There are sportsmen who, however unfairly, become known for one momentary incident in their lives. Eric Hollies spent a quarter of a century bowling leg spin for Warwickshire but only one of his 2,323 wickets is ever remembered: the last ball that Don Bradman ever faced in Test cricket, which dismissed him for a duck. Hollies even called his autobiography, The Hand that Bowled Bradman.
Mark Robins has won an FA Cup and a League Cup, been part of the Norwich side that overcame Bayern Munich and tasted promotion with Leicester. But he accepts his playing career will be recalled for one stooping header that met a cross from Mark Hughes to ensure that Manchester United won an FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest, where defeat might have had terminal consequences for his manager. His autobiography might be, The Man who Saved Fergie.
When Manchester United arrived at the City Ground in January 1990, Alex Ferguson's trophyless regime had reached its nadir. The Christmas programme had been disastrous, virtually a whole midfield; Neil Webb, Paul Ince and Bryan Robson were injured and Manchester United's former captain, Willie Morgan, had gone into print, accusing Ferguson of wasting "£13m on untried, inexperienced players like Gary Pallister". Ferguson himself referred to the game at Forest – his only truly memorable encounter with Brian Clough – as "my trial". In a piece of commentary Ferguson never forgot, Jimmy Hill remarked that, "United looked beaten in the warm-up".
Now the manager of Barnsley, about to face Ferguson in the Carling Cup at Oakwell, Robins prepares to answer a question that has been put a thousand times before. "The answer I give is that he had to pick a side to win a game and he did it," he says in the press room at Oakwell, where Bobby the big ginger tom has curled up on one of the seats. "We won the game and he went on to win 30-odd trophies; everything else is irrelevant. But has he ever thanked me? No."
He says that with a laugh. "We had no idea he was under so much pressure," he says of his manager's state of mind 19 years ago. "He shielded us and made sure we were oblivious to everything that was going on around the club but that may have been because we were so young. I got the hairdryer treatment at half-time because I would not lay the ball back to Brian McClair. He was facing the goal and would probably have stuck it in the net. But, because I was a goalscorer, I backed myself and missed."
There is a wonderful "what-if?" aura about the Forest game. If the game had been lost, what would have been? Far from being "knocked off their perch" (as Ferguson famously put it) Liverpool would have been barely scratched by his three years at Old Trafford. His likeliest replacement would have been Howard Kendall. Ferguson would probably have returned to Glasgow when Graeme Souness quit Rangers to succeed Kenny Dalglish at Anfield.
All lovely speculation but there is no evidence that, had Manchester United lost at Nottingham, Ferguson would have been sacked. Sir Bobby Charlton said the manager's position was "never discussed because we knew what he was doing was right".
As Robins points out, it was not victory by the Trent but the whole FA Cup run that contributed to Ferguson's survival. "I also scored in the semi-final against Oldham and Lee Martin scored the winner in the final. Had we been knocked out at Hereford in the next round, what might have happened? But Clayton Blackmore scored and Jim Leighton, [whose erratic keeping in the final finished his relationship with Ferguson], made a wonderful save."
Robins had just turned 20 when he scored at the City Ground and was part of the crop of Manchester-bred talent that was to galvanise Old Trafford. Martin and Lee Sharpe were already breaking through, Ryan Giggs' debut was a year away.
"I look back on my time at United with pride, fondness and a tinge of regret because I left prematurely," he says. "I wanted first-team football and I wasn't going to get it regularly. Mark Hughes and Brian McClair were the two up front, Dion Dublin had just come in and the year after I left Eric Cantona arrived. The rest you know. There would have been a lot of competition but I maybe should have stuck it out a little bit longer. "
Robins has barely spoken to Ferguson since, certainly not to ask for tips, although he says of his bloody-minded achievement of steering Rotherham to safety after a 17-point deduction, that his situation was "beyond advice". And he knows, too, that tonight is a bit of decorative tinsel.
Barnsley's 3-2 victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup in 1998, when Ferguson, appalled by the tiny and now replaced dressing rooms, ordered his team to change on the bus and, afterwards, threw away a copy of the match video when it was offered him, did not spare them relegation. Triumphs over Liverpool and Chelsea a decade later did not secure Simon Davey's future as manager.
When asked if Saturday's fixture against Peterborough, managed by Darren Ferguson, is rather more important that tonight's game against his dad, Robins taps the table and replies: "Absolutely."
Way back when: How Robins saved Ferguson's job
Sir Alex Ferguson faced mounting criticism ahead of an FA Cup third-round match at Nottingham Forest in January 1990. Manchester United had not won in eight games and sat 15th in the league, two points off the relegation zone. Supporters were rapidly losing faith and his job was believed to in jeopardy. Ten minutes into the second half, Mark Robins stooped to head in a Mark Hughes cross, sending United through and keeping Fergie in the job. United went on to win the trophy, and three years later lifted the first of 11 titles in 17 years. A legend was born.
7 January 1990: Nottingham Forest 0 Man United 1 Man United (4-4-2): Leighton; Anderson, Bruce, Pallister, Phelan; Martin, Beardsmore, Blackmore (Duxbury, 81), Hughes; McClair, Robins.
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