Picture the scene on Tuesday night at Oakwell, after a much-changed Manchester United side beat Barnsley 2-1 in the fourth round of the Carling Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson, mellowed by the result and perhaps a glass or two of good red wine, leans across the table in Mark Robins' office.
He clears his throat, looks down at his empty glass, clears his throat again, then looks the still baby-faced Robins in the eye. "Son," he mutters, "you saved my bacon that night almost 20 years ago. If you had not scored, I'd have been away down the road for sure. And who knows what would have happened then, eh? No trophies, no knighthood, no multi-million-pound fortune. I owe you everything. Now. How's about I loan you a few players for the rest of the season?"
No, Robins doesn't think so either. In fact, the new Barnsley manager gives a wry smile and says Sir Alex hasn't mentioned the goal – against Nottingham Forest that kept United in the FA Cup that year, and thereby might have saved his career – from that day to this.
Nor has he been in touch to wish Robins good luck in his fledgling managerial career, though as Robins points out, neither has he had the time or inclination to call Sir Alex for a spot of advice.
"I've taken the approach I just wanted to get on with it," said Robins on Thursday, after overseeing his squad's preparations for yesterday's Championship match against Bristol City. "I've had a lot on my plate, and I'm sure he's got a lot more on his, even though we were going through a fair bit while I was at Rotherham."
The remarkable job Robins did in two years in charge at Millmoor, keeping the club in the League despite a 17-point deduction, then building a team good enough to challenge for promotion from League Two, has seen the former United striker given his chance to impress in the Championship. So far he has, overseeing a revival in Barnsley's League fortunes and victory over Burnley in the last round of the Carling Cup. Now his former club head to Oakwell a mere two days after facing Liverpool. It is, says Robins, an opportunity in every sense.
"It's a great chance for the players to play against some of the best in the country, and often the world, but it's also an opportunity for us to progress to the next round. A tie like this doesn't come around very often, and with Sky coverage, and more than 20,000 tickets sold, it'll be a money-spinner too, which is always welcome.
"Burnley had a real good run in the cup competitions last season, and it was a catalyst for them going on to win promotion, so we can use that as a yardstick. Things have begun to turn around for us in the League, and the work that the players have put in since I've been here has been phenomenal, so there are some good signs. We have to make sure we continue that."
Robins has not been surprised by his former manager's longevity at the highest level, pointing out that Ferguson always had an eye on the longer term as well as the next match. "I thought he was a really good manager, first in doing what he had with Aberdeen, and then in taking United on to a different level.
"The Sky money made a huge difference to the game, certainly in the Premiership, and at the beginning he spent it really wisely, expanding the stadium and improving the academy and the facilities. When I was first there we trained in an indoor gym on shale, but then he made sure we got an artificial surface, then moved training to [a superb purpose-built facility at] Carrington."
Robins adds: "You could see him doing it, he was always in control. Not many could have done what he has done in this day and age."
What might have happened if Mark Robins had not scored "that goal" at the City Ground against Nottingham Forest on 9 January 1990 and Manchester United had been knocked out of the FA Cup...
10 January 1990 Sir Alex Ferguson sacked. United appoint Bobby Gould, then manager of Wimbledon, admired for masterminding the Dons to FA Cup final glory against Liverpool and keeping them in the top flight. Gould buys Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise. United's academy is closed down; David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs are allowed to leave.
May 1990 to present United are relegated. Over the next decade they go through nine more managers, suffer two further relegations, enter administration and drop into the Conference. Ferguson becomes Labour MP for Govan, and after 10 years as a firm supporter of Tony Blair, is knighted for services to politics. When a BBC reporter questions how much work his sons actually do as paid researchers, Sir Alex refuses to talk to the corporation ever again.
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