Two days after his appointment as the manager of struggling giants Manchester United, the relatively young and highly regarded Aberdeen boss, Alex Ferguson, took his new club down to First Division minnows Oxford United, for what he hoped to be a gentle and winning introduction to his career south of the border.
The hugely successful Scotsman’s time at Pittodrie was littered with trophies including their famous European Cup Winners Cup of 1983 when they vanquished Real Madrid in extra time. Having also taken charge of Scotland at the World Cup in Mexico just 5 months earlier after the sudden death of Jock Stein, Ferguson was one of the game’s most admired managers.
When he took over from Ron Atkinson, United were at a low ebb. The 1980’s had been a frustrating decade to that point and despite some success in cup competitions, the Old Trafford club were playing second fiddle the two Merseyside giants, Everton and Liverpool , in their quest to win the League Championship for the first time since 1967.
Big Ron’s sacking came off the back of a dreadful start to the 86/87 season which saw the Red Devils second from bottom of the table by early November, with stories of poor fitness, a lack of discipline and a drinking culture rampant amongst the players. The first task on Ferguson’s to-do list was to drag his new side out of the relegation zone.
Even though United were not the global box office draw they are now back in those days, interest in the club was still enormous and the eyes of the footballing world were trained on the tiny and quaint Manor Ground to see how the Ferguson era would begin.
At that time, despite their humble existence and thanks to the backing of media tycoon, Robert Maxwell, Oxford United were no pushover and had won the Milk Cup just six months previously. The Manor Ground was a difficult place to go with its tight terracing and bobbly pitch, and with Maurice Evans’ side riding high in the top half of the Today sponsored First Division, United’s new boss could expect a tough first game in English football.
It only took 14 minutes for the Govan-born ex-Rangers player to face the realisation of the task at hand. Moustachioed, Ian Rush-wannabe, John Aldridge, was tripped in the box by fellow Republic of Ireland international, Kevin Moran. The Scouse gobshite, one of the league’s most sought after properties, picked himself up to dispatch the penalty past a despairing Chris Turner in United’s goal.
Aldridge, who would move to his boyhood club Liverpool at the end of the season, came close to extending Oxford’s lead soon after but prodded wide when under pressure from United full-back, Mike Duxbury. Oxford, sniggeringly sponsored by computer firm Wang, continually pressed Ferguson’s side throughout the half with little response from the men in red. A scuffed shot from ex-Manchester City and England winger, Peter Barnes, being about all the visitors had to offer during the first 45 minutes. Did that first half time team talk set the tone for the next 27 years at the helm? Well, United did come out of the dressing room with more purpose, suggesting Fergie had packed his famous hairdryer for the move south and had plugged it into a socket in the away team dressing room for use during the 10 minute interval.
Veteran Irish striker, Frank Stapleton came close to levelling the scores when his close range effort flashed wide of the post. Despite a raise in tempo by United, it was the home side that continued to stamp their authority on the game. David Leworthy capitalised on defensive disorganisation to fire at goal, but his tame shot bobbled straight through to Turner.
With ten minutes left on the clock, Oxford sealed victory following a half-cleared corner down their right. With United’s players struggling to clear their lines, Kevin Brock fired the ball across the six-yard box. Oxford full-back, Neil Slatter (no I don’t remember him either), stabbed home for a decisive two goal lead. The perpetually orange Clayton Blackmore had a long range effort late on but Ferguson would taste defeat in his first foray into English football.
Oxford United who were flying high after this victory over Manchester United then began to slide down the table as the season progressed, finishing in 18th place just two points ahead of a relegation play-off place, when the fourth bottom team in the top division played against those who finished in the play-off places in Second Division.
Ferguson’s United did eventually pick up from the early season slump and finished slap bang in mid-table, a massive 23 points behind eventual champions, Everton. It would be almost four more years of struggle, many ups and downs, transfer ins and outs before Ferguson would secure his first piece of silverware to put into the Old Trafford trophy cabinet. But who could have predicted that the aforementioned cabinet would eventually have to be expanded so dramatically?