x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The goal that saved Ferguson's job

Lee Martin was credited with scoring only two goals during what was, in the main, an unremarkable football career which spanned 15 years.

Lee Martin, second right, maraudes forward to score the winning goal for Manchester United in the 1990 FA Cup final replay.
Lee Martin, second right, maraudes forward to score the winning goal for Manchester United in the 1990 FA Cup final replay.

Lee Martin was credited with scoring only two goals during what was, in the main, an unremarkable football career which spanned 15 years. To this day, the former Manchester United full-back refuses to claim the second of them, an involuntary deflection into the West Ham United net after an attempted clearance by Alvin Martin, the former England defender, struck him on the knee.

The first goal is a different story, though, and one that Martin has been proud to relay over and over again for the past 20 years - not least as it celebrates its 20-year anniversary at tomorrow's FA Cup final between Portsmouth and Chelsea. It was a strike that changed the course of football history in England, buying precious time for what was then a beleaguered United manager Alex (now Sir Alex) Ferguson.

Ferguson, who arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 in a wave of optimism from Aberdeen where he had won three league titles and the European Cup Winners' Cup, struggled in his first three years at the club to satisfy the craving for an elusive English league championship and was under intense pressure as the 1989/90 season developed. With a first title since 1967 out of reach - United were destined to finish a distant 13th behind their arch rivals Liverpool - the FA Cup became Ferguson's only route to salvation and each of the six ties they faced that season was billed as potentially the manager's last match in charge.

Ferguson yearned for the luck of the draw in the game's most romantic knockout competition but it never came as his team were repeatedly sent on their travels in that pivotal campaign. After Mark Robins, the striker, had given Ferguson his first stay of execution by scoring a precious winning goal in the treacherous third-round tie away to a powerful Nottingham Forest, narrow away victories followed at Hereford, Newcastle and Sheffield United before Robins struck again with the winner in the semi-final replay against Oldham Athletic.

That earned Ferguson a Wembley date against Crystal Palace but even then his position was not safe and he was indebted to a Mark Hughes equaliser deep into extra time to get out of jail with a 3-3 draw. That set the stage for Martin's finest hour in the Wembley replay five days later. The unheralded full-back rolled back the years during a recent visit to Dubai: "I didn't venture into opposition territory very often and probably wouldn't have done so that night but I got a shout from Archie Knox [Ferguson's assistant manager] to get forward.

"I made a run and Neil Webb [the former England midfielder] sent a great ball through on to my chest and I just hit it. When I chested it down and saw it go into the top corner, I fell over in agony with cramp as the rest of the guys were piling on top of me." That was the only goal of a tight replay, clinching for United an overdue first piece of silverware for Ferguson, who has capitalised on that reprieve in quite magnificent fashion.

Trophies followed thick and fast as Ferguson captured the Premier League 11 times, the European Cup twice, the European Cup Winners' Cup, the Club World Cup, the FA Cup five more times and the League Cup four times. Martin went on: "History could have changed that night. The result could have gone the other way and different things could have happened at the club. "All the players were aware during that cup run that there was a lot of pressure on the manager. We knew he had to win something soon.

"When you look back now you think that it would have been crazy to let him go. Twenty years down the line you look at what he has done for the club. It's just amazing." Martin was in and out of the United team after that glorious career highlight and left Old Trafford in 1994 to join Glasgow Celtic, but a broken arm and a back injury during his spell in Scotland brought forward his retirement date.

"Even if I had made just one appearance for United I would have been satisfied," he concluded. "But to score the winning goal at Wembley, which not many people have done over the years, is great. It's a nice thing to be remembered for." wjohnson@thenational.ae