Against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last week, Arsenal's Olivier Giroud scored a spectacular volley for the Gunners. It was a beautiful goal, and worthy of winning any game. It was a mere consolation - of sorts - as the Bavarians replied in kind with five. A special volley, a 5-1 defeat. Any Manchester United fans old enough to remember when Mark Hughes was 'Sparky' the United striking legend, and not the Stoke City boss may well have been recalling a dark day in 1989. Hughes was Giroud, and Manchester City were Bayern.
On September 23rd, 1989, United went to Maine Road to face the enemy. They did so in relatively good heart, as a 5-1 thrashing of Millwall in the League had been followed up with a League Cup victory on the south coast at Portsmouth. They would get a rude awakening. City pummeled United. They were two up within a quarter of an hour, and three up at the break. United, containing expensive summer signings such as Gary Pallister and Paul Ince, were shell shocked. Sir Alex Ferguson must have given the players the hairdryer, because five minutes into the second half a sublime and not uncommon bit of brilliance from Hughes threatened to change the game.
Russell Beardsmore, one of 'Fergie's Fledglings' jinked down the right hand side and stood up a cross from the right hand side. It looped towards the Welshman at the back edge of the six yard box, and he launched himself into the air to perform a bicycle kick that crashed into the net of the underside of the bar. It was a trademark Hughes volley. Brilliantly executed, and on that day you may have been forgiven for thinking it was game on. It wasn't. United were an absolute shambles defensively and Hughes' goal only brought false hope. City scored twice more to record a very famous win.
As with any derby, the expectations and stakes are high, but to a degree in those days they were far higher than today. Since that day, United have won countless trophies and now City are also dealing in silverware, both sets of fans are able to take a defeat on the chin a bit more as prevailing at the end of a season provides far more bragging rights than in the aftermath of a derby. City weren't that good in 1989, and would not win another derby for thirteen years but at that moment in time it was a devastating defeat that is still recalled today. All United fans had to cling to was that United scored the goal of the game!
Hughes was a rock for Sir Alex
That iconic derby was a low point for United fans and for Sir Alex. He hadn't won a trophy at that point and was under immense pressure, so a result like that was damaging to say the least. As history now tells us, it was probably his lowest point before an unprecedented rise in fortune. One of the men at the heart of Sir Alex's early success was the Welsh warrior, Hughes. The FA Cup victory in 1990 has long been hailed as the trophy that saved Ferguson's job and Hughes provided two moments on that run that kept the dream alive.
The first was in a difficult third round tie against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, when he curled an exquisite cross with the outside of his foot for Mark Robins to meet and nod United to victory. Then in the final against Crystal Palace, he scored in the first game and it looked like it could be the winner, but Palace hit back and took the game to extra time. A mistake by Jim Leighton saw Palace take the lead and with time running out in the second period of extra time, Hughes came to the rescue to force a draw with his second goal. Defeat in either of those games would have changed history, but Hughes was a man to be counted on in the face of adversity.
Big Game player
He was a big game player. In 1991 his two goals defeated Barcelona in the European Cup Winners Cup Final on a wonderful day in Rotterdam. In 1994, United were again losing at Wembley in an FA Cup semi final to Oldham. The season was threatening to come off the rails in the League and a cup defeat to Oldham may have had dire consequences, but in the final minute of extra time and almost the last kick of the game, another great Hughes volley made everything right. United regrouped and would go on to win the double. Hughes would also score in the 4-0 FA Cup final victory over Chelsea.
Of all the players that have graced Old Trafford, if Louis van Gaal had a magic wand and could bring one back at their peak, then Hughes could be the one that would benefit the current side the most. George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo, Sir Bobby Charlton, Eric Cantona - the list is endless, and it is odd to think that Hughes would improve the side more than any of the long list of greats. However, with van Gaal reluctant to change his system, then Hughes would be one player that could perform in this side without modifying his game - apart from his combative nature in today's almost non contact sport.
The striker position is the one position where the only player who looks comfortable there is Anthony Martial. He is young and is now experiencing a slight drought in front of goal, but even he would benefit playing in a wide role with Hughes as the focal point. Hughes could hold the ball up as well as anybody, and was great at bringing in players. His technique was outstanding, he could bring the ball out of the air and it stuck like glue. He was good in the air, and whilst he was known for his spectacular finishes, he scored his fair share. He is still in United's top 10 all time goalscorers with 163 during his two spells at Old Trafford. As mentioned, the bigger the stage the more he flourished.
Legends would struggle
'Bestie' would no doubt illuminate Old Trafford, and you can only imagine that the fans would not be chanting 'attack, attack, attack' as they would be too preoccupied with wondering what would happen the next time George got the ball. I am not sure George would be happy being restricted in a regimented system, and even he would find it hard to penetrate defences in the numbers that West Brom had back in the previous game. If he did, he wouldn't have much of a target to aim for as United don't exactly pile me forward in the box of late. A similar story if Ryan Giggs was tearing down the wing once more.
Ronaldo is an enigma, and would of course improve any team. He was never a centre forward, or a 'hole' player, and playing out wide in van Gaal's team means structure and shape with the exception of Juan Mata. Maybe he would be afforded some leeway if he was ever to return for real, but even he may feel stifled in the current United set up. Like Hughes, Eric the King would also be ale to hold the ball up. The maverick had strength, vision and could also bring in players. The only thing with Eric was that he did so off a front man, with Hughes and latterly Andrew Cole occupying defenders. Unless he played in behind Martial or Wayne Rooney, you get the feeling he may be too isolated as the lone front man.
Sir Bobby may well be a fit, especially with his long range blockbusters. If chances were not being fashioned due to a lack of bodies in the box, then his piledrivers may well do the job. Paul Scholes admitted he didn't think he would like to play in the current team, and as good as he was he may not improve it. He, like Sir Bobby, could pop up with a long range effort and he would probably get in the box on the end of the odd cross, but that would be a dereliction of his defensive duty and we couldn't have that now! The same would go for Bryan Robson. He could run all day, up and down, up and down but sitting and playing sideways passes? Robbo would be wasted. Roy Keane could do everything that Bastian Schweinsteiger can, and probably better, but he wouldn't make a difference to this side.
With the current criticism becoming more vocal, and pressure building on van Gaal to attack, it is also fair to remember that it wasn't always sweetness and light under Sir Alex. There were also barren and tough times. The football may well have been played with a greater emphasis on attack, but a lot of trophies were won on the back of some great individuals. Cantona in '96 springs to mind. Currently David De Gea, Chris Smalling and Anthony Martial are shining beacons at the moment, and despite the turgid, slow football being played on times the results are there in the main. If van Gaal can somehow muster a title with his tight defensive, possession based style then you will still have United fans complaining, but they will be the minority. The current crop of players may then be able to join the likes of Mark Hughes in fans' happy memories.