Coventry City manager Mark Robins during the Sky Bet Championship...

Coventry City manager Mark Robins during the Sky Bet Championship match between West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City at The Hawthorns, West Bromwich, England, March 1, 2024. In 1990 Mark Robins scored a goal that has long-been credited for saving former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson his job and provided the platform for more than two decades of success. Now Robins could push current United manager Erik ten Hag closer to the brink if he leads second division Coventry to a shock win in Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal. Credit: AP/Bradley Collyer

MANCHESTER, England — Before Eric Cantona, David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo, there was Mark Robins.

The list of Manchester United greats is long but Robins is not on it. Yet he is widely regarded as the man who saved former manager Alex Ferguson his job and provided the platform for more than two decades of success.

On Sunday, Robins could push current United coach Erik ten Hag closer to the brink by leading his second-tier Coventry team to a shock win over United in the FA Cup semifinals.

“We will never know how close I was to being sacked (fired),” Ferguson wrote in his autobiography. Robins is mentioned on the very first page.

It was in January 1990 that Robins scored the only goal in United's 1-0 win against Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup. Reports at the time suggested Ferguson's job was on the line after more than three years without a trophy.

Ferguson himself accepts that without going on to win the Cup that year “grave doubts would've been raised about my suitability for the job.”

United did win it — with Robins also scoring the winning goal in the semifinal replay against Oldham — the first of 28 major trophies under Ferguson.

Alex Ferguson former manager of Manchester United arrives for the...

Alex Ferguson former manager of Manchester United arrives for the funeral of English soccer icon Bobby Charlton in Manchester, England, on Nov. 13, 2023. In 1990 Mark Robins scored a goal that has long-been credited for saving former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson his job and provided the platform for more than two decades of success. Now Robins could push current United manager Erik ten Hag closer to the brink if he leads second division Coventry to a shock win in Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal. Credit: AP/Dave Thompson

Now the Coventry manager could pile more pressure on Ten Hag with a famous upset at Wembley.

“I have got no agenda other than trying to prepare the team as best we can to go and put a performance on that we can be proud of," Robins said Friday. “For me it is nothing other than that, it is not about me for sure.”

Ten Hag is desperately trying to mount a convincing argument that he is the man to return United to the summit of English soccer after more than a decade of decline since Ferguson retired. That is becoming increasingly difficult amid a hugely disappointing second season in charge for the Dutchman and speculation rife about his position.

Dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage, his team sits seventh in the Premier League, with the Cup now likely his only chance of salvaging the campaign.

Manchester United's head coach Erik ten Hag leaves the field...

Manchester United's head coach Erik ten Hag leaves the field after the English Premier League soccer match between Bournemouth and Manchester United, at The Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth, England, Saturday, April 13, 2024. Credit: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth

With new United co-owner Jim Ratcliffe overseeing sweeping changes that will include a new CEO, sporting director and technical director, it is possible that even victory in the Cup might not be enough to end uncertainty about Ten Hag's future.

“We want to achieve every season. We want to win trophies and we have a big opportunity, because we are in the semifinal,” Ten Hag said Friday. “We want to go into the final.”

There are some parallels between Ten Hag's position and Ferguson's in 1990.

Back then Ferguson was struggling to shake the club out of years of underachievement after the retirement of former manager Matt Busby.

A poor campaign has raised doubts about Ten Hag's ability to end United's long wait for a league title, which stretches 11 years since Ferguson's last trophy. The Cup has the potential to be a salvation and would mark successive trophy-winning seasons for the former Ajax coach after victory in the League Cup last year.

“I hear people talking about Manchester United, that they are this or they are that, but the truth of it is they have got top players,” Robins said. “For us, we know they are clearly favorites to win this game by a million miles. They are expected to win, as simple as that.”

That is precisely why the pressure is on Ten Hag to at least lead United to the final against Manchester City or Chelsea.

There is no such expectation on Coventry, even after beating top-flight opposition in Wolverhampton to advance to the semifinals.

“It is the first time we have been there since 1987 so it is not a normal occasion for us; for Manchester United, it is a normal occasion for them,” Robins said.

While Robins may be most famous for a goal he scored 34 years ago, he has become an icon for Coventry, which was homeless and financially stricken when he took charge in 2017.

In that time he has led the Sky Blues from the fourth division to the second and was one game away from securing promotion to the Premier League last year after losing to Luton in the playoff final. There is still a slim chance Coventry could make the playoffs again this term.

Coventry produced one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history when beating Tottenham in the final of 1987 to lift the trophy for the first and only time.

“We have to understand what the game will be and what the occasion is," Robins said. “There shouldn’t be any fear.”

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James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson

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