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Published: 15 MAY 2003

12 YEARS AGO TODAY (May 15th 1991)
by John Ryan

European Cup Winners Cup Final

Manchester United 2 Barcelona 1
(Hughes 2) (Koeman)

To many the Cup Winners Cup was & still is the weakest of all of the European Competitions. Unlike the UEFA Champions League/European Cup or the UEFA Cup in its pre-1999 days, the Cup Winners Cup was not based on a sides league position and any side who won their country's domestic Cup tournament would be in the hat the following year. Perversely, this often threw sides who won nothing into the tournament when the side who won the Country's domestic championship also claimed the cup. The most bizarre of all was at the end of the 1995-96 season, Liverpool entered the Cup Winners Cup having lost the FA Cup final to Manchester United (who had qualified for the UEFA Champions League) and Aston Villa were forced into the UEFA Cup, despite winning the League Cup. Cup winners into the competition normally reserved for high league finishers and a team who had won no cup playing in the Cup Winners Cup, yes, it was a strange competition.

Having won nothing in his first 2 full seasons as Manager of Manchester United, the 1990 FA Cup final win was a welcome if hard fought trophy. Alex Ferguson had spent heavily the season before to bring in 5 new players and had United not won the FA Cup final, who knows, Alex might not have been at Old Trafford much longer. Bobby Charlton reckoned this was never the case, but it is easy to be wise in hindsight. When the ban on English club sides competing in Europe was lifted in the summer of 1990, Manchester United were to play in the Cup winners Cup the following season. Europe was always a special competition to Manchester United but the standard of teams in the Cup winners Cup was nothing to write home about. United beat Pecsi Munkas rather easily in the first round and Wrexham in the second round in a "battle of Britain". Nothing to get too enthusiastic about in the first two rounds apart from re-affirming the notion that this was the weakest of the 3 competitions in Europe.

At the quarter final stage the competition basically began for Manchester United. I don't think it is arrogant to say that as the first 2 rounds had been relatively easier than the competition United were facing week in week out domestically in England. Montpellier came to Old Trafford and United had a goal almost as soon as the game kicked off through Brian McClair. Seven minutes in though Lee Martin was unfortunate to score an own goal and the papers had their headlines full of irony - Martin had scored the winner in the FA Cup final the previous year & could now have scored the goal to knock United out of the Cup winners cup. The game finished 1-1 & with the away goal Montpellier looked favourites to win the tie. Mark Hughes was also warned not to travel to France after he had feigned being head butted in the face resulting in a sending off for Pascal Ballis. All in all it looked as though United's first crusade in European Competition in seven years was coming to an end.

United pulled off a fantastic victory in Montpellier to advance to the semi final stage. Goals from Clayton Blackmore & Steve Bruce set United on the road to the semi finals where at last 2 of the giants of European fare were waiting, along with Legia Warsaw. Alex Ferguson's men got the luck of the draw when avoiding Barcelona & Juventus & travelling to Warsaw for the first game. A 3-1 win away from home meant that surely United would be in their first European final since the 1968 Champions Cup final. When United took Legia back to Old Trafford there was not a lot at stake despite the small matter of preserving the unbeaten European record at Old Trafford which eventually lasted until 1996. Lee Sharpe put United 1-0 up but the game finished 1-1. The job had been completed and now it was off to Rotterdam for the final.

Barcelona had won the Cup Winners Cup in 1989 and were about to be crowned Spanish Champions in 1991. They had the magical Hristo Stoichcov in their ranks and were one of Spain's big 2. They inspired fear in the hearts of their opponents and with a player like Ronald Koeman, they were extremely dangerous from free kicks. Other stars included Bakero & Michael Laudrup and it was no wonder they took the mantle of favourites for the final. Their manager was the former legend Johann Cruyff one of the stars of world football in the 1970's & 80's. Manchester United had beaten Barcelona in the 1984 Cup winners Cup quarter final, but the teams had changed considerably since then. The fact that Manchester United had lost the English League Cup final to second division Sheffield Wednesday a few weeks earlier surely pointed to a Barcelona win. Disaster struck for Barcelona though when Stoichkov was ruled out through suspension, and injuries meant that the young keeper Busquets played for them in goal and the veteran
Aleshenko at 37, stepped in at the back. Mark Hughes who was playing up front for Manchester United was an ex-Barcelona player & was out to prove something to his former employers. The great Barcelona team was favoured to out-play the more workmanlike Manchester United side.

