A look back at the career of one of the game’s greatest managers.
Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the most successful football managers in history, yesterday made the shock announcement to retire from the game at the end of the season.
The Scot will fittingly finish on a high after seeing off yet another competitor – noisy neighbours Manchester City – to help United to their 20th league title, the 13th brought to Old Trafford by Ferguson himself.
Few could have predicted such immense success when the Scot took over relegation-threatened United in 1986, but as one of his former players Gary Neville said, Ferguson changed the club from being a ‘laughing stock’ to being the biggest club in the world.
This success did not happen overnight though, as the former Aberdeen boss struggled to make an impact in his first three years at Old Trafford, even being threatened by the sack with growing supporter unrest towards the end of the 1989/90 season, when United finished just above the relegation zone. However, a win over Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final is said to have saved Ferguson’s job, and it was the start of something special for Manchester United.
Two seasons later and United were champions for the first time in 26 years, with the signing of Eric Cantona from rivals Leeds proving instrumental to their success. The eccentric French forward is still regarded as a Manchester United legend, and one of Ferguson’s most inspired signings, not just for the immediate success he brought the team on the pitch, but for putting United on the map and inspiring the generation of young players that would follow in his foot steps and form the foundation for United’s glory under Ferguson.
Two doubles followed for United, but things looked to be taking a turn for the worse when Ferguson lost a core group of aging players and opted to replace them with players coming through the club’s academy instead of spending money on established star names. After a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995/96 season, Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously uttered the words “You can’t win anything with kids”, memorable to this day as the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville brothers went on to deliver the title that year – and many more in years to come, becoming some of the biggest names in world football under the guidance of Ferguson.
One of the fiercest rivalries in Premier League football soon developed as Arsene Wenger brought Arsenal into the title mix, winning the league in his first full season in charge of the club and arguably winning at Ferguson’s famous mind games. However, history has shown that new challenges have only ever brought the best out of Ferguson, who bettered Arsenal’s double in of 1998 with a famous treble for Manchester United the following year.
Delivering the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1999 is still seen as Ferguson’s biggest achievement at the club. This unprecedented treble was brought about with a still young United side, who showed their battling qualities throughout the season, edging Arsenal to the title by just one point, as well as a hard-fought 2-1 win over the Gunners in the crucial FA Cup semi-final. But most of all, their never-say-die attitude was perfectly displayed by their two stoppage time goals to win the Champions League final against Bayern Munich from 1-0 down. Another inspired Ferguson signing, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, got the winner that night as United achieved the seemingly impossible.
Though United won the next two titles, Arsenal would not go away, and brought a low point in Ferguson’s career as they celebrated their title victory at Old Trafford with a 1-0 win in 2002. Ferguson had been set to retire at the end of that season, but Wenger’s now infamous talk of “a power shift from Manchester to North London” was perhaps the motivation that kept the United boss going. He had helped the Red Devils replace Liverpool as the dominant force in English football, and he was not prepared to let Arsenal come along and bring an end to their dominance.
United won the title back the following season, though a high-profile falling out with star player David Beckham dominated the headlines for months after Ferguson was said to have kicked a boot at the England captain. Beckham left the club for Real Madrid in the summer of 2003, and it was the start of another difficult few years for Ferguson and United, prompting some sections of the club’s fans to say he should have retired when he’d planned to.
They went three years without a league win – a crisis by their high standards – as Arsenal won in 2004, and big-spending Chelsea emerged as a force in 2005 and 2006. Another fierce rivalry was formed, this time with Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho, but once again Ferguson showed his staying power and built another new-look team to claim back the title in 2007. Young players such as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo brought about some of the most attractive attacking football the club had seen under Ferguson, and they were victorious in Europe again with a Champions League final win over rivals Chelsea in 2008.
Ferguson’s status as a Manchester United legend had long been confirmed, but he now undoubtedly stands as an all-time great of the game, bringing a further three titles in the last four years, now most satisfyingly of all asserting themselves as the number one club in Manchester after rivals City won the title last season.
Perhaps most impressive of all has been Ferguson’s ability to adapt to the changes in the game. As Gary Neville has said, the United boss still brings an element of old school toughness to the job that he had in the 80s, but has also tweaked his tactics and man management methods to suit different players in this different era. There is no doubt that the 71-year-old could keep going for a few more years and still be the best, but he has nothing else to prove in the game that he has made his own.
His are very big shoes for David Moyes to fill, but United would be well advised to remember the faith they showed to their legendary manager in a difficult first few years at the club. Although we may never see another manager like Ferguson, United showed that if you give someone the right support they could achieve something beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.