Explained: Did Mark Robins really save Sir Alex Ferguson's job as Man Utd manager?

Alex Ferguson Mark Robins 1990
The history of Manchester United and English football could have turned out very differently if Robins had not scored against Nottingham Forest

Every football club has their own sliding doors moment, a major incident which either set them on a path towards greatness or played a pivotal part in their downfall.

For Manchester City it is Sergio Aguero's 94th-minute goal against Queen' Park Rangers. For Chelsea, it was when Roman Abramovich decided to buy the club in 2004. For Real Madrid, it was the signing of Alfredo di Stefano. Or more recently, Sergio Ramos' injury-time equaliser against Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final.

Manchester United enjoyed their most successful spell under Sir Alex Ferguson, but there was a time when the Scottish manager was on the brink of being sacked. And according to folklore, the man who saved his career was a little-known player called Mark Robins.

  1. Why was Alex Ferguson in trouble?

    Why was Alex Ferguson in trouble?

    Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford to great acclaim in 1986 after leading Aberdeen to three Scottish Premier Division titles, four Scottish Cups and the 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup, beating Real Madrid in the final.

    But he did not manage to lead the Red Devils to immediate glory, finishing 11th in his first season, second in his second and then 11th again in his third while failing to win any trophies. To put that into context, his predecessor Ron Atkinson had lifted the FA Cup in 1983 and 1985.

    The 1989-90 season, Ferguson's fourth campaign, was looking like a disaster. United had been trounced 5-1 by Manchester City in September and by January they had gone six league matches without a league win. They were in danger of getting sucked into a relegation battle and fans were already turning against the manager.

    After a 2-1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace, a fan displayed the now infamous banner reading '3 Years Of Excuses And It’s Still Crap. Ta Ra Fergie.'

    United were drawn against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round and the word in the city was that if they were dumped out of the Cup and a fourth trophy-less season beckoned, Ferguson was going to lose his job.

    "Every day in the lead up to that game we were picking up the papers and reading that the manager was facing the sack,” defender Viv Anderson told the Manchester Evening News in 2015.

    At that time, Forest away was a daunting fixture for United as the Tricky Trees, who were still coached by legendary manager Brian Clough, had finished third the previous season and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. United were also without captain Brian Robson plus key players such as Lee Sharpe and Paul Ince.

  2. Who is Mark Robins?

    Who is Mark Robins?

    Mark Robins is the man who is often credited as being the man who 'saved' Ferguson in a game that can perhaps be said to have defined the course of Manchester United's future.

    Robins, who grew up in Manchester and came through the Red Devils' youth system, had made his first-team debut for United the previous season, but was not a first-team regular. Nevertheless, he started the crucial FA Cup match against Forest up front alongside Mark Hughes.

    Robins, aged 20 at the time, scored the only goal in the game, stooping to nod home a cross from Hughes. After the match he explained: "It was an instinctive thing. I didn't think about trying to place it, I just headed it. It was a brilliant ball from Mark Hughes. I couldn't miss really. That is the most important goal I have scored."

    But, back then, he would have no idea just how important the goal would prove to be.

  3. What happened next to Alex Ferguson?

    What happened next to Alex Ferguson?

    After that moment, United went all the way to the FA Cup final, drawing 3-3 with Crystal Palace then winning the replay 1-0 thanks to a goal from Lee Martin. It was the first trophy the club had won for five years and sparked a glorious era under Ferguson.

    The Cup Winners Cup was added to the trophy cabinet the following year, then the League Cup, while United won their first league title for 26 years in 1993 - the inaugural Premier League. When Ferguson finally retired in 2013, he had led the club to 25 major trophies including 13 league titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues.

    Ferguson's success brought a whole new legion of fans to United both in England and around the world, turning them into the global brand they are today.

  4. What did Mark Robins do next?

    What did Mark Robins do next?

    Robins also scored in the fifth round tie against Newcastle United but his influence at Old Trafford faded soon after. He came off the bench in the first final but played no part in the replay.

    Robins left Manchester United for Norwich City two years later and subsequently missed out on their many title successes under Ferguson. However, he still enjoyed a respectable career, playing for the Canaries and Leicester in the Premier League, with sojourns to Denmark, Spain and Greece before retiring in 2005 at Burton Albion.

    After hanging up his boots, Robins went into management and led Coventry to the Championship play-off final in 2023.

  5. Did Mark Robins really save Alex Ferguson?

    Did Mark Robins really save Alex Ferguson?

    Viv Anderson certainly thinks so. He believes Robins' goal gave Manchester United a new-found confidence which spurred them on to win the FA Cup.

    “I just remember a sense of relief afterwards and then also the feeling that it could be our year kicked in,” Anderson said. “There was a renewed sense of optimism after that win. It triggered something and we turned the corner.”

    However, opinions vary. Robins' former team-mate Brian McClair, for example, is more sceptical. "I genuinely don't believe that to be true," he said on the idea in 2020.

    Martin Edwards, United's chairman at the time, and Sir Bobby Charlton, who was on the club's board, have since said that Ferguson was not in immediate danger of losing his job, even if the external pressure was undeniable.

    "We won the game and he went on to win 30-odd trophies; everything else is irrelevant. But has he ever thanked me? No," joked Robins back in 2009 when, as manager of Barnsley, he locked horns with Ferguson's Man Utd.

    Ultimately, Ferguson's fate in 1990 was attributable to a series of moments through that campaign. Nevertheless, history has decreed Robins as the man who made it happen.