Welcome to 2022, folks – let’s all keep our fingers crossed that it will be better than 2021 and, er, 2020. Hell, it’s time for the tippity-top 20s to catch fire, isn’t it?
For a New Year’s Day special treat, I’m turning the clocks back 30 years to 1992 and recalling a match I watched on the kitchen TV, whilst probably messing around playing computer games on my Commodore Amiga. You think Manchester United are a bit rubbish now? Wait until you recall this match.
In 1992, Manchester United were starting to get there under Alex Ferguson. By now, all that money spend had resulted in an FA Cup Final win over Crystal Palace in 1990 – Lee Martin’s winner in the replay securing a 1-0 win – and a European Cup Winners’ Cup trophy beating Barcelona 2-1 in 1991. In the November of 1991, United beat the European Cup winners Red Star Belgrade 1-0 to claim the European Super Cup. Things were on the move.
As 1991 became 1992, United topped the First Division – two points clear of Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United with two games in hand. The feeling around Old Trafford was very much one of this finally being their year.
Their opponents for the first televised clash of the New Year were Gerry Francis’ Queens Park Rangers side, currently sitting 15th in the table.
QPR had some players, there was no denying that – Ray Wilkins was their captain, Ian Holloway was in midfield, England international Andy Sinton (a sentence that still baffles me) was on the left and up front they had a yet to be knighted Les Ferdinand.
But, as we know, it was someone else entirely who stole the headlines that day.
But before we get into all that, when doing a Retro Match I do like to set the scene a little.
The main topic of conversation in the UK that December was the antics of the late Robert Maxwell. One month having mysteriously toppled over the side of his boat, the mystery started to become less mysterious as it emerged he had embezzled around Â£350m out his empire’s pension fund just before he died.
Asda and Tescos stuck two fingers up to the Sunday trading laws and opened their doors for the first time – the excuse being that the recession was killing their profits. Imagine that, a time where not being able to shop on a Sunday was normal.
Bohemian Rhapsody topped the charts at Christmas – we were still two years away from Mr. Blobby taking that accolade.
Not a lot noteworthy seemed to happen in January 1992 other than talk of who might win the upcoming General Election (spoiler, Kinnock found yet another way to lose).
In football, Arsenal had wrapped up another First Division title in the May of 91. The 91/92 season was the last season of the old First Division with the breakaway Premier League being announced halfway through the campaign. Wanting a better slice of the pie, the big clubs stamped their feet and got their own way. Football would never be the same again.
And so to Old Trafford. We have to remember that back in 1992 we were not yet overindulged in live football on TV. The Premier League and Sky would soon change all that but at this point you had one match if you were lucky – and the match chosen for this one was United welcoming QPR.
As already mentioned, United led the table at this point – two points and two games in hand. They had started the season in style, remaining unbeaten until a trip to Sheffield Wednesday on October 26th – losing 3-2. They then went on another unbeaten run in the First Division – ended by this very match in question.
Three days earlier, United had drawn with their closest rivals Leeds 1-1 – Neil Webb scoring at Elland Road, with Fergie still seemingly believing the former Forest man could be the Glenn Hoddle of the early-90s.
Boxing Day had seen a match of 1963 proportions – United seeing off their local rivals Oldham 6-3 at Old Trafford. Irwin and McClair grabbed a brace apiece with Kanchelskis and Giggs scoring one each.
This was a United squad that was finally getting to the levels Ferguson demanded. When you go through the appearances for the season, there are far fewer passengers and all the key men (bar a certain Frenchman who would arrive the following season) are in place – Schmeichel (40 appearances), Bruce (37), Pallister (40), Irwin (38), Parker (24), Giggs (38), Ince (33), Kanchelskis (34), Hughes (39) and McClair (42). You could see the fading out of others like, of course, Robson (27), Blackmore (19 starts and 14 sub appearances), and Phelan (28). Previous heroes like Lee Martin and Mark Robins made three appearances between them and Fergie’s son Darren got a couple of games. In terms of articles being finished, this side was nearly there.
All of which makes the unfolding of the 90 minutes on New Year’s Day 1992 even more remarkable.
The day before had been Ferguson’s 50th birthday – whether this fact has anything to do with his side’s performance the following day remains somewhat unknown, but QPR arrived at Old Trafford more in hope of getting something rather than expectation. They were unbeaten in the last six but you know, United and Old Trafford against the side 9/2 on to win the league. Surely a 5 pm kickoff would help any United players that might have had a late night?
