Let me start by stating this. I do not like Sir Alex Ferguson. Not one bit. I think he’s a boorish, conceited, uncouth, ill-tempered bully who has received far too much praise, from the British press who lap up every word he says, like it’s the word of God himself. Only Ferguson can get away with skipping news conferences after defeats in the Champions League, like he did this past season, after Manchester United were eliminated by Real Madrid. If, say Jurgen Klopp or Rafa Benitez were to pull of the same shenanigans, they would be vilified and pilfered in the newspapers in Europe.
That being said, I also cannot deny the success and impact that Sir Alex has brought to English football and more specifically Manchester United. No manager has had more success than the man known as Fergie. The numbers speak for themselves. 13 Premier League titles. 5 FA Cups. 4 League Cups. 2 Champions League titles. 10 Community Shields. 1 UEFA Cup Winners Cup. 1 UEFA Super Cup. 1 International Cup. 1 FIFA World Club Cup.
What might be the most remarkable aspect of Ferguson’s success is the length of his tenure with the club. In an age where managers are discarded faster than dirty wash cloths, Ferguson has kept his position with the club for 27 years! And he left on his own terms.
Ferguson was hired by Manchester United on November 6 1986, replacing Ron Atkinson, who was sacked following a 4-1 loss to Southampton in the fourth round of the League Cup. When Ferguson was hired, United were sitting in 19th position in the League and in danger of being relegated. Ferguson’s debut wasn’t legendary at all, as United were defeated 2-0 by Oxford United at Old Trafford. But as the season wore on, United showed improvement. Sir Alex’s first notable win came on Boxing Day of that year against bitter rivals Liverpool. In those days, Liverpool were the dominant team in England, winning League titles while also relishing in European glory. But United went into Anfield, and shocked the hosts 1-0 thanks to a Norman Whiteside marker in the 78th minute. United moved up to 11th place by the end of the season, gaining respect from the rest of England.
His first trophy came in 1990, which very likely saved his job at the time. United were struggling in the league, wallowing in 13th place. However, their run in the FA Cup was remarkable, as all of their victories came away from Old Trafford. Sir Alex finally hoisted his first trophy on May 17 1990 at Wembley Stadium as United defeated Crystal Palace 1-0 as Lee Martin scored the only goal shortly before the hour mark.
The next season, United celebrated some European glory as they defeated Barcelona 2-1 in the final of the now-defunct UEFA Cup Winners Cup. Striker Mark Hughes was the hero for the Red Devils on that day, as his brace was the difference in the match.
It was in 1993 where Sir Alex and Manchester United made their mark. In the first year of the English Premier League, (replacing the old First Division) United ended their 26 year drought, by winning the League title. The most important match came on April 10 against Sheffield Wednesday. Trailing 1-0 late in the match, Steve Bruce bailed out United with a late brace, sending Old Trafford into a frenzy, and putting United top of the table. They clinched the title on May 3 with a 3-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers. The victory was redemption for Sir Alex and United who were so close in previous years, but had failed to finish the job.
United then started to dominate English football, as they went on to win 4 out of the next 6 league titles. While teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Newcastle United and Liverpool were all knocking on the door, United were holding them off, keeping the door shut on their rivals title dreams.
Then came the magical season of 1998-99. No season is celebrated more in Manchester than this one. United became the first club in England to win the treble. The English Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League. And all three titles were won in dramatic fashion.
The Premier League came down to the final day as United and Arsenal were vying for the crown. United were hosting Tottenham Hotspurs while Arsenal hosted Aston Villa. United only needed a win to secure the title, but a loss or draw would have opened the door for the Gunners. Arsenal did their part, defeating Villa 1-0 at Highbury. It was up to United to come through. After conceding an early goal, David Beckham equalized just before the stroke of halftime. Striker Andy Cole gave United the lead just 3 minutes after the intermission. As Spurs poured on the pressure, United stood firm and held on to the final whistle. It was United’s fifth title in 7 years.
