Retrospective #7: Race for the title – Leeds United and Manchester United 1991/92
Back in 1991, English football witnessed the start of a spectacular and exciting league campaign. Despite Arsenal and Liverpool having shared the tag of Champions in the four years prior, it was Leeds United and Manchester United that ended up slugging it out for the 1991/1992 title. Refreshingly for the neutral, neither team had the so-called nous and experience to call upon from previous title challenges, and it thus culminated into a fascinating story of bravery, belief and even a calamitous own goal.
Over at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson was once again conjuring up ideas of ending Manchester United’s 24 year wait without the Division One title. At 49, the fiery Scot had slowly begun to reap the benefits of his hard work at the club since his appointment in January 1986. Yet the United side back in 1991 bared no real resemblance to the youthful sides Ferguson has become so famous for producing over the last 15 years.
Back then, Ferguson’s teams were built of steel, experience and resilience, and didn’t have the abundance of youth players that have since broke through the ranks under Fergie’s tenure. Lee Sharpe was the exception, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year for the 1990/91 season. Sharpe himself however, was bought as a youngster by Ferguson, arriving from Torquay at the tender age of 17. The tall winger was in and out of Fergie’s side until late 1990, when some electrifying performances on the left wing ensured that Sharpe was never again considered for the more conservative left-back position that he had experienced in earlier games for the club.
Mark Robins had been a hero 12 months earlier, after scoring a multitude of vital goals of that helped United not only stay up in Division One, but helped the club win the FA Cup. However he had still failed to displace a strike partnership between Mark Hughes and Brian McClair, which had got back on track in the 90/91 season, with McClair rediscovering his goalscoring form and Hughes winning the PFA Player of the Year for the second time in three seasons.
Still supplying Hughes and McClair from central midfield was Bryan Robson, although injuries to the skipper had cost him almost half a season in the previous campaign. The increasingly-improving Paul Ince was now an ever-present in the United engine room, and Neil Webb, when he wasn’t the target of criticism from some United fans, added a calmness and composure to United’s central areas.
In the summer of 1991, United’s defence was strengthened enormously by the signings of Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel. Schmeichel’s imperious presence and world-class agility ensured Jim Leighton would never play another game for the club, whilst the popular Les Sealey left for Aston Villa after just one full season at Old Trafford.
Parker had always impressed Ferguson during his QPR days, with his pace and man-marking skills the epitome of an established England international. Indeed, despite his lack of height, Parker’s defensive talents persuaded Ferguson to play him ahead of Gary Pallister, who dropped to the bench in the Reds’ early fixtures. United kept a clean sheet in those games against Notts County, Aston Villa and Everton, though Pallister eventually won his place back at the expense of Clayton Blackmore, with Parker switching to full back.
United’s team had often looked imbalanced in the 1990/91 season. Due to injuries to Danny Wallace, Ferguson often employed Mike Phelan at right-midfield, but a lack pace or real attacking threat seemed to handicap the side. This was particularly noticeable when Sharpe was having such an explosive and effective impact on the opposite flank.
Ferguson’s answer to his problems was the signing of lightning-quick winger Andrei Kanchelskis. The Russian, signed on the back end of the 90/91 season, settled in quickly, and suddenly United had an attacking symmetry that would excite the fans and get the manager believing his side could capture that evasive league title. Even a bout of meningitis to Lee Sharpe couldn’t dampen Ferguson’s optimism, as a young Welsh starlet called Ryan Giggs, formerly Wilson, had emerged from the United youth-system to take Sharpe’s place and be touted as the finest prospect in British football since George Best. High praise indeed, and Giggs went on to win the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1992 in his first full season.
Along with Wallace and Phelan, Ferguson could still call on the likes of Blackmore and Mal Donaghy to provide the squad with the depth that it had lacked over the last 12 months. The quality of Ferguson’s new-look squad was evident as United stormed out of the traps.
They started the season confidently, creating chances, scoring goals, and conceding just four times in their first 12 games. The team remained unbeaten until an October trip to Hillsborough, where the team lost 3-2 to newly-promoted Sheffield Wednesday.
It was Wednesday’s Yorkshire rivals Leeds however, that were emerging as United’s main rivals for the title. With Liverpool still in transition under Graeme Souness, and champions Arsenal failing to repeat their outstanding performances from the season before, it was Howard Wilkinson’s side, spurred on by a vociferous and intimidating Elland Road crowd, which was making opposition teams crumble.
Wilkinson was a tireless worker, with self-belief and a persona that matched his team’s abilities. His disciplinarian approach had worked wonders at Sheffield Wednesday, and in 1990he had won Leeds promotion from the old Division Two in just his second attempt. It was certainly Wilkinson’s golden era at the time, and despite lacking the grandeur and aura of Don Revie, the Yorkshireman’s effectiveness at simply winning games was a match for most.