QPR lined up with the Czech (remember the days when many sides had a Czech shot-stopper?) Jan Stejskal in goal. A back four comprised of David Bardsley, Alan McDonald, Darren Peacock (soon to join Kevin Keegan’s merry band of men), and Clive Wilson. Across the midfield was Simon Barker, Ian Holloway, Ray Wilkins, and Andy Sinton. Up top, they were without Les Ferdinand meaning Roy Wegerle partnered Dennis Bailey.
United left Giggs on the bench (he would emerge early in the second half) and started Blackmore, Lee Sharpe, and Mike Phelan. Early Fergie rotation? Possibly and boy did it backfire – United were 2-0 down within five minutes.
Just three were on the clock when Barker and Wegerle (a former Luton hero of mine for all of a season) combined to set up Andy Sinton – was this the game that saw Graham Taylor pencil him in for Euro 92? United had seven players in their own box at the time and, as Scott Murray of the Guardian put it so beautifully in a “Joy of Six”, looked like they were hanging around at a bar waiting to be served. The way Wegerle brushed off Welsh international Blackmore did raise an eyebrow as to how ready for this game some players might have been.
Then, whilst the United faithful were still rubbing their hungover eyes, not quite sure what to make of their start, Dennis Bailey darted past Blackmore to make it 2-0 and get his first of what would turn out to be a historic day out. The goal came from a harmless throw-in on QPR’s left, with United’s defending possibly worst than for the first goal, as Sinton lobbed it over someone’s head before Bailey latched on. Schmeichel got a hand to it but it was not enough.
Bailey nearly got a second in the first half, running in behind a leaden-footed Pallister/Bruce duo and getting to Alan McDonald’s hopeful pass before Schmeichel – his flick going up and over the big Dane but landing just wide.
It remained 2-0 at halftime – and you can only imagine the Fergie hairdryer in the home dressing room.
Whatever was said, and bringing on their young star in Giggs to change the tide, made no difference – as Bailey lifted it over Schmeichel for his second. The goal happened so quickly, the ITV cameras only just ended their replay in time for us to see the ball go up and over the keeper – a reverse angle informed us that Bailey just ran past Bruce and netted.
McClair pulled one back for United, turning on to a Hughes flick on to pull it past Stejskal, but there was to be no miraculous comeback here. Another sloppy pass from Blackmore saw Sinton sprint away and shoot – his shot hit the post and Bailey was there to tap home the rebound from a yard out.
Yet, my favourite moment of the whole game – and I remembered this move even before watching the game again for this piece – came after Bailey had three to his name. Wilson rolled the ball down the QPR left into Bailey’s feet. Steve Bruce who, to be fair, had had better afternoons in his career, closed the striker down, only for Bailey to use the pace of the ball and let it run through his legs. Bruce, looking as clumsy as I would hope you understand by now, stumbled to the floor as Bailey spun around him and raced away – laying a sitter on a plate for Wegerle. The USA international blazed over the bar when it was easier to score. Yes, it could and should have been 5-1.
Bailey had the match ball and, somewhat naively, headed off to United’s dressing room in the hope of getting it signed. You can imagine how successful that was.
Unless my facts are completely out of date, Dennis Bailey remains the only person to have scored a hat-trick at Old Trafford and ended up on the winning side.
Was that the moment that scuppered United from winning the First Division? As we know, Leeds went on to seal the title and United had to wait until the following year – and Cantona – to end their hoodoo.
The evidence would suggest not – following this, their second league defeat of the season, United went the next nine unbeaten before losing to Forest. In this time, they beat Leeds in the FA Cup 3rd Round before going out in a 4th Round replay to Southampton. After the Forest defeat, they went another six unbeaten – but it was three consecutive losses to Forest, West Ham, and Liverpool that handed the title to Leeds. A last-day win over Spurs was not enough as the 2-0 loss at Anfield meant that Leeds’ victory over Sheffield United meant it was theirs. United did win the League Cup at Wembley, finally beating Forest that season 1-0, McClair with the early goal.
QPR finished 11th that season and it’s probably not unfair to say that life on the pitch never got better than this for one Dennis Bailey.