Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United for 27 years, winning two European Cups, 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and four League Cups, building great sides over two decades as the Red Devils dominated the first 20 years of the Premier League.
In the final instalment of the series, we look back on his tenure at the helm of Manchester United.
It was not always roses, champagne, and trophies for Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Alex Ferguson joined Manchester United from Aberdeen on 6 November 1986, the same day that previous manager Ron Atkinson was dismissed. In Ferguson’s first game in charge, the team lost 2-0 to Oxford United; his first victory came on 22 November 1986, a 1-0 defeat of Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford.
His first marquee result came on Boxing Day 1986, beating eternal rivals Liverpool 1–0 at Anfield – it was United’s only away league win of the season, and the only home defeat of the season for their hosts. United’s improvement continued throughout the season, finishing 11th in a First Division where Everton finished champions and Liverpool runners-up.
The following season, Manchester United finished runners-up in the league, nine points behind champions Liverpool, giving supporters cause to be optimistic for the 1988–89 season. Ferguson was slowly but surely starting to work his magic.
United suffered a number of injuries to first-team players in the 1988-89 season, yet where in third place in February, but finished the season in 11th after a slump set in during the season’s final quarter.
In September 1989-90 the season had started with United in fine form, beating defending champions Arsenal 4-1 at home on the opening day of the season, but disappointing results soon followed and by the turn of 1990, United stood 17th in the league – just one place above the relegation zone.
Some rumours insisted Ferguson was on the verge of being sacked, although the United board denied that the manager’s job was at risk; United finished 13th that season their lowest league finish since 1975. Victory over Crystal Palace in the 1990 FA Cup Final replay (after a 3-3 draw) was defining moment for the Scottish manager, he had shown he can win a trophy and if they stuck with him, maybe, just maybe, he’ll win a few more. Liverpool went on to win an English record 18th league title. Manchester United stuck with their guns, sticking by the 49-year-old Scottish manager who was at the time in his third season in charge.
In the 1990-91 season success duly arrived in spades – Ferguson won Man United the 1990–91 European Cup Winners’ Cup after beating Barcelona 2-1 at De Kuip in Rotterdam, becoming the first English club to win a European trophy since the Heysel disaster had forced English clubs into a five-year ban from European competition. United’s league form also improved in 1990-91 with a sixth-place finish. Despite the improvement, United where without league title in 25 years.
1992-2000 – Cantona and the Class of ’92
As fate would have it, the rebranding of the English league to the Premier League coincided with the class of 1992 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham graduating to United’s first team.
Along with Eric Cantona who signed from Leeds for £1.1 million in 1991 and while the French former footballer might be more for famous today for his bizarre FIFA speech or flying karate kicks, he was the player that transformed the Red Devils from pretenders to contenders – when he joined, United were eighth, seven points off the pace, having lost four games. After his arrival the team won 18, drew six and lost just two, on route to the title.
Without Cantona, it’s quite likely Aston Villa – who pushed the Red Devils hard in 1992/93 – would have finished top of the pile. In fact, Cantona won the championship every year bar one between his arrival in England in 1992 and his retirement in 1997. With Cantona playing, United always had a chance. A great example of this was his 54th minute goal at St James park, which essentially took the title off Newcastle United in a game that the ‘Red Devils’ were utterly outplayed in.
Charisma, technique and brilliance, was something he had in abundance, he brought United their swagger that has continued long after he left.
1998-1999 – Treble Winners
The 1998–99 season was the most successful in the history of Manchester United. United won the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League, becoming the first English club to achieve the feat of winning the domestic league and cup as well as the European Cup in the same season.
It was during this season that United gained a reputation for never being beaten a trait that would stay with them throughout Fergie’s tenure. Ferguson himself called it Squeaky Bum time – winning and drawing several matches with late goals after falling behind early on.
Perhaps the most famous examples happened in the both legs of the 1999 UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Juventus and the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal – the latter won by a iconic Ryan Giggs goal deep into extra time.
However, the most dramatic comeback came in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored a goal each in stoppage time to give United a 2-1 win – a sixth-minute goal from Bayern’s Mario Basler looked to have won the trophy for the Germans, who still had the lead with 90 minutes showing on the clock.
