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The Worst United team in 30 Years?

Added by Philip Meese on 28 Nov 2018 20:38

A look at why this current Manchester United side are the worst in thirty years.

By Philip Meese, Chief Editor

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Manchester United are in crisis, no doubt about it. Something needs to change, but you get the impression that nothing is about to. The Red Devils have just played two home games in a week, and it took them more than three hours to score just one goal. That is unacceptable.

30 Years ago, United had a team that ended up finishing 11th in the table, something which doesn’t look out of the realms of possibility for the current squad. Incredibly many of the fans would probably rather watch that particular team that what they are currently being served up on match days.

Here we look at the similarities between the United team of back then and the current one, as well as some glaring differences.

Looking Back

At the end of the 1987-88 season, things seemed to be looking up for Manchester United. Alex Ferguson had just completed his first full season at Old Trafford and had finished 2nd in the table. They were still a considerable distance behind the eventual champions Liverpool but seeing as United had gone over twenty years without winning the league, this was a considerable improvement on the previous season’s 11th place.

Much was expected going into the new campaign, especially after Brian McClair had become the first United player since George Best to score more than 20 league goals. When Mark Hughes returned from Barcelona in the summer of 1988, it looked like they finally had the firepower to overthrow their scouse rivals.

What happened is that the season petered out before the end of Autumn. By the start of December, United had only won three league games, and were out of the League Cup. English clubs were still banned from Europe at the time, which meant United’s only hope of silverware was the F.A. Cup, which ended after a disappointing home defeat to Nottingham Forest. McClair and Hughes scored 32 goals between them (16 each), one less than McClair had managed on his own the previous season.

The highlight of the season was a brilliant 3-1 win over Liverpool on New Years Day 1989, after an encouraging performance from Russel Beardsmore. United finished 11th in the table, and it seemed like they were just going backwards. This was highlighted further when the following season they finished 13th, five points above the relegation zone, despite winning the F.A. Cup.

The Current Situation

United have had their worst start to a season in the Premier League era. They have won less than half of the thirteen league games played so far, and have a negative goal difference for the first time at this stage of the season since the 1970’s. In three Champions League games at Old Trafford, United have scored just one goal, in injury time against Young Boys last night. That’s over four and a half hours of European football at Old Trafford before they found the net.

Romelu Lukaku has struggled to find the net this season, after hitting 27 goals last term. The calls for him to be dropped are getting louder, with his lack of mobility being cited as one of the reasons for United’s pedestrian approach to games. There is certainly no doubt that his goal drought is one of the elements in United’s failure to score, as he was quite reliable last season.

Just like thirty years ago, they are already out of the League Cup and with 14 points separating United and Manchester City, José Mourinho can forget the title this season. It’s very unlikely they will even finish in the top four, given the teams they have struggled to score against this season.


There are numerous similarities between the current campaign and that of thirty years ago. On both occasions, United had a manager around two years into the job, and both had finished the previous season as runners up in the league, but quite a distance behind the eventual champions. Just like in 1988-89 United’s inconsistent form saw their title challenge effectively ended with less than two months of the season played.

United went out of the League Cup at home to Derby County at the first hurdle earlier this season. Thirty years ago, they also suffered an early exit, but at least made it to the second before Wimbledon knocked them out. If United were to be knocked out of the F.A. Cup in the quarter-final, like in 1988-89, it would be no surprise.

Another interesting comparison between the two eras is in the striking department. On both occasions a striker who had scored more than 25 goals in his first season at the club, struggled in his second. Lukaku has played 17 games this season and scored just four goals, the last one being at Watford in September. By the end of November in 1988, McClair had played the same number of games and scored six times – three of them against 4th Division side Rotherham United.

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It is also worth noting that in both seasons, United had endured a disappointing summer in the transfer market. Only two of Mourinho’s targets, Diogo Dalot and Fred, were recruited but their high-profile failure to attract a new centre-back was one of the talking points of the summer. In 1988, Ferguson had been promised by Paul Gascoigne that he would be moving to Old Trafford, only to change his mind and join Tottenham Hotspur. Mark Hughes was the only major addition that summer.

It could see a similarity in terms of outgoing transfers as well. Towards the end of the 1988-89 season, Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan were all transferred to pastures new. They had been three of United’s best players throughout the early to mid-1980’s. Fast forward thirty years and every day United’s three most important players, Paul Pogba, David de Gea and Anthony Martial are linked with a move away from Old Trafford. The latter two have deals that expire at the end of the season, although United will no doubt trigger the one-year extension for both players.


Despite the similarities regarding certain situations, the Manchester United of 1988 could not be further removed from the one we watch today. In both cases, the teams are infuriating but thirty years ago, United would be brilliant in one game and either very poor or average in the next. This season United have only played to their potential in one game, against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when they were unlucky to concede a last-minute equaliser. Many of the positive results they have had have been ether ground out or rather fortunate, such as Juventus away.

