Not every golden goal has to glister. One of the most euphoric moments of Terry Gibson’s career was a tap-in from eight yards in a match his team would probably have won anyway. After a year of incessant frustration, it was his first goal for Manchester United – and, as it turned out, his last.
Gibson was marginalised almost as soon as he was signed by Ron Atkinson, who was subsequently replaced by Sir Alex Ferguson in November 1986. Two months later, Gibson made one and scored in injury-time to secure a violent 2-0 win over the league leaders Arsenal. Not for the last time, they left Old Trafford bristling with injustice as an unbeaten run – 22 games this time – went up in smoke.
What do you remember about your goal? I have to be honest, it was nerve-racking when Gordon Strachan rolled the ball across the six-yard box. I mean, it was a year since I’d signed and I was making my full home debut. You lose confidence, you lose belief, and when that ball rolls across an open goal on a bumpy pitch [laughs], you’re thinking, ‘Shit, don’t miss this!’
It was relief more than jubilation – relief I didn’t miss the chance, relief we were gonna win the game because we weren’t winning many at the time, and relief that I’d got off the mark. I hoped it would be the start of me finding the form I had at Coventry, when I was scoring goals pretty regularly and confidence was never an issue. After a year without a goal, it was an issue.
You celebrated by wagging one finger to the crowd … I didn’t expect it to be my one and only goal for United, because at that time I was getting a chance under a new manager and hoping it would lead to more. But looking back it was quite poignant that I did signal, ‘That’s my first’, just to let everybody know.
I was so relieved. Even now, I’m just grateful I scored at least one. I still didn’t become a regular, I didn’t find my form if I’m being honest, though I was unfortunate in a few games. It just didn’t work out for me.
Was the psychological pressure of moving from Coventry to United too great? It was too much. Coventry suited me perfectly. It was a comfort zone where I knew that I would be playing week-in, week-out. I felt comfortable knowing that if I missed a chance I wasn’t going to be substituted or dropped for the next game, and that made me confident that I’d score the next chance. I scored 50-odd goals in two and a half seasons, which is why United signed me.
You only started three games, all away from home, in your first year at United. Did Ron Atkinson ever tell you why? Oh no. I did ask – I was forever knocking on managers’ doors. I never went in looking for a row, just an explanation. You’d hope the manager might tell you what you need to improve but Ron just brushed it away and didn’t really come up with anything definitive. At the same time he could destroy your confidence because he could be quite insulting. I’d only been there a couple of months when he told me he’d bought the wrong player from Coventry, that he should have signed Cyrille Regis. He didn’t need to say that.
The Arsenal game in which you scored is best remembered for Norman Whiteside kicking them all round Old Trafford. Were you surprised, looking at the video, by how dirty it was? No, it’s all in the memory. It’s one of my favourite games. It was aggressive even by the standards of football in the 80s. It was the first time Fergie had come up against one of the big clubs at Old Trafford and I suppose he wanted to put a marker down.
Norman Whiteside certainly did that … He is remembered for being intimidating, which is unfair because he was just a brilliant footballer. He was an adult at 16. By 24 his ankle and knees were shot to pieces; it was a real shame. But even at 16 he wanted to mix it with the hardest defenders around. He was incredibly tough. Norman was never the quickest but his pace was drifting away even by the time of that Arsenal game – he must have been around 24 then.
He was 21 … 21? You’re joking! Jesus. That’s shocking, that someone of 21 went around intimidating David O’Leary and people like that. You look back and think, ‘My God, how did he do that?’ I’m shocked that he was 21.
There was an incident in the tunnel after the game involving the United assistant manager Archie Knox and Arsenal’s Niall Quinn. Were things like that quite common? When I played for Wimbledon, fights were a regular occurrence. A lot of the tunnels weren’t pleasant places to be – they were like bunkers, really tight and with concrete floors. It was often conducive to a bit of UFC before or after the game! There were no handshakes on the pitch before the game or anything like that – it was shinpads on, gloves off.
It was war. I learned to tackle the old-fashioned way, a side-on block tackle with the inside of the foot. Probably the first four or five times I did that at pro level, I got hurt. Then Steve Perryman showed me how to tackle with my studs showing – it was self-preservation because you couldn’t trust anybody in a tackle.
There were players around then whose main attribute was to kick and hurt people. It was quite sad actually that players had a career based on the fact they were nasty bastards. Refereeing was so lenient then, it was ridiculous. I’m grateful I never seriously hurt anyone. I’m sure I caused some injury problems for people but I never broke anyone’s leg, I never smashed anyone’s face.
It’s frustrating that I got to 31 and my ankles were shredded, and my achilles tendons are terrible even to this day. Sometimes I think, I was only 31 when I had to retire, but then other times I think, I did well to last from 17 to 31.
A lot of players of your generation seemed to suffer extreme wear and tear … We played through so much pain because we were scared of losing our place. Managers didn’t change the team for cup games or rest players, so you strapped your injury up and got on with it. For a fitness test before the game you might have a couple of challenges against the physio. That was the fitness test.
I played in the FA Cup final for Wimbledon against Liverpool in 1988 with three different injuries that should all have kept me out of the game. I had a hernia that needed an operation on the Tuesday after the final; I’d tweaked my medial ligament about six weeks earlier, so I was playing with strapping on my knee; and I’m pretty sure I broke my metatarsal against Manchester United the week before the final.
My foot was swollen and I spent the next five or six days with ice on it. I had to sleep the night before the game with my football boot on, because if I took it off I knew I’d struggle to get it back on. The manager caught me and I said I was breaking in new boots.
No one even knew what a metatarsal was then. It was just a broken bone in your foot, and people played with them. Injections were routine. When I was a young player at Spurs, I saw Terry Yorath having an injection in his knee and thought, ‘I want one of them’! They were chucking stuff into his knee and he wasn’t flinching. I was admiring that, thinking, ‘What a man!’ And then over time I had loads of them: ribs, groin, knee, ankles, everything. It was quite barbaric.
Thankfully, times have changed and you can look back on it with fond memories now that you’ve survived. I’m not in a wheelchair yet and I don’t have a limp. Being a short, slim centre forward in the 1980s, I did pretty well.
Terry Gibson is a co-commentator and studio pundit on La Liga TV.