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.