There is, of course, so much that has already been written about Sir Alex Ferguson. In this week when Ferguson’s tenure in charge at Old Trafford reaches 25 years the column inches will again be filled, mostly, with praise for a remarkable quarter-century in Manchester. Ferguson reaches the landmark having secured thirty six trophies, used more than 200 players, issued countless bollockings, and spent millions in the transfer market.
It is a milestone reached amid a lifetime of memories, and one that few could have predicted on 6 November 1986 – the day Ron Atkinson was sacked, and Ferguson hired as his replacement. There was little hope that Ferguson would last five years at a club that had sought glory, but singularly failed to deliver in more than a generation. It has been one of the most remarkable tenures in the history of the game.
But then Ferguson is one of the most remarkable men to have graced the game. The force majeure personality, control freak tendencies, and the ability to cajole, bully and inspire have each contributed to Ferguson’s success. As has luck. Barrel loads of it. But then, as Lefty Gomez, the post-war American baseball pitcher famously said: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Ferguson is both and modern United owes his much for it.
None of this could have been foreseen when chairman Martin Edwards and the United board appointed Ferguson 25 years ago. True, Fergie had achieved success in Scotland, breaking the Auld Firm duopoly and taking Aberdeen, the provincial outpost of Scottish football, to European glory too. Yet, United, as Ferguson was to learn, is nothing like Aberdeen, and the expectation of success has always been different, even if it had been rarely achieved since Sir Matt Busby’s heyday in the late 1960s.
It has long been said that Ferguson’s mission on joining United was to “knock Liverpool off their perch.” In truth that came much later. United, on its knees after Atkinson’s dismissal, had far more modest ambitions. The club’s final position of second in the old First Division at the end of Ferguson’s first full season in charge was entirely false. Becoming competitive with, not beating, Liverpool was the imperative, everything else a bonus.
After all Ferguson joined a club decaying to its core: a decrepit, dirty stadium, empty bank account, dysfunctional youth system and ‘cup team’ mentality. At Liverpool they said ‘winning is winning and second is nowhere’. United was nowhere at best. Most destructively, Ferguson inherited a booze culture among a clique of senior, and mostly average, pros. All of this would prove a test for any incoming manager.
That Ferguson set about systematically re-engineering the club, and ultimately succeeding, is testament to the enduring influence the Scot has brought to bear on what is now a billion pound institution. And he did it all in Busby’s shadow.
Ferguson began the process from the ground up, ripping apart United’s youth system – a decision that would prove fruitful nearly a decade later – and laying the foundations for squad changes ahead. By the end of the campaign Ferguson had released, sold or accepted the retirements of seven players. Within two years Ferguson had overseen the departures of a rash of star names, including Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside, and Paul McGrath.
This, however, is United and progressive change, no matter the club’s state in the mid to late 1980s, was never an acceptable outcome. By the turn of the decade Ferguson was under pressure from within, although says Sir Bobby Charlton, one of few at the club to precede the Scot, dismissal was not discussed. This may not have been the media or supporter opinion however, with many openly calling for or anticipating Ferguson’s departure.
Following a run of six defeats in eight games during late 1989 the now infamous banner, unfurled on the Scot’s third anniversary read: “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap…ta-ra Fergie.” Ferguson would later describe the period as “the darkest [he had] ever suffered in the game.”
If there was a turning point in Ferguson’s tenure then United’s FA Cup win over Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in January 1990 is often held as such. It has become a Ferguson cliché, but whatever the truth, the pressure to dismiss the Scot had United not secured the cup, after a replay win over Crystal Palace, may well have become insurmountable. Victory also provided Ferguson and his team with genuine confidence.
The cup win was, crucially, never enough for the Scot, whose assessment that United had become a ‘cup team club’ was spot on. It didn’t mean that Ferguson had yet built a team ready to rid the club of this mentality though.
Success in Europe came during the 1990-91 season with a remarkable, and thoroughly unexpected, run in the Cup Winners’ Cup, triumphing 2-1 in the final against Barcelona. It would not be the last time Ferguson would meet the Catalans in European competition. But, once again, United failed to put up a genuine challenge for the First Division title.
Not until narrow failure a year later, with Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel signed that summer, adding to the growing influence of youngsters Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs, did United genuinely challenge for English supremacy. In truth it was the first time in 25 years that the club had done so.
The Holy Grail was found another year on, amid the late late drama, and praise sent towards the heavens, of Steve Bruce’s unforgettable headed-double against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford. Champions of England at last and Ferguson had made it happen.
The deluge started then. The double came in 1994, with the hardest team modern United has known. “So many of them, real tough bastards,” Ferguson would later note. The ‘double double’ followed two years later under the magnificent influence of Ferguson’s finest signing, Eric Cantona. By 1999 United had become Europe’s best, driven not by expensive acquisitions alone but by the youthful revolution Ferguson had instigated 13 years earlier.
United may have been lucky that remarkable night at Camp Nou but it was Ferguson’s due, having revived the club, root and branch, from a generation-long malaise.
