Conventional wisdom that Robins saved Fergie's skin is a myth

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The Independent Football

It is the goal that saved Alex Ferguson's job, and without which the course of modern football history would have been very different.

There would have been no knighthood and near-deification for Ferguson, no two Champions Leagues and umpteen domestic titles for Manchester United, the Glazers would still be anonymous corporate raiders, who knows, maybe Liverpool would still be on their perch.

Perhaps the last bit is fanciful, Liverpool were already in decline in 1990, but according to legend Ferguson would have been drummed out of Old Trafford after less than four years had it not been for Mark Robins' winner at Nottingham Forest in the 1990 FA Cup third round. Never mind eclipsing Sir Matt Busby, his record would have been put in the shade by Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson. Then up popped Robins, now manager at Barnsley, to score the most important of his 11 goals for United.

So goes the tale. But legends are usually myths and there has been an absolute consistency of denial from the people in charge of United at the time. Sir Bobby Charlton repeated the line again this week, stressing that while the media were writing Ferguson off, the board had not.

Charlton emphasised, again, that Ferguson's work behind the scenes had so impressed everyone at Old Trafford that they were prepared to wait. United were 15th that January, and defeat at the City Ground would have left them with nothing but a relegation battle. But Charlton, then-chairman Martin Edwards and the still-influential Busby admired the manner in which Ferguson had tackled the drinking culture endemic in the squad he had inherited. They were also enthused by his commitment to youth development.

Eric Harrison, the man who brought through David Beckham, Paul Scholes et al, was head of youth development. He said recently that a few weeks after Ferguson took over, the new manager had come to see him and demanded he supply better young players. "Give me the scouts and I'll give you the players," replied Harrison. Ferguson tripled the scouting staff, and the players duly arrived. Of course, even the patience of Charlton would have worn thin eventually – an unsuccessful manager can be tolerated for only so long – but Robins the rescuer? It is a nice tale, but, as the scorer himself once said, "I think it's become more significant over time because of Alex Ferguson's achievements."