The first half of the game was a good 45 minutes but chances were extremely hard to come by. United's midfield began to get to grips with Barcelona and when early in the second half United won a free kick on the left hand side, Steve Bruce stepped up hoping to score his 20th goal of the season. The free kick was swung in Bruce's direction & his header coupled with Busquets coming off his line resulted in the ball bouncing about a foot from the line on the far post opposite the direction Bruce's header came from & there was Mark Hughes to poke the ball home. Bruce & Hughes both claimed the goal, but Manchester United were delirious, 1-0 up and good value for the lead too. Barcelona, having played in Europe every season since European football began, might have been expected not to panic, but it was Manchester United who tightened their grip on the game. United squeezed the life out of Barca in midfield and took control of the game. The second goal was coming & duly arrived not long after the opener. Bryan
Robson, standing 15 yards inside their half caught their players trying to play offside and lobbed the ball over their back line. Mark Hughes ran onto the pass but Busquets had raced from his goal. "Sparky's" first touch took him past the goalkeeper but very wide of the goal. A lesser or less confident player might not have shot, but from an incredibly tight angle and with 2 defenders and a goalkeeper rushing to get back to the goal, Hughes unleashed a thunderbolt piledriver that flew into the corner of the net. It was an incredible goal from the ex-Barcelona man and at 2-0 United and their fans knew another European trophy was going to the cabinet.

The onslaught from Barcelona now had to happen. But with 19 year old Lee Sharpe torturing the Barcelona full back Nando with his runs, inevitably Barcelona were going to be caught and caught they were. Sharpe ran onto a long ball behind Barcelona's defence & when bearing down on goal Nando body checked him & inevitably saw red. Barcelona were looking decreasingly like Cup winners Cup champions until their pressure paid off with a Ronald Koeman free kick that caught out Les Sealey (RIP) to make it 2-1. The last minutes of that game were frantic, not least when Michael Laudrup's goalbound shot was shinned to safety by Clayton Blackmore. In the finish, the belated Barcelona pressure just did not pay off and Manchester United lifted their second major European trophy with a brilliant 2-1 victory. Older players like Nobby stiles & Bobby Charlton flooded onto the field to congratulate their heroic players who brought European glory to the club.

In a strange sort of way, that Cup winners cup competition epitomised Manchester United of that era. United were able to beat a great side like Barcelona but could not beat Sheffield Wednesday. The Cup winners cup was a competition that could see a side from any division from European football enter once they won their own domestic cup. Although United did not face the cream of Europe all the way through the competition, it is a cup run that is very special to Manchester United supporters of that era everywhere. A new generation of fans has been force fed SKY's coverage of the Premiership & ITV's saturated Champions League coverage. Football was a lot different in that era and those who did not experience that Cup Winners Cup run missed out on a very very special time to be a Manchester United supporter. You just knew a momentum was building within the club. Like people of my own age missed out on Wembley on May 29th 1968, fans too young to remember now missed out on Rotterdam May 15th 1991. For the record,
Barcelona recovered from the Cup Winners Cup Final to go on to be crowned Spanish Champions. In 1992 they were Crowned Champions of Europe when the same Ronald Koeman who beat Les Sealey (RIP) beat Sampdoria at Wembley. Manchester United missed out on the 1992 Championship to Leeds but did land the English League Cup with victory over Nottingham Forest. And from 1993 on, well anyone can tell you what happened next .................

That 1990-91 Cup winners Cup run is just so full of magical memories.

John Ryan

Copyright 2003 Red11. All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced without permission of the authour.


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