It was 30 years ago tomorrow that Sir Alex Ferguson completed his own personal great escape by leading Manchester United to the FA Cup just months after it seemed that the Scot would be on his way out of Old Trafford.

Ferguson had replaced Ron Atkinson as manager of United in November, 1986, after his eight-year spell at Aberdeen had brought the Dons unprecedented glory including the European Cup Winners’ Cup and European Super Cup. Fergie had been linked with many top managerial jobs over the years, but had turned them all down, including Arsenal and Spurs. He had briefly taken charge of Scotland after the sudden tragic death of Jock Stein, but he insisted on staying at Aberdeen where he was rewarded with being appointed as a club director.

He could not resist the call of United, however, even though he was well aware of the ‘drinking club’ culture in the first team squad. He had great players to work with, such as Bryan Robson, and laying down the law from the start he got them from second bottom up to 11th.

The next season, 1987-88, saw Ferguson bring in Steve Bruce and the Scots Brian McClair and Jim Leighton who had been his goalkeeper at Aberdeen. They could only finish second to Liverpool in the league, however, and a poor spell in season 88-89 saw them slip back to mid-table. In season 89-90 Ferguson was in real trouble by December, especially after a 5-1 defeat by local rivals City, with fans holding up a banner that said “three years of excuses and it’s still crap... ta-ra Fergie.”

Looking back now, after his glittering career at Old Trafford, it is hard to believe just how poor United were at the end of the 1980s as they hovered just above the relegation zone. On Sunday January 7, 1990, after seven winless matches, United went away to Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup and most pundits were predicting that losing the game would see Ferguson gone by the Monday.

Forest would go on to lift the League Cup that season, United having gone out of that competition in the third round, but on the day, Brian Clough’s men just couldn’t get past Leighton and when they did ‘score’, the referee pulled them back for a free kick. The only goal of the game was created by a lovely curling pass from Mark Hughes that was finished with a header from Mark Robins in the 56th minute.

It has since entered folklore as the match which saved Ferguson’s United career but the truth is that the board were agreed on letting him stay to the summer to see if things improved. An FA Cup win was vital, however.

United gradually got their act together and moved up the table to the lofty heights of 13th, while their FA Cup run saw them dispose of Hereford United by a single goal, Newcastle United in a thrilling 3-2 win, and Sheffield United in the quarter-final, United winning 1-0. All those games were away and the semi-final was at Maine Road, Oldham Town taking United to a replay after the first match went to extra time and ended 3-3. It took extra time in the replay for United to squeeze through with Robins again the hero as he notched the winner in a 2-1 win.

The final against Crystal Palace was a storming match which also went to extra time. Palace were in their first final, while United were going for their record-equalling seventh FA Cup. Gary O’Reilly put Palace ahead after 18 minutes but Robson equalised in the 36th minute. Hughes scored just after the hour mark but substitute Ian Wright equalised and then put Palace ahead in extra time only for Hughes to save United with his second goal.

They went back to Wembley on May 17, and there was huge controversy as Ferguson blamed Leighton for the failure to win the first match, and while Scotland’s most capped goalkeeper certainly made mistakes, some of those around him were culpable, too. Leighton and Ferguson were not on good terms anyway, and the keeper made only one further first team appearance. “It was animal instinct,” Ferguson later explained. “I smelled danger after the first Wembley game, I knew Jim had to be dropped.” The two men are still not speaking 30 years later.

Replacement Les Sealey had a fine game, with three saves of real class that kept United’s clean sheet. The only goal of the replay was scored by defender Lee Martin, and Alex Ferguson had won his first trophy as United manager.

It also put United into the following season’s European Cup Winners’ Cup which they won by beating Barcelona 2-1 in the final in Rotterdam. Then came the ‘Class of ’92’ and Ferguson proved that you can win trophies with kids as he guided United to untold heights of glory before retiring in 2013.

What would have happened had United not won on May 17, 1990? Who can say...