With width to match United, and a direct style of play that suited both tall striker Lee Chapman and centre-backs that were more comfortable hitting long balls up field than building slowly from the back, Leeds were more than a handful. Chapman’s aerial threat was a supreme outlet for Leeds, making half-decent crosses for his colleagues look like fantastic crosses. Chapman’s confidence grew as high as his soaring leaps, and his natural eye for goal would be difference come the end of the season.
The skilful new signing Rodney Wallace was a perfect foil for the gangly Chapman, with Carl Shutt competent as a back-up striker. Wallace added pace, goals and trickery to a side that had finished 4th in 1991 in just their first season back in the top-flight after their eight-year absence. The club now had a winning mentality to match anyone, and despite Ferguson’s United winning the plaudits for their attractive and attacking style of football, Wilkinson’s men were fearless competitors who had more than a passing resemblance to Revie’s.
In midfield Gary McAllister and captain Gordon Strachan were as cute and creative as any midfielder in the division. The young, tough-tackling midfielder David Batty was another star of the Leeds side, mopping up whenever McAllister charged forward, and the youthful Welsh midfielder Gary Speed added goals from wide areas as well as supplying the front men. Steve Hodge, twice League-Cup winner with Nottingham Forest, could also chip in with goals when needed.
In defence, Chris Whyte and Chris Fairclough provided an incredibly effective centre-back pairing, whilst England international Tony Dorigo and the veteran Mel Sterland got forward whenever they could from the full-back positions. Goalkeeper John Lukic, whose career would suffer literally at his feet in future seasons when the ‘no pass-back’ law was introduced, provided a vocal and stable presence to command Leeds’ own area.
United and Leeds would encounter each other a mammoth four times over the season. Leeds first travelled to Old Trafford on the last day of August 1991, on a baking-hot Autumn afternoon. A confident home side created numerous chances, but it was Leeds who drew first blood in the first half when Schmeichel severely misjudged a Speed cross to gift Chapman the easiest of headed goals. The visitors looked to have grabbed all three points, but a late equaliser by Robson in front of a rocking Stretford End gave Ferguson’s side a share of the points. It was a moment that inspired United to win their next 6 league games.
By October, both teams were firmly in their stride. Despite their loss at Hillsborough, United would go the rest of the year unbeaten. Goals were flying in from all areas, and a 4-0 home victory over Coventry City in early December would be eclipsed by a 6-3 rout at Oldham Athletic on Boxing Day, with ex-Latics full-back Denis Irwin even managing to grab a brace. A battling victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in front of the live ITV cameras gave the nation a first-hand look at Ferguson’s dynamic United side – one that had become firm favourites to lift the league trophy.
But anything United could do, it seemed Leeds could do likewise. October saw Leeds’ first loss as they went down 1-0 to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, but Wilkinson’s troops saw out the rest of the year unbeaten. A flying Lee Chapman header in a fine 4-1 win at Villa Park in November was the highlight of a free-scoring period for the team, but as 1991 drew to a close, fate would bring Wilkinson and Ferguson against each other in a titanic set of games.
The reverse league fixture was first up, as the last league game of 1991 saw Ferguson’s United travel up the M62 for the vital fixture. Since Leeds’ promotion to Division One, all three league clashes between the clubs had been draws, but when Webb volleyed in for United just after the break, it appeared that Ferguson’s men were set to break that sequence and take a significant step towards realising their title ambitions.
However, as Leeds pressed for an equaliser, a rash challenge by the otherwise-excellent Pallister gifted Leeds a late penalty, and the tenacious yet excitable Sterland sent Schmeichel the wrong way to equalise. United had failed to hold on to their vital lead, whilst Leeds had fought back from the dead. It was a mental victory for Howard Wilkinson’s side for that reason, despite Leeds missing the chance to beat United on their own turf.
As both teams progressed in the Rumbelows Cup, it was almost inevitable that the two sides would meet at some stage in the latter stages of the competition, and Elland Road hosted a Quarter-Final clash in early January. Ferguson’s United bounced back from a 4-1 New Years Day drubbing at home to QPR to defeat Leeds in a thrilling evening clash, with goals by Blackmore, Kanchelskis and Giggs overturning Gary Speed’s early effort.
Just seven wintery days later, the teams took to the field against each other once again in the FA Cup third round, again at Elland Road. Hughes’ first half goal was enough to put United through, as Leeds again failed to make home advantage count. However, Leeds now had a free run in the league till May, with no distractions, and the defeats in both cup competitions turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Just days before that FA Cup defeat, Leeds produced their best performance of the season by annihilating Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough 6-1. Wednesday would go on to finish 3rd in 91/92, but Wilkinson’s formidable side showed no mercy as wave after wave of attacks stunned the home side. Another hat-trick by Chapman signified Leeds’ ability to hit goals on the road and not just at Elland Road.