Ferguson has never been a coach alone. Whether United’s board truly understood this in 1986 is unlikely, but it was a decision that transformed a football club. The Scot’s chameleon-like ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment has ensured that the club has continually met new challenges, both domestically and in Europe. Ferguson has changed for the modern era by entrusting an ever increasing sphere of influence to an army of coaching, fitness, health and science professionals.
It has been a golden era that supporters cannot expect to continue as a right in the post-Ferguson era. Indeed, United has faced up to the prospect once already, with the Scot announcing his retirement, prematurely as it turned out, in 2002. One day it will happen for real.
There are failures though. Ferguson’s ability to succeed in the market has often been mixed. Cantona, Schmeichel, Bruce, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Denis Irwin were each for bought for a song. But the Scot wasted money on a plethora of average signings from overseas, particularly as the 1990s gave way to a new millennium. The Scot’s scattergun transfer policy still unearths rare gems, such Mexican sensation Javier Hernández, but mediocrity is all too common as well.
Then there are the personality failings: Ferguson’s requirement for total control has seen Paul Ince, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam leave in acrimony, arguably, before each had passed their peak. The Scot has, too often with embarrassing results, picked fights with the Football Association, media, referees, fellow managers, coaches and, eventually, United’s supporters. Much of this was counter-productive.
“Sometimes I lose my temper,” noted Ferguson. “If someone argues with me I have to win the argument. That’s where the hairdryer comes in. I can’t lose an argument. The manager can never lose an argument.”
And no mention of Ferguson’s failings can come without an honest assessment in his role over the past six years. The Scot’s acquiescence to the Glazer takeover, and decision to ‘look after his staff’, rather than pay heed to the bigger picture has, for many, tainted Ferguson’s legacy.
Certainly, Ferguson’s decision to repeatedly, and vocally, support a regime at the height of supporter protest was unnecessarily divisive. With the Glazers having sucked more than £500 million out of the club, Ferguson’s refusal to acknowledge even the basis for supporter concern was an error. Fans cannot, as Ferguson once urged a travelling supporter, simply “f*ck off and support Chelsea.”
Yet, the bitter aftertaste of Ferguson’s loyalty to the Glazer family – to, some might say, his personal needs – will fade long before memories of the glory will. There has been a generation of United supporters that have known nothing else but Ferguson, good and bad. Often those supporters have experience little else but unbridled success.
It has been a wonderful ride.
This article first appeared in Issue 4 of Rant Monthly, the high quality PDF magazine from United Rant.
22 thoughts on “Twenty-five years later”
Nice article. It’s true so many fans have only known fergie and for the most part massive success. What will happen when he finally goes? Only time will tell but I reckon some of the shall we say younger supporters should be very careful what they wish for!
Oops, that should say Liam
Renaming the North Stand was a nice touch – it looks class
The banner showing what Fergie has won was class too
I suppose it’s easy to get lost in the ‘here and now’, analyse each and every match to death and generally forget how lucky we are and just how spoilt we are as fans to have had one of the most successful managers in football.
I am not old enough to have known any other United manager in charge. Scary really,
Footage of Fergie’s speech and unveiling of the re-named Sir Alex Ferguson stand:
God help the person who replaces him ,he’s made the job more important than some countries governments.
Still wouldn’t buy a second hand car off him though.
And you would not even be able to afford any second hand car he will have for sale.ffs!!
He has spoilt us fans rotten. Anyone who criticises him over the Glazers is just plain stupid to be honest. He has kept us ticking along nicely and no one it seems has been fired. He looks after the club in HIS way. Has he failed us since? Not really.
Go to BBC Fivelive and listen to this programme they did during the week about him. Very good. It will be a sad day when he finally leaves.
It does crack me up when some question him, I mean everyone knows he does make mistakes, he’s only human but if you listen to the likes of Knobhead you’d swear they were top managers themselves!
They’re not fit enough to lick the clinkers out of his hairy ass!
Careful Mate… you came very close to actually swearing there…
Yeah, the way he has kept us successful in spite of the Glazers is something he deserves a huge amount of credit for. How many other managers would have crumbled in a similar scenario? One thing us fans will never understand, however, is his unswerving loyalty to them. It’s one thing to be faithful to your employer and not criticise them in public but he has gone out of his way to praise them.
Yes, the Glazers have let Fergie get on with the job but it would be stupid to do otherwise (for them to get involved in the management side of things the way Abramovich does).
One thing we simply do not know is why he will not invest in the midfield and why he has allowed the situation to fester for so many years. Some people blame the Glazers and look at the net spend, others like myself look at the money he has actually spent (especially on some of the dross) and wonder why he couldn’t have purchased a top class midfielder or 2. Perhaps the problem is somewhere in between.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the midfield issue and the way we are playing at the moment. Those criticisms can be reserved for other threads, I guess.
The bigger picture is what he has done for us over 25 years. Gratitude is the least he deserves.
I agree with you Sheeshy, except this… “others like myself look at the money he has actually spent (especially on some of the dross) and wonder why he couldn’t have purchased a top class midfielder or 2.”
