Recalling Man United’s 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup triumph and the parallels to 2017 Europa League final

Andy Mitten speaks to members of Manchester United's 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup-winning team ahead of the club's Europa League final against Ajax on Wednesday.

From left: Manchester United players Mike Phelan, captain Bryan Robson and Lee Sharpe celebrate with the European Cup Winners' Cup trophy after a 2-1 victory over Spanish club Barcelona in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on May 15, 1991. Simon Bruty / Getty Images
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The first of the Manchester United fans travelling to the Europa League final left soon after the final whistle against Crystal Palace.

After 38 Premier League games, United finished sixth in the table and 24 points behind the title winners from London.

The final run-in against Manchester City, Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur had largely disappointed. United’s league campaign was disappointing, though there were much higher hopes for next season.

Fans had seen their team be more effective in the cups than the league, with two trips to Wembley Stadium in the Charity Shield and League Cup final to show for their efforts.

Europe had become the priority in the dying weeks, with senior players rested and youngsters given game time.


Read more

■ Premier League end-of-season report: Chelsea worthy champions, Tottenham see progress, Man United disappoint

■ Europa League final: Past and present intertwined as Ajax face Man United in Stockholm showdown

■ Unwinning Invincibles: Jose Mourinho's Manchester United hard to beat but short on victories


Fans had been talking about a trip to a beautiful European capital by the sea for weeks, talking about Amsterdam and swapping stories of travel plans with enthusiasm.

But this was not 2017 and Wednesday’s Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm, but back in May 1991 and a Cup Winners’ Cup final against Barcelona in Rotterdam.

There are numerous similarities between this season and the 1990/91 season for Manchester United.

The team had won the FA Cup in the previous season, while all the cup games meant a long slog of matches like Jose Mourinho’s side have taken on this year.

United played 58 games in 1990/91, with Gary Pallister ever-present and six players (Pallister, Clayton Blackmore, Brian McClair, Les Sealey, Denis Irwin and Steve Bruce) all starting more than 50 matches. It was a settled starting XI, but it was not a title-winning one.

Barcelona were stocked with impressive names. Even though they had lost their goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta and star striker Hristo Stoichkov to injury, Barca boasted talents such as like Michael Laudrup, Alexanco, Ronald Koeman, Jose Mari Bakero, Julio Salinas and Albert Ferrer.

They had Johann Cruyff as manager in charge of his Dream Team who would go on and win a first ever European Cup a year later. Cruyff was recovering from a four-hour double heart bypass operation, but he was on the bench in Rotterdam.

Barca were on a high. They had had just won the Primera Liga back after arch-rivals Real Madrid had bagged five consecutive titles and they were a big step up from the unfancied, unfashionable sides who United had overcome en route: Pecsi Munkas, Wrexham, Montpellier and Legia Warsaw.

The Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991 required eight games to reach the final, the Europa League this year has taken 14.

Around 25,000 United fans travelled across the North Sea for that final game in the Rotterdam rain. It was the first season that English clubs had been allowed back into European football after a five-year ban following the Heysel Stadium disaster and there was much nervousness about how United fans would behave, but the authorities need not have worried.

By 1990 a change in fan behaviour was underway. Attendances were on the rise after the success of the 1990 World Cup and a new generation of football fan was spawned.

"The place was packed," recalled winger Lee Sharpe. "Two-thirds of the ground was United and there were hundreds of flags. It was an unbelievable atmosphere with fans singing Sit Down by James and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

Sharpe had recently been voted the PFA Young Player of the Year, superseding Matt le Tissier and preceding Ryan Giggs, but his smile masked his fretful nerves.

“I was the most nervous I’d be for a game in my life,” he said. “I saw interviews on television beforehand when Ronald Koeman was being asked what he though of Lee Sharpe and I was a bit blown away by it all; I had just turned 20.”

United’s last major European victory had been against the Catalans seven years earlier and this was a chance to sit at the top table again. First, though, the players had to overcome their nerves.

“I was very nervous on the way to the ground,” Pallister said. “Johann Cruyff said that Brucey and I couldn’t pass the ball so I was determined to prove him wrong.

“Barca were strong favourites, but they were missing Stoichkov and as I found out a few years later [when Barca destroyed United 4-0 in 1994], he wasn’t bad.”

If the players were jittery, United manager Alex Ferguson was not. He had ventured to Barcelona weeks earlier to watch them play, meeting up with Steve Archibald, the former Aberdeen and Barcelona striker still living in the Catalan capital.

A friend of both managers, Archibald filled his former boss in on the Barca team, just as he had advised Cruyff on the United team.

“There was no lack of confidence in my pre-match tactics talk,” said Ferguson, who had identified two key requirements in coping with Barcelona.

He told Bruce and Pallister not to be drawn into midfield, but to make sure that they did not afford space to Laudrup so that he could hurt United. The other threat was Koeman breaking from the back with his “exceptional passing”. United started well and Pallister set up McClair, who blasted over.

“It was one of the best passes I ever made,” recalled Pallister, “and I felt like running up and asking: ‘Who can’t pass the ball, Johan?’”

While United enjoyed the better of the first half play, the players went into the dressing room with no goals to show for their efforts.

The English side were better organised and more committed and got their reward when, 23 minutes into the second half, Mark Hughes was fouled on the edge of the box.

Bryan Robson floated in a free kick, Bruce rose to head the ball goalwards and Hughes — the former Barca player — was left with the simple task of bundling the ball over the line.

Seven minutes later Hughes latched onto a through ball from Robson, rounded the reserve goalkeeper Carles Busquets (Barca’s current goalkeeping coach and father of Barca and Spain midfielder Sergio) and drilled the ball into the back of the net from a tight angle to double the lead.

There was a late scare when Koeman bent a free kick over United’s defensive wall to cut the deficit on 79 minutes.

Barca pressed frantically for an equaliser and Ferguson worried about the fitness of goalkeeper Sealey, who was starting to show wear and tear from an injury picked up in the League Cup final defeat three weeks earlier.

As substitute goalkeeper Gary Walsh warmed up, Blackmore, one of United’s best players in 1990/91, cleared a shot from Laudrup off the line with only a few minutes left.

“It was Clayton’s finest moment in a red jersey,” Ferguson said. “As long as there is a Manchester United, that rescue act will be remembered.”

“Brucey lost the ball and he still thanks me,” recalled Blackmore, “I was just there on the line.”

The final whistle brought joyous scenes on a filthy and blustery night in Europe’s biggest port city.

“We had three quarters of the stadium and celebrated for ages after,” Pallister said. “It was like a Manchester evening, dank and wet.

“We were the better team for 75 minutes of the game and deserved to win. I felt really proud. That Cup Winners’ Cup victory was the best buzz of my football career.”

The United manager was soon on the pitch with his players conducting the orchestra as the fans sang Always Look on The Bright Side of Life over and over.

The mayor of Rotterdam and his chief of police heaped praise on the United supporters, while Barca were left to contemplate defeat.

“The biggest problem against Manchester United was that everybody was already satisfied because we had won the Spanish championship and had the opportunity to play in the European Cup,” Cruyff told British journalists after the game.

“With Barca, when something happens everything is exaggerated. It’s never normal; it’s either big ups or big downs. So when we won the league everyone was so happy that the Cup Winners’ Cup became unimportant.”

“I know we’d won the FA Cup the previous season, but once we won that game we thought we could mix it with the best,” said United midfielder Paul Ince.

They could. United finished second in the league a year later and went on to be league champions in 1993.

United fans will be hoping that history repeats itself and that United can triumph in Sweden on Wednesday, and use that as the catalyst to challenge at the top of the table next season.

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