The Greatest Game series continues as Max Liu remembers the day two late goals from Steve Bruce gave Manchester United a defining victory over Sheffield Wednesday...
"United were a cup team with a reputation as league title bottlers. But the shock signing of Eric Cantona – the catalyst for Leeds’ triumph the previous season – in November ‘92 was a masterstroke."
Manchester United 2-1 Sheffield Wednesday
Premier League, 1992-93
Can the fate of a club turn on a single result? I believe so, but I know my choice of greatest game might seem surprising. After all, it's not as if fans of Manchester United have been short of iconic moments in the past three decades.
I could've picked the most dramatic (the Champions League final of 1999), the most stirring (the semi-final second leg against Juventus the same year) or the tensest (the Champions League final penalty shootout win over Chelsea in 2008).
Instead, I've gone for the game that was truly pivotal for United. To understand why you need to know about the context.
"You'll never win the league"
By the beginning of the first Premier League season in 1992/93, Manchester United had gone 25 years without winning the title. The previous season, they'd come close before seeing their dream die at Anfield in a traumatic 2-0 defeat which handed the title to Leeds. "You'll never win the league," chanted the Kop at Alex Ferguson's players that day. I was 10-years-old but I felt like I'd lived through the entire 25 year wait.
The 92/93 campaign didn't start well. United lost at Bramall Lane on the opening day, with Brian Deane scoring a brace for the hosts, and a few days later Everton came to Old Trafford and won 3-0. Were United scarred by last season's heartbreak? Had Ferguson taken them as far as he could?
Ferguson had delivered the FA Cup in 1990, the European Cup Winners Cup in '91 and the League Cup in '92. But it felt like there was a mental barrier between the club and the prize fans craved. United were a cup team with a reputation as league title bottlers. That's one reason why the shock signing of Eric Cantona - the catalyst for Leeds' triumph the previous season - in November '92 was a masterstroke.
The Frenchman started scoring almost immediately, linking up in attack with Mark Hughes, while Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe supplied service from the flanks, and Paul Ince combined with Brian McClair in the centre of midfield. United had a good defence with Peter Schmeichel in goal, Paul Parker and Denis Irwin in the full-back positions, and Gary Pallister partnering captain Steve Bruce in the centre. The latter had a phenomenal goal-scoring record - he'd notched 19 in the 1990/91 season, was prolific with his head at set-pieces and a nerveless penalty-taker.
Would United bottle the title again?
By New Year '93, United were in a three-way title race with Aston Villa and Norwich. They played both in the spring, drawing with Ron Atkinson's Villa at Old Trafford and ending a five game winless streak by sweeping aside the Canaries at Carrow Road. United lead the table by a point from Villa but I still expected us to blow it and was emotionally preparing myself for Big Ron's men to prevail.
United's next match was against Sheffield Wednesday who came to Old Trafford on Easter Saturday, 10 April. The Owls were a good team under Trevor Francis's management, had finished third the previous season, lost only two of their last 25 matches and would go on to reach both the FA Cup and League Cup finals.
The first-half was cagey, with United displaying none of the panache they'd produced at Carrow Road. On the hour the referee Michael Peck injured himself and was replaced by John Hilditch who, five minutes later, gave a penalty when Chris Waddle went down in the box under a challenge from Ince. John Sheridan stepped up, rolled the ball past Schmeichel and there was a stony silence around Old Trafford, as 40,000 fans experienced the sickeningly familiar feeling of another title slipping away.
Almost immediately Bryan Robson came off the bench for Parker and Red shirts flooded forward. Hughes muscled past two defenders but Chris Woods got down to tip the shot around the post. In the 85th minute, United players filled the Wednesday box as Giggs drove in the resulting corner from the right. Bruce has to backpedal to reach it. Somehow he levers himself under it and sends it looping over the diving Woods and under the bar. 1-1.
United continue to surge into the Wednesday half and the visitors are pinned in their box deep into injury time. Viv Anderson almost scores an own goal, giving United a corner in the 96th minute.
Giggs takes the corner and it's knocked straight back to him. He crosses again but it's too deep and Pallister goes out to gather it on the right. "Away!" screams Woods as Pallister scoops a cross in, it flicks off a Wednesday defender and then there's a beautiful moment when space opens up between the players and you can see the way through to the goal. Into that space springs United's redheaded, flat-nosed Geordie captain. "Bruuuuuce," cries the commentator Barry Davies as the ball hits the net.
Ferguson leaps out of his dugout, down to the touchline, arms aloft, while his assistant Brian Kidd runs onto the pitch and falls to his knees, looking to the heavens in gratitude.
It's a moment of pure catharsis when the ghosts of past failures are banished and Old Trafford fills with self-belief. "We're going to win the league," sing the fans at the final whistle and they can probably hear them in Liverpool.
United never look back from this dramatic victory, they win all of their remaining games and take the title by ten points. The path to dominating English football for the next two decades starts here and Bruce's injury-time winner is the blueprint for the comebacks for which Ferguson's United will become famous.