This is an extract from Mark Nevin’s book, ‘Off the Perch: United’s Rise and Liverpool’s Fall in the Ferguson Era’, available in paperback and Kindle versions from Amazon.
United faced Liverpool on New Year’s Day 1989 with most United supporters still unconvinced that the Reds were going anywhere positive under Alex Ferguson. Although these doubts wouldn’t be removed overnight, the performance that day did give some hints of a better future…
1 January 1989
Manchester United 3 Liverpool 1
If defeat at Liverpool early in the season suggested a distinctly soft underbelly to the Ferguson revolution, this New Year’s Day display resonated with at least a temporary glimpse of a more positive future. To give some idea of the changes that had taken place since Fergie’s arrival, the thirteen United players involved here included only two (Robson and Strachan) who’d played in the manager’s first United-Liverpool game only a little more than two years ago. Six of the thirteen were playing in the fixture for the first time. By the next game we played Liverpool only Robson would remain from that first encounter.
After spending much of the intervening time around the middle of the table, this victory took United to sixth place and led to a mini-revival of sorts that would see the club reach the optimistic heights of the top three in February, before reality kicked in and the club eventually limped to a dismal tenth place. A new and very unwelcome low was witnessed off the pitch on 2 May when the home game against Wimbledon was watched by a crowd of only 23,368, the lowest Old Trafford attendance for eighteen years.
For now, though, we could at least enjoy this first flight of Fergie’s Fledglings. That name has been subsequently attached to the very successful crop of players who emerged in the youth team in the early nineties (now more familiarly known as the Class of 92), but it was with reference to this earlier crop of youngsters that the term was first employed.
With United beset by injuries, several youngsters had been drafted into the first team. Although Lee Sharpe would play a part in the first great Ferguson team of the early nineties and Lee Martin and Mark Robins would have small but significant roles to play in the near future, the majority of those who appeared during this period would eventually leave Old Trafford without making the hoped for impact. Among them was Russell Beardsmore, a diminutive midfielder who received great acclaim for his performance here, pretty much dominating the middle of the park once he’d eased himself into the game and outshining not only illustrious counterparts like Robson and Strachan on his own side, but figures like McMahon in the opposition.
Although Liverpool’s assistant manager Ronnie Moran would declare, with audacity laced with the traditional Liverpool helping of sour grapes, that the best team had lost, United fans left Old Trafford that day with a sense that the future might not be so grim as we’d spent much of the season thinking. Many of the personnel would change – with only five of the starting XI here playing a significant part when the new dawn actually arrived – but there was a glimpse here of the kind of blend of youth and experience Fergie was looking for.
It was one of those hundred mile an hour, can’t take your eyes of it for a second United/Liverpool clashes. Indeed, in the first half there was probably too much of that, with little time on the ball for either side and a tendency to release the ball rather too quickly either out of a desire to get it up to the other end of the pitch as quickly as possible or to get out of the way of a set of flying studs heading in your direction.
With energy levels beginning to fade, there was more room to exploit in the second half and United looked likely to benefit from it before Liverpool, somewhat against the run of play, struck first. Their goal came in the seventieth minute when Beardsley broke through the middle before releasing Barnes in the area. The winger took a few moments to control the ball before crashing it into the roof of the net with the help of a deflection off the leg of Steve Bruce.
The young heads in United’s team might have been forgiven for dropping, but to their great credit the response was positive and swift. There was a gratifying determination about our play in those last twenty minutes, perhaps fuelled by an understandable conviction that this really wasn’t a game we deserved to lose. The Reds drew level after Beardsmore’s penetrating run into the box had ended with a clever ball to McClair, who scored with a superb scissor-kick. Leighton was called upon to save from McMahon soon afterwards, but from that point it was one way traffic as United hurled bodies forward towards the Stretford End in search of a winner.
McClair’s equaliser had had an element of the flamboyance associated with his strike partner Mark Hughes about it and it was now the Welshman’s turn to score and put United in front, pouncing on a loose ball following an exchange between Beardsmore and Mark Robins. Then, having had a hand in the first two United goals, Beardsmore deservedly grabbed one himself to clinch the victory, after an excellent by-line cross from Lee Sharpe had found him unmarked in the Liverpool area.
Beardsmore played thirty times for United that season and, for a while, looked to have established himself in the side, especially when Gordon Strachan moved on in March. In the summer, however, the arrival of Neil Webb and Mike Phelan made it more difficult for the youngster to secure a place in the first team and he was eventually sold to Bournemouth in 1993. He certainly left his mark on this fixture, a match that would arguably go down in history as the one where we finally saw what Fergie was aiming for and understood that it might, eventually, just work.
United: Leighton, Donaghy, Bruce, Martin (McGrath), Beardsmore, McClair, Strachan (Robins), Sharpe, Robson, Hughes, Milne.
Liverpool: Hooper, Staunton (Molby), Burrows, Ablett, Nicol, Whelan, Houghton, McMahon, Aldridge, Barnes, Beardsley.
For more books about the history of Manchester United, click here.