkest days.

Following an inquiry, it was deemed that Liverpool fans were the cause of the scenes that had lead up to the disastrous events, resulting in an indefinite ban of English clubs in European competitions. It is hard to say how much this event had set English football back. With the foreign footballers becoming frequent feature in leagues across Europe, did not having access to European competition make it more difficult to attract talent from abroad? Could we have seen greats from the 1988 Netherlands team in the league? Could the close dribbling of Michael Laudrup or the leadership of Lothar Matthaus featured in our top flight? Who knows. It was around this point that Italian football started to thrive and became the place to be, holding its value as the best league in the world well into the late 1990s. The biggest losers in this were also smaller clubs such as Wimbledon and Coventry who were unable to compete in European Competition following their underdog stories in the FA Cup.

But in the 1990/91 season, things changed. UEFA allowed English clubs to return to their competitions. This enabled Manchester United, following their success in the FA Cup in 1990, to partake in that season’s Cup Winner Cup, with Aston Villa competing in the UEFA Cup (resulting in a second-round defeat to Internazionale). There was no English representation in the European Cup as league winners, Liverpool, were given an additional years suspension.

Easing Back into European Football

Whilst Aston Villa were eliminated in the early stages of the UEFA Cup against a strong opposition in Inter, United were afforded a couple of generous opponents in the early stages of the Cup Winners Cup. Facing Pecs Mecsek of Hungary in the first round. Winning 2-0 in the first leg in Manchester thanks to a thunderous long ranger by Clayton Blackmore and a tidy finish from Neil Webb, Brian McClair finished off Pecs in Hungary with a well-placed header to go through 3-0 on aggregate.

Clayton Blackmore and Steve Bruce celebrating victory

The second round saw a strange scenario where United would play Wrexham, a team who at the time were playing in the Old Division 4. Despite playing in the English League, Wrexham were winners of the 1990 Welsh Cup, allowing them to compete in Europe. What makes this even more remarkable is that Wrexham at the end of the 1990/91 season actually finished at the very bottom of the old Division 4 and only avoided relegation due to a technicality (a conference team had voluntarily left).

Despite playing a team three leagues below them, Ferguson still paid respect to the tournament, fielding a strong starting eleven in the both legs. The first leg, the team from South Wales were picked apart with relative ease; Brian McClair scoring another header, Steve Bruce converting from the spot and Gary Pallister hitting the roof of the net with a stunning half volley. The second leg was a matter of finishing the job off, with United taking the aggregate score to 5-0, contributions from Steve Bruce again and Mark Robins.

Moving into the quarter finals, United were to face a strong Montpellier side, featuring future World Cup winner Laurent Blanc and the most famous Colombian player to grace the game, Carlos Valderrama. The first leg at Old Trafford saw United take the match to the French club with McClair sliding into to meet a cross in the first minute. Lee Martin conceded an unfortunate own goal only 7 minutes later in a game that would end up 1-1. Having to go to France with an away goal against them, victory was the only way forward for United. The Red Devils were up to the task as Clayton Blackmore again unleashed a long-range drive that was fumbled into the net by the French keeper, whilst Bruce, dependent as ever, slotted away a penalty for his third goal of the tournament.

Carlos Valderrama turning out for Montpellier

As becoming champions in the competition starts to look a reality with only a maximum of three games to play, United found themselves with a favourable route to the final in the form of Legia Warsaw. Although Legia Warsaw were a team of solely unheard of Polish players who should have been a walk in the park, it can’t be ignored that playing away in a Central European country would be a new and intimidating experience for many of United’s players. In the match footage, some fans are even standing on the side of the pitch with little to no security.

Despite the unusual surroundings, United showed their dominance early in the match until a run against play saw Legia take the lead. United responded quickly with the ever reliable McClair getting the better of a goal mouth scramble. United capitalised on the first goal in the second half adding two more goals. Mark Hughes would sell the three poles in front of him with a dummy before driving the ball in off the post, shortly followed by Bruce (him again?!) taking advantage of a wayward bounce landing in front of him. A victory was all but sealed, with United knowing that with three away goals and a two-goal advantage, a cautious approach would guarantee a place in the final. The second leg was much less eventful, Lee Sharpe opening the scoring with an emphatic strike and Legia only managing a consolation goal, but enough to keep United on their toes to see out the match.

