Wednesday 12 June 2024

Erik ten Hag, Nottingham Forest, and the start of a dynasty

After two weeks of intense will-he-won't-he speculation, Erik ten Hag is going nowhere. The United boss will stay on and together with minority shareholders INEOS, will hope to steer the ship named HMS Manchester United into calmer waters.

You cannot help but think of the striking parallels between ten Hag and his illustrious predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, surely the greatest manager ever to do it. Sir Alex is, of course, associated with the most glittering and successful era in United history, sweeping up trophies left, right and centre as his swashbuckling United sides cut a swaggering swathe through English football. One that is unlikely ever to be repeated, no matter what Pep Guardiola might think.

Sir Alex Ferguson with the treble in 1999

But it wasn't always like that. For those of you old enough to do so, cast your minds back to January, 1990. It's the FA Cup third round weekend and Ferguson is a man under siege. His expensively assembled Reds are languishing in the lower reaches of the old First Division. We would finish 13th and Ferguson - then just plain old Alex - was one game from the sack. Mercifully, this was an age before social media, before smart phones, before radio phone ins. It did not stop the United fanbase from growing restless, though. An early FA Cup KO at the hands of Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest - unlikely champions of Europe a decade before - would prove the final nail in the coffin. United's greatest ever manager would be up in flames before he'd even had a chance to cook. 

Enter, Mark Robins. A man never mentioned when it comes to some of United's most exalted stars. A man never mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Mark Hughes, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson and Viv Anderson et al. Yet a man, without whom, the name Manchester United would not be the club we are today. Without Mark Robins, the greatest story our sport has ever seen simply would not have happened. 

Robins goal on that cold January day in 1990 changed the course of history. We won 1-0 and embarked on an FA Cup run that culminated in winning the trophy. It not only provided Ferguson with much needed breathing space, but also marked the beginning of his unbreakable dynasty. Robins match winning moment saved Ferguson's job (although United's incumbent chairman Martin Edwards has always denied this), and laid down the bedrock for an unprecedented period of success.

It is with a delicious twist of irony, the kind only top level sport can deliver, that - 34 years on - both Robins and Nottingham Forest have helped play a part in ten Hag's next chapter. Had Viktor Torp not stayed offside by the width of a toenail, the now Coventry manager would have found himself in an FA Cup final, at the expense of his former side. 

Coventry manager Mark Robins 

But history will ultimately tell a different tale. Just as Ferguson did, ten Hag eked out a narrow, edgy win at, you guessed it, Nottingham Forest, to set us on the way to Wembley glory. Casemiro's 90th minute  fifth round winner may have lacked quite the same do-or-die jeopardy as Ferguson's own flirtation with danger, but it was no less important.

In the superb 1998 film Sliding Doors, the plot follows two different storylines both based around the same scenario. In the first, Gwyneth Paltrow's character misses a train, but catches the same train in the second. To cut a long story short, the course of her life differs depending on the path she takes. Still with me? Good. 

That is a situation ten Hag now finds himself in. This is his own sliding doors moment. Just as Ferguson did, is this a classic example of a manager hanging on by a hair's breadth to then go on and build a dynasty? 

Or is it merely delaying the inevitable? If things are still bleak at Christmas, is it then just another wasted season? The fact he's in talks over a new deal, as per the Telegraph, suggests the ownership think he is the man for the long term. If they had no faith, they surely would have sacked him and definitely wouldn't be considering an extension. 

We cannot know the answer. But ten Hag has shown signs he can succeed here. He has proved he can be successful. But, just like Ferguson all those years ago, he needs time and backing to do it. He must seize his Mark Robins moment and build on it. 

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