2004 -2006 – Three year barren stretch
Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal becomes the Invincibles in 2003-04 season, going unbeaten in the league all season. Jose Mourinho arrival from FC Porto in the summer of 2004 and for the first time in Ferguson tenure had the United manager lost for ideas for how to overcome self-proclaimed ”special one” – Gary Neville remarked on Sky Sports that:
I think that’s the only time during my period at Manchester United where Sir Alex Ferguson had to settle down for a few years. He knew that he was against a special manager, who was on a roll, against a fantastic team. I think he had to sit back and play second fiddle for Jose for a few years, knowing we just couldn’t compete with them, there was the period of Arsenal’s Invincibles, Jose’s team for that couple of years were fantastic.
2006-2009 – A second dynasty
Between 2006 and 2009 United had eight world class players in their starting XI. Edwin van der Sar in between the sticks, their best keeper since Peter Schmeichel; Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic arguably the best centre back partnership in league history, making three PFA team of the years together – they were a combination of poise, physicality, and tenacity; Paul Scholes, a generational midfielder ageing like fine wine and playing the deep lying playmaking role; Ryan Giggs who is in the conversation for United’s greatest ever player; and the front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez – one the best forwards lines in Premier League history.
Three Premier League titles in a row between 2007 and 2009, and a European Cup and European Cup Final defeat at the hands of arguably the greatest side of all time – the 2010-11 Barcelona squad. This was arguably Ferguson greatest ever side. Tactically Ferguson formed great partnership with Portuguese assistant Carlos Queiroz. Allowing Queiroz to set up the side tactically while Ferguson handled the dressing room.
The 2007-08 team was devastating counter-attacking side that could go from A-Z in seconds. Queiroz helped United move away from a traditional centre-forward to a more dynamic interchangeable multi-positional European offense.
2009-2013 – The final chapter
The fact is that Ferguson kept an ageing United side, with no world class players coming through the academy, and had increased competition – in the form of noisy neighbours Manchester City who under their Abu Dhabi ownership.
Their 2013 Premier League title, Manchester United 20th in English history and Ferguson’s 13th, in his final season in charge as manager, was a fitting end to the greatest manager in the clubs history and arguably one of the greatest managers of all time. Robin van Persie’s arrival from Arsenal for £24 million was an inspirational move, the Dutchman scored 26 goals on route to the title.
Ferguson’s final ever match in charge of United was on 19th May 2013 – a 5-5 draw with West Brom. Though not a victory, it was still a fitting way to end – thrilling, fast, chaotic and thoroughly entertaining.
Perhaps Ferguson’s greatest skill was his man management of individuals – knowing who and when he could give his famous ‘hairdryer treatment’ to. Ryan Giggs said on beIN SPORTS’ The Champions Club:
There were three or four players that he (Sir Alex Ferguson) never had a go at. (Eric) Cantona was one – Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Cristiano Ronaldo the others. They were all in their own ways matchwinners. They did the stuff on the pitch, so he never felt (like he had to). He was the master of psychology…
Ferguson’s ability to continuously build great sides over the years. His mantra of no player being bigger than the club and the ability to manage dressing room egos meant Ferguson was ruthless when it came to off-loading players – David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Ruud van Nistelrooy being a few of the best examples.
He was also great motivator. One of Ferguson’s philosophical motivation strategies used to get consistent results out of his players was revealed in an interview he did with The Telegraph where he recalled on occasion he would use one of nature’s great migrations to convey to the United players that retaining their Premier League crown was, in the grand scheme of things, not too big an ask:
I had a pal whose cousin had a farm in Canada, and he was telling me about geese flying from Canada to warmer climates in the winter…so it was the first game of the season after winning the league, I was telling the players about these geese who were flying 4000 miles from the sun in two Vs, and that the ones in the second row don’t fly and then the others take over – that’s team work. Now these bloody geese are flying 4000 miles just to get a bit of sun, and I’m just asking you to play 38 games and win the league.
The more time passes, the more the magnitude of Ferguson success becomes apparent, no other club in Premier League history has won a hat-trick of titles. Manchester United have not won the league in the seven years since his departure and his longevity is unmatched.