Who could we have bought, with the money we’ve spent? Every midfielder worth buying is a lot more expensive than what we’ve actually spent.
We wanted/needed… Sniejder/Frankenstieger/Ozil/Silva or any number of other class midfielders… and every time, we were either outbid, or not ambitious enough, and then given excuses to why we didn’t get them…
Ashley Young… the only relatively costly midfield purchase we’ve made since Hargeaves… came relatively cheaply, and yet no one else seemed to want him.
Fergie would buy Messi, Ronaldo, and any other cunt, that he wanted if he had the money… he’s shown it in the past… but he’s working on a different budget now… and no one is going to convince me differently.
“Badges, to god-damned hell with badges! We have no badges. In fact, we don’t need badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges, you god-damned cabrón and ching’ tu madre! Come out from that shit-hole of yours. I have to speak to you.”
Sahin went to Madrid for £8 million. Hardly big bucks. That’s one example. I have listed others in the past but am too lazy to post them again.
We need at least 1 creative midfielder and 1 defensive midfielder IMO.
Keane finished at United a good 5 or 6 years ago and we haven’t found anyone even remotely good enough to do a similar job in that time. Criminal.
Sahin was only 8 mill, because he’s only worth 8 mill… that’s no improvement on what we’ve got.
You want more examples? We were linked with Toure long before he went to Barcelona. Why didn’t we go for Mascherano when he was at West Ham? All that bollocks with 3rd party ownership didn’t stop us going for Tevez.
I could go on and on.
I can’t be arsed.
8 million spent on bebe????????
fanny fart or parker at spurs now but both or even 1 of them would have made the team click better than what we have at the moment which is so fucking awful that rooney has been drafted in
SAF knew full well scholes was going but i cannot see why he didnt invest earlier
the best players always slip through the scouting system these past 3 seasons – definitely not what we should be seeing
still, the man is a legend and deserves 4 statues not 1 for all the glory he has brought the club
Your boyfriend begs to differ!
A very nice piece on Fergie. The team I most admired was the 1994 team: no way they would concede 6 at OT to anybody — even a team from another planet. And what a strong central midfield: it makes it hard to beleive that the manager of our current midfieldless team once created a team with a killer midfiled. I remember being amazed at how they would constantly track and funnel back harassing attackers or attacking midfielders until the opposition’s attack was completely broken up: and then to Eric and out to Kanchelskis or Giggs and we would be racing through making them sorry that they had any attacking intentions in the first place.
But i think that there are questions we now need to ask about Fergie and to think whether his retirement will not be hastened by this phenomenon that no one could ever have predicted 5 years ago; the emergence of City as the richest club in the world, able to put togthere a team at huge (but not earth-shattering) expense that, whether you think of them as a bunch of mercenaries or whatever, is starting to play really deadly football. Is he equipped, at his age to fight what needs to be fought, unless we are destined to become Manchester’s `second’ club: a titanic battle for supremacy with City.
Have the years taken there toll: I don’t believe that the Glazers prevented him from spending on midfield players because it was such a top priority — and money was spent on strikers, wingers, defenders — but not on the key position of central midfield, which is now proving to be our achilles heel and looks as if the absence of any player to really convince there (best we have is Cleveley) will derail our season. To my mind talk of catching City, given the way they are playing and the way we are playing, and given the huge confidence they must have in nscoring 3-4 goals every game, makes this very unlikely, our greater expereince in winning league ttiles, particularly in sealing them in the final run-ins notwithstanding. I calculated that for us to pip City we need to accumulate points at our current avaerage(one made more respectable by our early season blitz) and they have to sink to the level of Tottenham, Arsenal or Liverpool in terms of average points per game (they are currently at almost 100%). We will also probably have to beat them at the Eithad.
Fergie made big mistakes in the past — but these were always outweighed by the moments of brilliance — and by the luck. But luck can run out — and it is also difficult to see how luck is ever going to come into play for us in a CL final as it did v Bayern and v Chelsea, when playing a team so comprehensively better than us as we did in our two most recent, uterly disastrous CL finals.
Maybe I’m too idealistic and unrtealistic — and maybe I should be able to accept a 2nd rank somewhat mediocre Man United side, but I don;t think I can . And now the bad is really starting to outweigh the good, and whilst we all long for United to be `back’ and show the attacking verve that tore teams apart at the beginning of the season, in truth it’s hard believing that this is ever going to happen. Instead of building a really strong team and getting the players who can step in as substitutes or where there’s an injury — and both change the pattern of play and even add something to the team (which is what I think Mancini has now got right with his squad — weak only in defence (theoretically, but not really conceding) , but sostrong in midfield and lethal in attack. United, on the other hand– seem as team and squad of bits and pieces that don’t entirely fit together 00 and if they do, then a single injury turns the team into an upset apple cart — all the rhythm and cohesion is lost and even when the missing player returns the team are not able to pick up from before. I think with Fergie its like we have to draw a line in his history book, on the page where he wins the title for teh record time, and start a new chapter: but this chapter is not going to be anything like those that went before. This one is going to be scap iron, where the other chapters were golden.