For the first time since 1968, United had reached a European final and this was a sign that English football was back and meant business.

Saving the Best ‘til Last

Like Fergie’s Aberdeen side, he would face a Spanish giant in his first European final with the Red of Manchester. United facing Barcelona in Europe would become something of a familiar fixture over the next 30 years, but this was the first time an English club had come against a team of this magnitude for five years. Barcelona were in the period of the widely celebrated “Dream Team” who would dominate La Liga and bring a first European Cup title to Catalonia in 1992. This was a team lead by Johan Cruyff and featured reputable stars such as Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and a young Pep Guardiola.

Both teams would line up in Rotterdam in front of 45,000 fans to the historical match that was about to unfold. As was tradition back then, clubs would wear their away kits in the final. However, due to Barcelona’s blue change strip clashing with United’s change strip that season, an ironic one off all-white kit was produced for this match (with the Sharp sponsor being a notable omission).

Manchester United Line-Up for the Final

United would name a full-strength side for the final, however, Barcelona would be without their talismanic Bulgarian in Stoichkov. After a monotonous first half of a few wayward shots, the second half had to be better given the quality of players on show for the world to see. Brian McClair should have done better with an early effort but beyond that, neither team looked particularly threatening to the other.

As United came out for the second half, a re-energised team started to take control of the game with Mark Hughes having his most famous 45 minutes in a Manchester United Shirt, made all the more sweeter against his former club. After some near misses, the deadlock was finally broken after a looping Steve Bruce header was smashed in on the line by Hughes. Hughes would later go on to say it was over the line before he made contact, but the record books say otherwise. Either way, United fans and players alike didn’t care; it was a goal to put them in front in a European final. Only seven minutes later, Hughes would go on to score his most memorable goal for United. As the ball comes through, Hughes finds himself in a one on one with Carles Busquets (father of Sergio). With Busquets being in no man’s land, Hughes rounded the keeper, to bring the ball very wide to the edge of the box. We have seen this situation many times where the moment was lost, but Hughes was able to keep his composure and thump the ball in from the tight angle, bringing the score to 2-0.

Hughes lacing in his second

Despite only having fifteen minutes of play remaining, the match was far from over. Koeman scored a trademark free kick that Les Sealey would have felt he could have done better with. Barcelona would then have a goal disallowed for offside as well as have an effort cleared off the line in a true squeaky bum ending that we have become accustomed to as United fans. Mark Hughes as well can feel aggrieved, having been so close to a hat trick only to be hacked down before pulling the trigger in a last man tackle that would result in a red card for Nando.

When the Swedish referee blew the final whistle, relief and elation were the feelings of all those associated with Manchester United. After 23 years since their last success in a European final and a trophy in two consecutive seasons, there was a sense of optimism and that this wasn’t just a team who could have a good cup run and win the occasional trophy.

Mike Phelan, Bryan Robson and Lee Sharpe celebrating with the trophy

Check out our podcast (Strettycast) from two weeks ago below, for an extra throwback to the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup.

Leaving a Legacy

For Manchester United, winning the FA Cup in 1990 was a relief for Ferguson more than anyone given three years without a trophy, but the victory against Barcelona in 1991 certainly helped to rid of an element of doubt as to whether this was a team capable of competing. A one-off success is one thing, but continued success is more difficult and what creates great teams.

Also, the success of United in this tournament against a team of the highest calibre showed to the world that English football was back where it belonged and without any of the crowd trouble that plagued our country through the 80s. It would be another 8 years until we reached another European final, however, this was the competition that helped to sow the seeds for the great team that Manchester United would go on to become.

What happened between 15th May 1991 and 19th May 2013 would go down as the greatest period in the club’s history.

READ MORE: Photos: Manchester United third kit 2020-21 shirt design leaked

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