The Perfect Ten: Match One: Sheffield Wednesday 3-3 Manchester United (26 December 1992)

There are three eras of league football in England. The pre-war era, post-war era, and the modern age. The latter began in 1992 for two clear reasons. The first is the formation of the Premier League. It gave clubs autonomy away from the Football Association and Football League. Sky TV secured the most lucrative financial deal in the footballing world by promising to turn top flight English football into the ultimate sporting television experience. Innovations such as fireworks, fanfares and cheerleaders swept Super Sunday and Monday Night Football on to our televisions. At one point the ball was delivered to the centre circle by stuntmen parachuting from helicopters. The only lasting innovation from Sky was the turquoise text box in the top left corner showing the team names, score and time.

The second reason is the abolition of the back pass. The law change, brought into effect because of the widely negative play at the 1990 World Cup, meant goalkeepers were forced into contributing to passing moves and no longer used as a get out of jail card. The back pass rule changed football in England far more than rebranding the top division did. Breaks in play vanished, as did high defensive lines, and the offside trap became practically useless. Premier League football in 1992 saw the play stretched and quickened like never before.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams became synonymous with their ability to come from behind. They often scored late into injury time – a period of the match described in 1998 as ‘Fergie Time’. The most famous last ditch comeback from a losing position is arguably the 2-1 Champions League Final victory over Bayern Munich in 1999. But it all started on Boxing Day in 1992 at Hillsborough.

Sheffield Wednesday stormed into a 2-0 lead after six minutes with goals from David Hirst and Mark Bright. John Sheridan put Wednesday three up on the hour and the game looked dead in the water for United. A consequence of the back pass rule change meant that a large areas of space were created in midfield. United tried to exploit this by attempting to fluidly interchange Brian McClair and Eric Cantona between centre midfield and centre forward.

Ferguson used what was widely considered a 4-4-2 formation. But formations are simply a numerical notation that gives little indication into how a team actually plays. When in possession, United pushed into a 4-3-3 formation as they swept forward in waves looking for goals. Paul Ince sat in the holding role of the three man midfield as Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe joined Cantona, McClair and Mark Hughes in attack.

On that festive afternoon, McClair and Cantona squandered a number of chances. Lee Sharpe was exceptional for United and provided a hat-trick of assists. The pick of the bunch being a sly Cruyff turn and perfect cross for McClair to make it 3-2. The game proved significant for a number of reasons. In terms of the season it kept United in touch with the league leaders over the busy Christmas period. It also set the standard for the type of play fans regularly came to expect from United. Quick attacks that made use of wingers to exploit weaknesses in opponents.

Throughout the inaugural Premier League season, Ferguson made use of Giggs, Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis. Between the three of them, they scored or assisted 28 goals in 1992/93. Their contribution was more than just counter attacking and crossing. United were a cohesive defensive unit in that season. The wingers were able to tuck in and support the midfield as well as hurtle forward and join attacks. In its most basic form, the wingers of 92/93 covered huge distances during games in a way similar to modern day wingbacks. But their effectiveness on the wing was a precursor for what was to come in the future for United.

Against Sheffield Wednesday was the first time in the season United showed the resilience and resolve fans grew accustomed to. Although none of the goals in this game were scored in injury time it was a turning point because of the late rally from United. Their first of the Premier League-era, and not their last.

The late goals and comebacks gave United belief over the years they could always snatch a goal or victory from the jaws of defeat. The game on Boxing Day foreshadowed the most significant moment in the 1992/93 a Premier League season. As part of the title run in, United found themselves in losing position, once more against Sheffield Wednesday, but this time at Old Trafford and to a 1-0 margin.

Then Steve Bruce equalised with an 85th minute header. 10 minutes later, and well into injury time, Bruce struck again and scored a goal that sparked riotous scenes on the touch line. Bruce’s goals moved United two points clear of Aston Villa with five matches to play. United won all their remaining fixtures to secure the title and finish ten points ahead of Villa.

The moment Ferguson and Brian Kidd ran onto the pitch celebrating became iconic for the Premier League-era Manchester United. This is the memory we hold on to for that particular season – but the roots of that memory grew from the resolve shown four months earlier in a 3-3 draw when Cantona bundled home from close range to score an equaliser at Hillsborough.

The term ‘Fergie Time’ was first mentioned in a match report in 1998 when United played, yet again, Sheffield Wednesday. On that occasion the Owls triumphed 2-0. But United attacked deep into injury time looking for a way back. The 3-3 comeback against Sheffield Wednesday in 1992 paved the way for an era of incredible resilience and self-belief from United. It set them on a trajectory that would come to define Manchester United in the Premier League years.

Ferguson summarised the philosophy when he said, “My job was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference between leadership and management.” This proved true against Sheffield Wednesday twice in 1992/93 and put one hand on United’s first title for 26 years. That is why it is the perfect start to United’s Premier League perfect ten.