1st January, 1992
English First Division
Manchester Utd 1-4 Queens Park Rangers
Sometimes, an individual performance leaves such an indelible mark on a football match that the player who delivers it is immortalised, his name forever intertwined with the occasion. So mesmerising was Stanley Matthews’ performance in finally winning the FA Cup, at the age of 38 no less, that the 1953 final is forever known as the Matthews Final (presumably much to the chagrin of Stan Mortensen, who remains the only man ever to score a cup final hat trick). Jim Montgomery’s heroics in the same competition 20 years later are vividly recalled far beyond Wearside. And handball be damned, Diego Maradona’s display against the English in the 1986 world cup quarter final was as sensational a one-man show as the game has produced.
The star of this week’s goal of the week isn’t quite held in the same esteem as those gentlemen, but try reading the sports pages in the build-up to a clash between Manchester United and QPR and see how long it is before Dennis Bailey’s name crops up.
Since that famous New Year’s Day in 1992, when mid-table QPR ended league leaders Manchester United’s unbeaten home run with a 4-1 demolition job, the only man to match Bailey’s feat of notching a hat trick for the away side at Old Trafford is Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. ITV’s cameras were in Manchester (in the last season when top-tier English football could be seen on terrestrial television), for a game in which the home side was expected to reopen the gap at the top that Leeds had closed earlier in the day with their 3-1 defeat of West Ham.
Yet Gerry Francis’ Rangers side arrived in good form themselves. Unbeaten in six, the savvy Francis presided over a team of battling yet talented professionals, with bright young prospect Darren Peacock al0ngisde grizzled warrior and captain Alan McDonald (now sadly no longer with us) in the heart of defence and exciting attacking full back David Bardsley pushing forward, while Ray Wilkins, still a class act in the middle, was afforded protection by the dilligent, underrated likes of Simon Barker and Ian Holloway to make the bullets for exciting attacking talents like Roy Wegerle and Andy Sinton.
Bailey had signed over the summer, a modest £375,000 capture from Birmingham, having impressed Francis in a loan spell during his time as Bristol Rovers manager. He made an instant impact, scoring on his debut against champions Arsenal on the opening day, but while the step up from the Third Divison was proving a big one, he nevertheless plundered six league goals before arriving at Old Trafford determined to impress.
The Rs started ferociously, and a shell-shocked United found themselves two goals down inside five minutes, amid some alarmingly static defending from a previously formidable, reliable back line that included the fearsome Bruce/Pallister centre-back partnership and former Ranger Paul Parker. First, Bardsley robbed Clayton Blackmore on the right and played the ball into the box, where Barker casually flicked it into the path of England new boy Sinton, who causally stroked the ball home as United defenders stood and watched. Moments later, the ball was clipped over the top for the powerful Bailey to latch onto, Blackmore practically bouncing off him as he went through and lofted an effort that Schmeichel could only help into the net. Boos were already ringing out around Old Trafford while cameras revealed Alex Ferguson, who’d celebrated his 50th birthday the day before, staring ahead in wide-eyed fury.
The home side had been thoroughly unnerved by Rangers’ opening salvo and their defence continued to look brittle. Francis was a wily old fox with more tricks up his sleeve than his Showaddywaddy hairdo suggested, and his well-balanced team had arrived with a gameplan: to try and pick off United on the break through the skillful attacking play of Sinton and Wegerle and the power and pure predatory skills of Bailey. The first half ended with Ferguson’s men failing to muster a shot on target, while The R’s might have had another two or three.
The introduction of First Division Young Player of the Month Ryan Giggs from the bench briefly woke up the Red Devils, but Francis’ side were soon back on the offensive, and on the hour mark Bailey was again put through and effortlessly brushed Bruce aside before confidently sidefooting past the onrushing Schmeichel. It was the pick of his goals that afternoon. With just under 10 minutes remaining, Brian McClair’s instinctive finish should have set up a breathless finale, but instead QPR’s superior counter attacking would again punish United; just two minutes later, more shockingly careless play from the table toppers led to another driving run from the excellent Sinton, who screwed a low shot just past Schmeichel onto the post, leaving a lurking Bailey with the simplest of tap-ins to complete his treble and the rout.
Afterwards, there was only one man the nation’s media wanted to talk to. Ferguson recalls in his autobiography that Bailey rather ill-advisedly bounced into the home dressing room after the game to ask United’s stars to sign the match ball. After a couple of minute’s awkward silence, and looking at the bowed heads surrounding him, Bailey realised he’d interrupted the hairdryer in full flow: “He was obviously behind the door when I opened it but I didn’t see him. It was a bit naive of me and a very bad time to be asking for the ball to be signed,” he told The Daily Mail earlier this year.
There’s an argument that the result set off a wobble that would see The Red Devils, seeking their first title for a quarter of a century, blow what had seemed a comfortable lead at the top let to Leeds in. The Yorkshiremen were eventually crowned champions with a four point cushion over their rivals from across the penines – ironically, the same number of points that Rangers took off United that season. The Loftus Road outfit also enjoyed a respectable campaign, Francis guiding them to 11th and enjoying some more fine results along the way (including a similar 4-1 thrashing of Leeds) Yet both teams would hint in 1991/92 at at what they were capable of and would deliver the following season. Ferguson pinched Eric Cantona from the champions in November 1992, and the Frenchman would provide that extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ to power the Mancunians over the finish line and kick-start a decade of dominance. Rangers meanwhile, would finish 5th in that first ever Premier League season – as London’s top side, above Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea (and Wimbledon and Crystal Palace).
Bailey’s career however, would never again scale the heights of New Year’s Day 1992. In fact, that hat trick (the only one of his career) would provide his last goals of the campaign – just weeks later he suffered an injury that effectively ended his season, and by the time he returned his place had been taken by another powerful, devastating young striker by the name of Les Ferdinand. Drifting back down the leagues, Bailey became something of a journeyman gun for hire, but one who still made a considerable impact at most clubs he stopped off at, those predatory talents being put to good use. He scored some crucial goals on loan at Watford in 1994 to help preserve the second-tier status of Glenn Roeder’s team, including a late one in a seven goal thriller at Peterborough that brought the house down. Catching the eye of Tony Pulis – a man who deals almost exclusively in behemoth strikers – his £50,000 move to Gillingham saw him again play a crucial role as his goals helped the Gills storm to promotion from the basement to the third tier.
One of football’s good guys, Bailey’s longtime devotion to Christianity informs his work and his life in general (the assists for his Old Trafford hat trick, he said, should be awarded to God). He now spends his time coaching (and playing for) his church team in Birmingham’s West Midlands Christian League, and trying to help people who have lost their way and reach out to him – leading, somewhat bizarrely, to him answering a cry for help from renowned hellraiser and Rs fan Pete Doherty, who said of Bailey: “I’ve admired him so much from afar. He’s one of the people who’s life I could romanticise and perceived certain things and think, ‘Well, if they did it, it must be all right.”
“Dennis Bailey, hallelujah, hallelujah” was a song often sung at Loftus Road in the early 90s. Bailey might not have been at any one club for too long, but the impact he made at most of them has made him almost universally fondly remembered. And he’ll always have New Year’s Day, 1992 – even if Steve Bruce wouldn’t sign his match ball.