Best of the Rest: How Brian McClair became the first man in two decades to score 20 league goals for Manchester United

Choccy scored his first ever United goal against Watford and went on to achieve what nobody else had since the great George Best in his debut season at Old Trafford.
Matthew Crist  |  28th March 2019

Having signed for Manchester United in the summer of 1987 Brian McClair would go on to break a club scoring record which had stood since the days of the Best, Busby and the Beatles.

When George Best slotted home his 20th league goal of the season at Anfield in April 1968 few would have believed that it would be two decades before another United striker would achieve such a feat and that man would be Brian McClair.

Prior to Alex Ferguson’s arrival in the mid-1980s, success was pretty thin on the ground for Manchester United with no league title since 1967 and the Reds often languishing in the shadows of their rivals – in 1971 things were so bad that former Ballon d’or winner and England captain Bobby Charlton was the club’s leading scorer with a measly six goals.

It was all a far cry from the swinging ‘60s when the likes of Best, Law and Charlton had propelled the club to unprecedented glory under the guidance of legendary manager Matt Busby culminating in European Cup glory against Benfica at Wembley in May 1968.

George Best

But Busby’s shock resignation brought with it a dramatic decline in the club’s fortunes which ultimately saw the Red Devils drop into the second-tier of English football for a season with a succession of managers coming and going as the club desperately tried to bring back the glory days.

A glimmer of hope arrived in the mid-1980s with the charismatic Ron Atkinson guiding United to two FA Cup final wins and the Reds even threatened to land the title by winning the first 10 games of the 1985/86 season, but once more a lack of goals would cost them dear as their title charge evaporated after Christmas.

New beginnings under Ferguson


So when Alex Ferguson took over as Manchester United manager in November 1986, he was more than aware that the club needed  a recognised goalscorer if they were to end Merseyside’s domination of the English game and quickly set about acquiring the services of Celtic’s Brian McClair.

In his first season at Parkhead “Choccy” had bagged 32 goals, becoming a Hoops hero in the process and went on to score 126 times in 204 appearances for the club; finishing as Celtic’s top scorer in four consecutive seasons before becoming one of Ferguson’s first signings for the club along with Viv Anderson in July 1987.

And after failing to find the net in the first two games of the 1987/88 season McClair eventually opened his Red Devils account against Watford when he slotted the ball past future United ‘keeper Tony Coton in a 2-0 home win, one of seven goals he would score in the next nine games, with Ferguson’s men losing just two of their first 16 matches.

Alex Ferguson

Unfortunately for United though, Liverpool were blazing a trail at the top of the table and even with their new found goal machine in full effect found it difficult to hang on to their rivals’ coat tails with little sign of Kenny Dalglish’s men letting-up as the year drew to a close.

The Reds lost more ground over Christmas thanks to three draws and a defeat, while McClair failed to find the net in seven straight league games towards the end of 1987, his worst spell of the campaign by far.

But despite the title race being all but over a defeat against Newcastle on Boxing Day would provide something of a turning point for the remainder of the campaign for United and McClair in particular with the Reds losing just twice more that season while McClair simply couldn’t stop scoring.

The ghosts of the past finally exorcised


Consecutive victories over Arsenal, Coventry, Derby and Chelsea and a draw away at Spurs not only kept the Reds on the heels of their fierce rivals from down the M62, but also allowed McClair to take his tally to 13 as the target of 20 league goals in a season, which had dogged the club since the days of Best, Law and Charlton, suddenly looked like a very real possibility.

Choccy scored 10 goals in United’s remaining 10 games as the club notched-up eight wins and two draws with his 20th league goal of the season eventually arriving in a 3-0 home victory over Luton Town on April 12; almost 20 years to the day since George Best had become the last man to do so.

McClair would go on to add four more league goals and his total of 31 in all competitions ensured he ended his debut season at Old Trafford as the most potent marksman in England’s top-flight ahead of John Aldridge who notched 29; but once again the league title eluded United, falling nine-points short of Liverpool as the club’s long wait for the First Division championship went on.

But by breaking George Best’s record – something which a host of strikers had tried and failed to emulate over 20 years – McClair would go down in United folklore while his goals, not just in his debut season but during 11 years with the Reds, would be pivotal as the club won the FA Cup, European Cup Winners’ Cup, League Cup and eventually the Premier League title in 1993, the first of four titles for McClair during his illustrious Old Trafford career.


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