Cove Rangers secretary Duncan Little recalls the feeling of anticipation in the office of the club’s vice-chairman Gordon Hutcheon.
They were waiting on Manchester United to confirm the squad for their friendly match at Allan Park, held on 15 November 1992.
The United manager Alex Ferguson had promised to bring a strong squad to Aberdeen for the game to mark the ground’s new floodlights.
Cove chairman Alan McRae and Hutcheon had struck up a close friendship with Ferguson during his time as Aberdeen boss when the pair had travelled regularly on the team plane to European games during the Dons’ golden period.
The Manchester United boss didn’t let his old friends down.
Little said: “I remember being in Gordon’s office two days before the game and Alex Ferguson sent up the team he was taking up so we could put it in the programme.
“It was a really good squad.
“And then Fergie phoned Gordon 15 or 20 minutes later and said he had a change of mind. He told us not to print anything as he was about to change the squad.
“We thought he was going to leave out one or two of the top players who were in the squad.
“Then the team came through and we saw it he had gone the other way and he had added in a few more first-team players.
“It was an even stronger team so we were absolutely delighted.”
Cup final heartache for Cove
The friendly took place at 4pm on the Sunday – a later kick-off was arranged to ensure the new floodlights would be in use – and only a day after Cove had played in the Qualifying Cup final against Huntly.
Ferguson was among the crowd in Elgin to see Cove beaten on penalty kicks.
Little said: “The friendly against Manchester United was a bit of a pick-me-up from what happened the day before.
“After the disappointment of losing the final, it lifted everyone at the club having a game against these superstars.
“The boys were tired as it was a heavy pitch at Elgin for the final. They had played 120 minutes and lost on penalties and were then playing a strong Man United team the following day.”
If the Cove players were hoping for an easy shift following their cup final heartache in Elgin, they would have known to expect otherwise when they saw the star-studded Man United starting line-up.
Among those included in the XI were Steve Bruce, Lee Martin, Mike Phelan, Bryan Robson, Andrei Kanchelskis, Brian McClair and Lee Sharpe. Highly-rated 17-year-old winger Keith Gillespie was among the substitutes.
Little said: “The crowd for the match was 2,300. That was the limit at the time.
“There were a lot of Man United fans there. There were a lot of people who followed Man United in the north-east because of the Fergie connection, but there were also people who had travelled up from Manchester for the friendly, so it was a great atmosphere.”
Dazzling display from United winger
It was Lee Sharpe who stole the show at Allan Park that day.
The 21-year-old had missed the start of the season after suffering from viral meningitis that had threatened to prematurely end his career.
But the winger played a part in all six United goals – hitting the back of the net four times in an eye-catching display.
Sharpe broke the deadlock inside two minutes before doubling the advantage 10 minutes later.
Mike Cormack reduced the deficit a minute before the break with a 20-yard effort to delight the home support.
Sharpe tapped home from close range to complete his hat-trick after 48 minutes before Cove striker Mike Megginson converted from the penalty spot a minute later.
Cove captain Dave Morland pulled down Sharpe to give the visitors a spot-kick of their own which was slotted home by Steve Bruce after 57 minutes.
Sharpe grabbed his fourth with five minutes remaining and then turned provider to set up McClair. The former Celtic player’s effort rattled the crossbar and Bruce netted on the rebound.
A thankless task for Forbes
For Cove defender Tommy Forbes, it was a match he’ll always remember, despite being tasked with trying to stop United’s most dangerous player on the day.
He said: “I stayed around the corner from the ground. It was nice to be a local lad and playing against Man United.
“Liverpool were my English team, so to play against Man United was quite an experience.
“They were on their way to dominating English football.
“I had played the whole game on the Saturday and I didn’t start on the Sunday.
“I came on for the second half at right-back so I was directly up against Sharpe and that was tough.
“He scored a few and one of them came off me, but it went down as his goal which I was happy about.”
Forbes, who stepped down as Banks o’ Dee co-manager last year, added: “The Man United players were taking the game seriously. They played very well.
“They weren’t taking the mick – they were moving the ball quickly, so it was hard work but a great occasion.
“I played in some big games, such as cup finals in the Highland League, but – although the Man U game was just a friendly – it was probably the biggest game I played in.
“It was good for us that Allan Park wasn’t the biggest of pitches. That definitely helped us, especially having played a cup final that went to penalties the day before.”
United blazers caused a stir
For Ray Stephen, it was the night out with the Manchester United players after the game that proved most memorable.
Stephen was in his first season at Cove after joining the Highland League side from Kilmarnock.
He had started his career at Dundee before joining French side Nancy, who were managed by Arsene Wenger at the time.
He said: “I remember being in Charlie’s after the game.
“They all had on their Manchester United blazers on and as you can imagine they didn’t get a minute’s peace.
“We shared a bus that took us back to the Craighaars Hotel so they could drop off their things.
“We went back into town on the bus together and all the players were mixing.
“I was sat beside Bryan Robson and he was chatting away.
“They were gentlemen. There were no big heads among them.
“They all mixed in with us and it was a really fun night. It was a good laugh.
“It was mobbed in Charlie’s. We were upstairs to start with and it was cordoned off.
“We all went down the stairs and, when we did, the Man United players didn’t get a minute’s peace.
“They really enjoyed the night.”
On the game itself, Stephen recalled: “It was big for the club. It was my first season at Cove and for Man United to come up to Allan Park stirred a lot of interest.
“It was a full house and a great atmosphere.
“From the game, I just remember Kanchelskis’ pace being unbelievable. Luckily Allan Park was a tight pitch – I would like to have seen him on a big pitch.
“Lee Sharpe was very good that day. He was young at that time, but he stood out a mile and I thought he’d be a player to watch out for.
“He went to Leeds later in his career and I’m a bit of a Leeds fan, so I was pleased to see him, but he was maybe burned out by that time.
“We had a good side at Cove at that time and didn’t let ourselves down against Manchester United.”
After the game, Manchester United boss Ferguson called for Highland League sides to be included in the Scottish league.
Having been among the 1,500 crowd for the Saturday’s Qualifying Cup final at Borough Briggs in Elgin, he said: “The cup final was outstanding entertainment.
“There was plenty of drama and the quality of football was high.
“I enjoyed every minute of it.
“Cove then provided better opposition than many English non-league sides in the friendly.
“I was impressed with the amount of work done to Allan Park since being here in the 1980s.
“We were far better treated here than we have been at some grounds.
“Cove could teach a lot of better-known sides a thing or two about hospitality.
“That’s a testament to what can be done when you have a club with people behind it who have drive and ambition.
“The North clubs are often better run than many of the Division Two sides and they regularly show in the Scottish Cup they are capable of matching them on the field.
“I have noted there could be additions to the senior leagues if reconstruction proposals are accepted.
“Any new places must be offered to the Highland League, it will be a disgrace if they are overlooked again.”
Two years later, Ross County, Caledonian and Inverness Thistle departed the Highland League to begin a new life in the Scottish Leagues.
Peterhead and Elgin City were elected to join the national divisions in 2000, while Cove eventually made the step up by winning promotion through the pyramid play-offs in 2019.
The teams that day…
Cove Rangers: MacLean, McKenzie, Whyte, Morland (Collins), Paterson, Cormack, Megginson, Yule (Forbes), Stephen (Lavelle), Baxter, Nicol (Murphy).
Manchester United: Digby, O’Kane (Switzer), Martin, Bruce, Carey, Phelan, Robson, Kanchelskis (Beardsmore), McClair, Wallace (Gillespie), Sharpe.
Referee: Sandy Roy.