Weekly Pic | 12 Dec: That Time It All Changed

30 years ago | Old Trafford, Manchester, UK | 12th December 1992

Thirty years ago, we saw a shift in the tectonic plates of English football – and I was there to witness it: a 1-0 victory over Norwich City…

Manchester United spent the 1980s as perennial under-achievers and the 90s as a dominant force.  Many people believe the single turning point was in their Third Round victory at Nottingham Forest in 1990, won by a Mark Robins goal that supposedly saved Alex Ferguson’s job.

While it was certainly a significant moment, it still only led to a Cup win, something United had done twice in their under-whelming previous decade.  Even more elusive, over the previous 26 years, was any sense of expectation of league success.

In December 1992, the inaugural Premier Leagues season, recent Champions Liverpool and Arsenal were in transition.  Leeds United were Champions, Blackburn had arrived as a cash-rich challenger and Norwich had somehow climbed to the top of the league.

Over at Old Trafford, 5th-placed United had been cajoling performances from a team that had faded dismally the previous spring, handing the last ‘old’ League title to Leeds.  There were moments of quality but, as ever, inconsistency seemed to limit the team’s potential.  Yes, the Youth Team had – as is now legend – won their cup, months previously, but it was still too early to see the ‘Class of 92’ realise their potential.

Two weeks earlier, an astonishing transfer coup had taken place, with the arrival of the mercurial Eric Cantona from Leeds.  He’d only in played the second half in the derby victory six days beforehand and was making his first United start against the league leaders.

Played against the backdrop of a half-built ‘new’ Stratford End, with twinkling Christmas lights on the cranes and free plastic capes for fans sitting in the uncovered seats, this was my first sight of ‘King Eric’ in a United shirt.

The game wasn’t a classic but it wasn’t as close as the 1-0 scoreline suggests.  United spurned several chances before Mark Hughes seized on a defensive error to spin and finish in his usual emphatic fashion.  Here’s the highlights:

More impressively, this was a team with the grit to withstand an impressive Norwich team who were eight points clear at the top, after eighteen games.  As we streamed out of the ground after the game, there was a sense in the crowd that Cantona could really be the final piece of the puzzle after so much unfulfilled promise.

The next two games were both away draws (at Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday), with Cantona scoring in each.  The next home game seemed to confirm the optimism of the Norwich game: an impressive 5-0 victory over Coventry City, with that man Cantona scoring a penalty and providing two assists.  I was there for that game too.

Something had changed in this team.  Maybe they were capable of finally emulating Busby’s ’67 team.  An  increasing number of the crowd began to dare to dream again – but it would take another five months before the hope became a reality.  I’ll tell you where I was that night, when we get to 30 years after that event…

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