x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Apprentice meets his master

When Mark Robins sent a header past the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Steve Sutton in January 1990, it shaped Sir Alex Ferguson's destiny as the manager of Manchester United.

Mark Robins celebrates scoring for Manchester United against Nottingham Forest in a 1990 FA Cup match.
Mark Robins celebrates scoring for Manchester United against Nottingham Forest in a 1990 FA Cup match.

When Mark Robins sent a header past the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Steve Sutton in January 1990, it shaped Sir Alex Ferguson's destiny as the manager of Manchester United. The goal began their winning run in the FA Cup - the Scot's first trophy for the club - and is widely regarded as the one that saved him from dismissal.

Little did Robins envisage that 19 years later it would still be talked about or that they would be facing each other as opposition managers when his Barnsley side host United in the fifth round of the Carling Cup tonight. Clayton Blackmore certainly did not. He was in the United side that day and thought Robins looked the least likely to follow Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, Paul Ince or Roy Keane as Old Trafford heroes who would end up trying to outwit the man they called "the boss" and who has since overseen 11 Premier League and two European Cup successes.

"Mark was a good goalscorer, but he was one of the last you would think of as a manager," said Blackmore, who spent 12 years at United and played for Barnsley in 1999. "He was a very quiet lad on and off the pitch and that's why it's very surprising. All the other lads were big characters. "But it's working under Fergie that does it. You pick up things, you learn and that's why so many end up following him."

Robins, 39, impressed in his first managerial job at Rotherham, a League Two side burdened by financial problems, in 2007 before taking over at Barnsley in the Championship last month. "By starting out in the lower leagues, he is working his way up. He has done fantastic and it will be a great incentive for him to show Fergie how far he has come," said Blackmore. "It's amazing people still talk about that goal against Forest. We don't really know if Fergie would have gone, but he didn't treat Mark any differently afterwards.

"I scored the winner against Hereford in the next round and that was another game we could have lost. It was 0-0 and somebody blew a whistle in the crowd and their lad had gone through, but Jim Leighton bailed us out with a one-on-one save." Robins has been eager to play down the goal against Forest. It is history, he says. A highlight of the past when he now wants to be acknowledged for current deeds.

Emulating Hughes, Bruce and the rest by managing in the top flight would help him achieve that. That will not be easy, according to Blackmore. "Everyone who doesn't support United hates them, so if things go wrong when managing a bigger club, the fans might not give you as much of a chance as others because you are ex-United," he said. "Roy Keane has mentioned that and he's having a bit of a sticky time now at Ipswich. I can't see why Mark Robins won't manage at the top one day, but another problem he might face is that when you get to that level and work with a certain standard of players, it's whether or not you get their respect. Mark wasn't a big star and it might be harder for him."

So too will be tonight's game for a Barnsley side that upset Premier League Burnley in the last round, but lost 3-2 at home to Bristol City on Saturday. Robins has promised an improvement against United. After the defeat to Liverpool, and even though he may call on his reserves, so too has Ferguson. The master will not want to be upstaged by the apprentice. @Email:akhan@thenational.ae Barnsley v Manchester United, KO 11.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 3