March 1, 2021, 11:06

Liam Mackey on the night the Theatre of Dreams came true

Liam Mackey on the night the Theatre of Dreams came true

Today, May 3, is the 27th anniversary of the night Manchester United were crowned league champions for the first time in 26 years. LIAM MACKEY was in Old Trafford for a memorable occasion which marked both an end and a beginning for the club in the Alex Ferguson era.

Old Trafford, Bank Holiday Monday, May 3, 1993: a night of holy grail and homecoming all in one.

Today marks the 27th anniversary of Manchester United lifting their first league trophy in 26 years, and your correspondent was fortunate enough to be in the press box to cover the occasion for the Sunday Press.

And, make no mistake, an occasion it was, the match itself – with visiting Blackburn Rovers very much cast in the supporting role – in danger of being rendered incidental to the wild and joyful celebrations which had begun outside the ground the previous evening, after Oldham had done the neighbourly thing by inflicting on Aston Villa the defeat which had confirmed Alex Ferguson’s team as the Premier League champions.

Approaching the stadium early, the better to soak up the carnival atmosphere, I found that thousands more had hit on the same idea, the vast crowds ensuring that the hawkers selling shirts, scarves and flags emblazoned the newly-minted ‘Champions’ legend, were already doing a roaring trade.

One woman selling t-shirts explained how production had begun the moment the final whistle had blown in Villa Park and continued through the night without a break. Now, bleary-eyed but satisfied, she was beginning to savour the pay-off: 300 t-shirts sold at a fiver a pop – and there were a few hours still to go before kick-off.

Meanwhile, on the grassy knoll opposite the Munich Clock, a crowd of supporters were showing scant sympathy for former United boss Ron Atkinson, after his Villa team had been consigned to title also-rans. “Are you watching, Big Fat Ron?” they gleefully chorused, bouncing up and down as others paused to photograph the spectacle and the mounted police struggled to keep the traffic flowing.

You could play spot the celebrity too. The sight of the great Denis Law bustling into the ground prompted applause and cheers but the BBC’s Des Lynam had to endure a more embarrassing rite of passage, as he was trailed all the way through the heaving car pack by a conga line of fans singing ‘Dishy Des, Des, Dishy Des, Dishy Des’ to the tune of ‘Here We Go’.

Inside the Theatre of Dreams Come True, the run-up to kick-off was all flags, camera-flashes, Mancunian Waves, the glory, glory battle hymns and massed renditions of everything from ‘Chanson D’amour’ – for guess who? – to ‘Sit Down’ by local heroes James (long before it was appropriated by the Kop for Mo Salah, of course).

It was, I wrote at the time, a bit like going to a music festival in which a football match suddenly broke out.

And, football being football, once the action got going there was a real danger of United’s party being pooped when, with a deft near-post flick, Kevin Gallacher stunned the stadium into temporary silence by giving Blackburn the lead. But, on this night of nights at Old Trafford, the champions were not to be denied.

As if stung by the visitors’ effrontery, the home side responded in style. First, rising star Ryan Giggs swept home a free-kick, then Eric Cantona supplied the ammunition for Paul Ince to put United ahead and finally, choosing his moment perfectly, Gary Pallister rounded off a swaggering 3-1 win with what was his first goal of the season.

And all the while, Cork’s Denis Irwin – who had been one year old the last time United had won the title, in 1967 – went about his business in his usual way: quietly, diligently and effectively. Little wonder that the edition of the popular United fanzine ‘Red Issue’ on sale outside the ground had awarded him 17 out of 20 in their ‘End Of Term Report’ and hailed him as “one of the players of the season”.

Everything else on the night was pure gravy for the faithful, with Bryan Robson coming on to a great ovation and another old favourite, Blackburn’s Kevin Moran, coming off to applause all around the ground, accompanied by a heartfelt chant of ‘One Kevin Moran’.

When I caught up with the Irish international a couple of days later, he confessed that – disappointed as he was with his own team’’s defeat – he had found the whole experience an emotional one.

“I’ve always had a great rapport with the supporters and I often go back to the club,” he told me. “But I must admit I was very moved on Monday night. It was a hell of an ovation for an away player. Not to get a ‘reject’ chant is relief enough but to get the total opposite was fantastic. And I was especially delighted for the supporters. They’ve had to endure a lot and they’ve waited a long, long time for this. It was a hell of a night.”

And a long one. After Bryan Robson and Steve Bruce had jointly held the Premier League trophy aloft, it was time for the key protagonists to let their hair down. While Kevin Moran stayed on for “a drink or two” with former team mates and friends, Ryan Giggs and Paul Ince took their celebrations into the city where, in the company of Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall – who named his band after his favourite team – they boogied in a nightclub until dawn.

Despite that, Hucknall was able to indulge a boyhood fantasy the following day by turning out as a guest player at Old Trafford in a game between the club’s staff and a Wembley Stadium XI. “It’s an amazing pleasure to turn out on the hallowed turf, especially after such a great night,” he enthused.

Meanwhile, over at the Cliff training ground, there was already a school’s out atmosphere, as the United reserves, including ex-Cork City centre-half Brian Carey, took part in their last and least gruelling session of the season.

For United’s much-vaunted youth team, there was a still a big game to come, however, and though they would lose that year’s FA Cup Final 4-1 on aggregate to Leeds, the match marked another big stage in the development of players who would go on to extend and enhance United’s long-awaited title success: Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville brothers among them.

Also at the Cliff on that balmy morning after the super-charged night before was Harold Wood, the Old Trafford steward and security man at the training ground who held the distinction of being known as ‘The Man Who Discovered Ryan Giggs’, after he’’d spotted the player as an outstanding 13-year-old who was already on the radar of Manchester City.

“There he was, this great young player and a real United fan and he could have ended up at Maine Road,” said Harold.

Eight times a prevaricating scout looked at Giggs before Wood – “I was petrified we might lose him” – made a personal appeal to Alex Ferguson. One visit by Brian Kidd and a trial at Old Trafford later, and the boy Giggsy was on the United books.

And the rest, as they say, is history. But history that, 27 years ago, was still in the making at the home of the newly crowned English champions. Soon enough, Ryan Giggs and company would be joined by another rising star, by the name of Roy Keane, as time would reveal that, for Alex Ferguson, Manchester United and their previously long-suffering fans, the night of May 3rd, 1993 had been both climax and beginning.

With the best still to come.


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