The FA Cup had its share of drama as well. In the quarterfinals against Chelsea, United and the Blues played to a goalless draw at Old Trafford, setting up a replay at Stamford Bridge. Despite being in hostile territory, United came through with one of their best performances that season, as two goals from Andy Cole sent United to the semifinals. United faced their main rivals for the Premier League crown Arsenal to see who would go to the FA Cup final. David Beckham opened the scoring in the 17th minute but Arsenal levelled the score thanks to their superstar striker Dennis Bergkamp. The game needed extra time when Ferguson’s all time favourite player, Ryan Giggs came through with the winning goal in the 109th minute.
The final against Newcastle was controlled by Ferguson’s club as goals from Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes helped Ferguson lift the FA Cup yet again.
But it was in Europe where Ferguson had his greatest triumph. Manchester United’s Champions League campaign began with a thrilling 3-3 draw with Barcelona at Old Trafford. Another 3-3 draw with the Catalan giants, this time at Nou Camp won many new fans for Manchester United, who started to get a global following. United finished second in Group D, and advanced to the quarterfinals. Their opponent was Inter Milan who many experts picked to win the European Cup. But United had other ideas as Dwight Yorke found the back of the net twice in the first leg, to give United the upper hand. A 1-1 draw at San Siro was good enough to see United through to the semifinals. Juventus awaited United and the first leg ended in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. With the second leg in Turin, Juventus held the advantage of having the crucial away goal. When Filippo Inzaghi scored twice in the first 11 minutes, it looked like United were done. However, Ferguson’s troops stormed back as Roy Keane and Dwight Yorke scored to draw United level at halftime. Andy Cole won the match for United in the 84th minute sending them to the final.
Manchester United were in big trouble just before the Champions League Final against Bayern Munich. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were both suspended leaving a gaping hole in the United midfield. Defender Henning Berg was injured and declared unfit to play. The game started on the wrong note for United as Bayern forward Mario Basler scored on a brilliant free kick that eluded keeper Peter Schmeichel. The rest of the half was controlled by Bayern as United looked out of sorts on the pitch. But Schmeichel kept them in the game by making some terrific saves to keep the scoreline at 1-0.
As the game wore on, frustration grew on the United side as Bayern’s defending stiffened. The game went into injury time and that’s when Manchester United became a legendary club. United won a corner and everyone pushed forward. David Beckham’s delivery was poorly cleared and Teddy Sheringham potted home the equalizer giving United hope. Then two minutes later, United won another corner. Beckham’s perfectly placed corner found the foot of Norwegian striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who efficiently finished, giving United an improbable victory. It was United’s first European title since 1968, and the first European title for an English club, since they were re-admitted into European competitions following a six-year ban.
United continued their domination in the next century, winning 8 Premier League crowns and one more European title. Their second Champions League trophy came in 2008 as they defeated Chelsea on penalties. That United side is considered the best United team of all time, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Edwin van der Sar leading the way.
Through all that, the one constant has been Ferguson. His “my way or the highway” approach has made him some enemies over the years, but it has also led to considerable success. Many of his former players became managers. Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Chris Casper, Darren Ferguson, Ole Gunnar Skolskjaer and Henning Berg have all spent time manning the touch-line at some level of professional football. And when Ryan Giggs retires, he will be a highly sought candidate to manage a club as well.
Manchester United are now the biggest sporting club in the world. Their name is a global phenomenon. They won over many supporters with their thrilling style and dramatic victories. Their success is unheard of in any sport. They now have surpassed Liverpool for the most League titles with 20 championships. They also restored English football to a respectable state after the hooligans and tragedies that swept English football in the 1980s.
I still won’t like Sir Alex Ferguson. And I will never be a Manchester United fan. But I must admit the sport will feel his absence next season. No matter what you think of him, you cannot deny the impact of one Sir Alex Ferguson
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973