I saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s job at Man United - but can now embarrass Erik ten Hag at Wembley

Mark Robins played a significant role in Manchester United's and Sir Alex Ferguson's history
Mark Robins played a significant role in Manchester United's and Sir Alex Ferguson's history -Credit:Dan Smith/Allsport

Coventry City supporters’ groups will be readying their flags and mosaics for Sunday’s trip to Wembley ahead of the FA Cup semi-final with Manchester United.

Sky Blues boss Mark Robins saw many during his 61 appearances for United but perhaps one will stick out most.

Almost 35 years ago, a homemade black-penned banner was unfurled among matchgoers at Old Trafford during a December 1989 defeat to Crystal Palace: "Three years of excuses and it's still crap... ta-ra Fergie."

It sparked the start of a full-circle cycle that would end in Robins trotting around Wembley with a medal around his neck. A month after that banner was displayed, rumour had it that Sir Alex Ferguson was on his last chance.

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Five further winless league matches left Ferguson’s tenure on a knife-edge and next up was an away trip to high-flying Nottingham Forest in the Third Round of the FA Cup, where a defeat was thought likely.

Robins latched his head onto a majestic ball from Mark Hughes to nod the ball home on 56 minutes and ultimately see United through to the next round with a 1-0 win. Twenty years after the fact, Ferguson would deny that the goal saved his tenure.

"The goal at Forest was an important goal, don’t get me wrong… And who's to say what would have happened without it, but I don’t think it saved my job," he said.

Who knows, but the goal sparked the journey towards Ferguson’s first piece of silverware as United boss, with the club beating Crystal Palace in a replay of the final. Robins came on during extra time in the original showpiece but didn’t play in the replay.

Mark Robins heads home against Nottingham Forest
Mark Robins heads home against Nottingham Forest -Credit:Dick Williams/Albert Cooper/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

He stayed at United for another two years before going to play for the likes of Norwich, Leicester and Manchester City. And 19 years after ending his playing career, he is back in Sky Blue colours, this time at Coventry City.

He has taken the club from dire financial obscurity and tiresome ground-hopping in League Two to a kick away from Premier League football. Fans would take another Championship play-off campaign this time around given their rank outsiders status but focus for now is on the FA Cup.

It’s the first time they’ve reached the last four since 1987, the year they won the competition, but last season's play-off shoot-out heartbreak against Luton Town will have given the current squad some valuable recent Wembley experience.

United themselves made three trips to the Arch last year, for the League Cup final triumph over Newcastle, the FA Cup semi-final win over Brighton and the final itself in the defeat to Man City. Their season - and perhaps Erik ten Hag’s future - hinges on Sunday's game.

United have recorded the most defeats during a Premier League season ever, having been dumped out of the Champions League and League Cup early. They are now fighting for a top six finish.

New co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe is not totally sold on Ten Hag as United’s long-term manager and will make a call on his future before the end of the season. Nothing has yet been decided but Robins can play his part in discussions.

An unexpected win at Wembley for Coventry will surely cast the die on Ten Hag’s tenure. Robins has already seen off Premier League opposition in Wolves during the quarter-finals but this scalp would have bigger ramifications for his opposite number - and perhaps his own career.

The pressure will all be on Erik ten Hag and Manchester United this weekend
The pressure will all be on Erik ten Hag and Manchester United this weekend -Credit:Eddie Keogh - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Ironically, when it comes to trophies, both United and Coventry are in the same position - fighting for their final realistic chance of silverware this season. But the similarities stop there and one manager is clearly under more pressure than the other.

Simply put, a win for Robins could signal the end of Ten Hag’s tenure as United boss. The full picture is slightly more complex but no less weighty.

Robins will be looking to reach his first FA Cup final since that 1990 trip to Wembley as a United player. He could cause a wrangle at his former employers with an historic triumph.