After that FA Cup clash, both United and Leeds stuttered through the next few months. United went unbeaten till mid-March, but there were too many draws against the likes of Notts County and Coventry to call this excellent post-Christmas. More significantly, the goals had started to dry up. From the 1st of January till the end of March, United only twice managed to hit more than one goal in a game.
United also had problems under their feet. Ferguson wasn’t the only one pointing out the troublesome state of the United pitch, and the boggy pitch certainly didn’t help United’s style of play, but the team was creating enough chances to win games nonetheless. They just weren’t converting them. United’s squad depth was one undoubtedly envied by the whole of the league, but if there were any weaknesses in the squad, it was the lack of cover for Hughes and McClair.
A two-legged Rumbelows Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough drained Ferguson’s men badly. The second leg even went to extra-time as players trudged across the trench-like conditions, and despite United eventually emerging victorious, the excitement of a trip to Wembley was severely dampened by the outcome of the next three league games. Goalless draws with Wimbledon and QPR, followed by a 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, did nothing to aid what was evidently becoming a leggy and luckless United side.
But Leeds didn’t exactly hit brilliant form either in those months. Defeats to Oldham and QPR on the road were somewhat mentally damaging, but the team was scoring enough goals to remain confident of winning games. A home 5-1 victory over Wimbledon, inspired by new signing Eric Cantona, settled down those few frayed nerves that were showing signs of conceding the title to their Mancunian rivals.
Due to United’s Rumbelows Cup exploits, Leeds went into the last two months knowing that United were playing catch-up. If they didn’t punish teams, then United could overtake them. Even after poor results, Fergusons team was still expected to make their games in hand count.
If Leeds and United stumbled any further towards the finishing line, they could still be caught by George Graham’s Arsenal, who had hit sensational form. From February onwards, the Gunners remained unbeaten for the rest of the reason, winning 10 of their last 17 games. It was ironically two draws against Leeds and United that probably cost them the Gunners a chance of retaining their title. Losing 7 of their first 21 games was never going to help either.
Over at Old Trafford, United looked almost on their last legs. A fixture backlog meant they had to prepare for a mammoth 5 games in 11 days. Their first opponents, Southampton, were struck down by a stunning Kanchelskis volley, but that would be the only high point of a final period that would cost Ferguson the title he craved so much. Two days later a morale-sapping draw at struggling Luton would be United’s last points on the road, and then United’s season fell apart spectacularly.
Nottingham Forest got revenge for defeat to United in the Rumbelows Cup final by grabbing a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford, with a late Scott Gemmill goal clinching the points in front of the Stretford End. The mood at the final whistle was one of exasperation and sadness, with the belief that the title had finally slipped away from Mancunian hands, particularly as Leeds were to beat Coventry City at home that same day.
United would still have to travel to Upton Park to face West Ham with their last game in hand, but a combination of woodwork and missed chances would cost United. Luck was simply not on United’s side, and when a Pallister clearance bounced back off Kenny Brown and flew past Schmeichel, their fate was more or less sealed. If Ferguson’s men lost at arch-rivals Liverpool on the Sunday, then Leeds could win the title by beating Sheffield United at Bramhall Lane earlier that day.
On a nervous afternoon, both Leeds and United travelled to their regional rivals, knowing a long and tense season could come to its climax in just a few hours. As the game wore on, and at 2-2, Leeds looked to have dropped two points, but ex-Manchester City player Brian Gayle headed comically into his own net to essentially gift-wrap Howard Wilkinson’s men the league championship.
Over in Liverpool, a boastful Anfield crowd looked forward to crushing the hopes of the United faithful that already knew the final score of the Leeds game. Put simply, if United failed to beat Liverpool, then Leeds would win the title. It would prove to be test too far.
Ian Rush scored his first ever goal against United in the first half, and a late Mark Walters goal confirmed the inevitable. Leeds were the 1991/1992 champions, and worthy winners. In contrast, a season that season promised so much for the Manchester club, who were often the preferred suitor for the neutral supporter, ended in unparalleled disappointment, and in front of the Kop of all places.
Afterwards, a joyous Wilkinson admitted his team had never claimed to be one of the greatest League champions, but they would enjoy it nonetheless. At their worst, Leeds were a scrappy, physical team, but at their best they were a dynamic and irresistible force, tight at the back and capable of hitting goals both home and away.
Just one season later, Ferguson would call on the experience gained in the run-in to help United finally become English champions. Leeds on the other hand, despite losing only one home game all season, would fail to win a single game on their travels, and finished the season just two points above the relegation zone. And we all know the rest.