One of the reasons for the inconsistency of the 1988-89 team is that Alex Ferguson was slowly rebuilding the club. He was struggling to get a tune out of Strachan, who didn’t enjoy playing under him, and Whiteside and McGrath’s off-field disciplinary problems were too much for even Ferguson to handle. Hughes and McClair were struggling to gel as a partnership (which never really happened completely), the recently acquired Steve Bruce didn’t have a regular partner, leaving Bryan Robson as the only world class player that Ferguson could rely on. The rest of his squad were made up of youngsters and fringe players from the Ron Atkinson era who were surplus to long term requirements.

The one thing that can be said about United this season is that they have been consistent. Boring to watch, slow-paced, dispassionate and looking like they are afraid of the opposition has been a theme in almost every game this season. They have consistently been awful. It’s hard to find an explanation for this, either.

José Mourinho has got a squad full of talented players, all of whom are internationals, assembled at vast expense over the last ten years. Unlike in 1988, most of these players have played together for at least a couple of years, yet they play like they are alien to one another. One of the most disappointing things, however, is that they show little urgency to break down the opposition. Sometimes it looks like they are worried about the opposition, rather than letting them worry about what United can do to them.

The vast difference is in how both of squads approached games. United would always try to win games under Ferguson, but the problem was that most of the players he inherited from Atkinson were not of the calibre expected of an Old Trafford player. Ability wise, they wouldn’t get near the current squad. But they always gave it their all. Many of the current United squad, although certainly not all of them, as individual players have the pedigree required to wear that famous red shirt. The problem is that, a lot of the time, they look like they can’t be bothered.


In 1988 there were certain excuses that could be made for the plight United found themselves in at the time. Ferguson was overhauling the club from the ground up, particularly at youth level, and the first team were a mix of some of his early signings and what was left from Atkinson’s reign. It would get worse before it got better, as United finished 13th in 1990 but also won the F.A. Cup. The difference is that those players ran through brick walls for the shirt, sweated and even bled for the cause.

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Watching United last night in the Champions League it is not hard to understand why the ground wasn’t full. The attendance was less than 73,000, meaning more than 3,000 seats were empty (United always publish the actual attendance, unlike some clubs who announce the attendance how many tickets were sold). Given that some fans come from all across the country, even the world, you can’t blame them for not wanting to turn up, especially when half the team don’t either.

At the end of the 1988-89 season United had an attendance of 23,368 for a home game with Wimbledon. In those days Old Trafford held less than 50,000, and the club had literally nothing to play for, having bored the fans for most of the season already. Last night qualification for the next stage for the Champions League hinged on a United win. It would have been unthinkable five years ago for United not to sell out a fixture such as that.

Compare the two situations, a game that meant nothing at the end of the season three decades ago, against a game that United’s entire season could depend on. In both instances, the fans voted with their feet. The difference is that in 1988, it was easier to pay on the door at Old Trafford, the match day attendances weren’t as dominated by season ticket holders. The chances are that most of those empty seats last night had been paid for, an important game, and they didn’t have a full house. It could have been the last Champions League match at Old Trafford for a very long time, as well.

If we’re honest, the only way United are likely to be playing Champions League football next season is if they somehow manage to win the competition. In fairness, Mourinho has won it twice, and both times with clubs who were nothing like the best team in Europe. It would take a brave man, however, to bet on lightning striking a third time.

Moving Forward

Something needs to change at Old Trafford if they don’t want to see similar attendances going forward. Manchester United is not the draw it once was for Europe’s top players, and Old Trafford is no longer a ground that opposing teams fear to play at. The standard of football, the attitude of the players and the fact that they haven’t challenged for the league title since they last won it was bound to have a knock-on effect. It is no surprise that some fans don’t want to go out of their way to watch them anymore.

Think about it another way; when you pay money to go to watch a film at the cinema, and it turns out to be nowhere near as good as you thought it would be, how annoying is that? Why would you pay at least ten times that amount to go and watch something you already know is going to be of very little entertainment? The fans that do go to every game are the ones who do so out of pure loyalty.

The reality is that top flight players these days have little to lose. Even if they spend the season on the bench, they will still be at least a couple of million pounds richer by the end of it. Each contract they sign ensures that. Now what the club have is a bunch of overpaid, overpampered players who don’t care about playing for the shirt (they still get paid a king’s ransom at the end of the week), and a manager who seemingly doesn’t know how to get the best out of them. All of these elements, plus the sleep inducing football on show mean that, unless they can turn it around soon, they will be known as the worst United side in thirty years.

The real Manchester United fans (not the ones who only started supporting the club because they were winning everything) are not too concerned about the fact that they aren’t anywhere near the best team in the country right now. They don’t think United have a divine right to be winning trophies, and would stick with them even if they got relegated. What they want to see is a team that at least tires to win the game and tries to play attacking football. They want to see a team that cares.

In 1988, the players in the Old Trafford dressing room were nowhere near as individually talented as the current crop. Most were players who knew they genuinely had no place being at a club the size of Manchester United. But at least they tried to put on a show for the fans.

And at least they cared.

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