On November 6th 1986 Manchester United Football Club appointed an ambitious Scotsman fresh from success in the Scottish league with Aberdeen to take control off their struggling football club. 25 years later, on 12th October, Sir Alex Ferguson received an honorary degree from the University of Manchester to commemorate his service not only to the club, but to the game, and to the city itself.
What happened in between is a mixture of heart ache, determination, grit, but most of all overwhelming success, the likes of which is to be rightfully and proudly celebrated not only up in Manchester, but throughout English football as a whole. Speaking at the ceremony in Manchester, Ferguson said ‘I think it’s always nice to be appreciated and recognised, and getting this recognition is testimony to all the hard work that has gone on at Manchester United in the last 25 years, not just by me, but by everyone at the club’. The Universities Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Rod Coombs, who made the presentation to Ferguson, commented, ‘These two and a half decades of the Ferguson era at United have coincided with – and been a big part of – the renaissance of this city. That renaissance has been manifest in industry, in commerce, in architecture, in the arts, in our University, and in sport’, and it is within the sporting arena that Ferguson has installed Manchester on the map, as one of the major footballing powerhouses in the world.
United play Sunderland on 5th November, one day before the 25th anniversary of Ferguson’s inauguration, and so in celebration the independent supporters group Stretford End Flags who produce the banners for Old Trafford, have unveiled a design that will traverse the entire Stretford End on match day and cost within the region of £3,800, causing the independent group to call for donations from the United fans across the world. The banner, adorned with pictures of Sir Alex and the 37 trophies he has won whilst at the club reads at its centre in red lettering, ‘The Impossible Dream….Made Possible’. Yet it seemed, at the outset, that the ‘Impossible Dream’ would remain impossible.
Having led Aberdeen to three Scottish Premier Division titles, four Scottish Cup’s, and one each of the Scottish League Cup, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup, Ferguson landed the job in Manchester, who sat a worrying 21st in the League. On his arrival he found a team void of discipline and he often commented on the depression he felt concerning the level of the players’ fitness as players frequently spent nights out drinking. At Aberdeen, Ferguson had been renowned as a strict disciplinarian, and despite a first game 2-0 defeat to Oxford United, he recorded his first win as United manager in a 1-0 win against QPR on 22nd November 1986, before managing to lead the team to finish 11th , in a 1986-87 season which included Ferguson’s first win against arch rivals Liverpool in United’s only away win of the campaign.
The following season, driven by Ferguson’s first signings of Viv Anderson and Steve Bruce, United improved greatly to finish in 2nd, nine points behind champions Liverpool. However the improvement was only temporary as United again slumped to a disappointing 11th in the 1988-89 campaign, slipping from 3rd and title contenders by mid February.
Having endured a less than satisfactory start to his career in Manchester, Ferguson prepared for a 1989-90 season that could arguably be described as the most critical season, not only in Manchester United’s history, but in the history of English football. Having started the season with a 4-1 thrashing of defending champions Arsenal, United quickly stooped to a 5-1 humiliation by arch rivals Manchester City. What followed was a run of six defeats and two draws, leaving United just above the relegation zone, leading fans to display a banner reading, ‘‘Three years of excuses and it’s still c**p…ta-ra Fergie’’ at Old Trafford.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had the wishes of those select fans come true United’s dominance of the modern era of English football most likely would not have come to fruition. Journalist’s called for Ferguson’s sacking and following a seven game winless streak United were drawn away at Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup, in a match United were expected to lose and Ferguson’s contract to be terminated. Against the odds, United won the game 1-0 courtesy of a Mark Robins goal and went on to beat Crystal Palace 1-0 in the final to claim Ferguson’s first trophy as a Manchester United manager. This win at Nottingham Forest has been cited as the game that saved Alex Ferguson’s Old Trafford career, despite the club commenting on countless occasions that his job was never in doubt. History is formed on single moments in time, and it is possible to argue that the modern game as we know it, as well as the contents of United’s trophy cabinet, would have been monumentally different if United had lost that game in Nottingham, and Ferguson sacked.
Despite the FA Cup victory many still doubted Ferguson’s credentials to be able to deliver United a title success, something that hadn’t been achieved for twenty six years since the days of Matt Busby. However the tide of opinion appeared to change after United’s 2-1 win over Spanish champions Barcelona in the European Cup Winners’ cup final and Ferguson vowed that the next season would deliver the much desired League title. However despite more trophies in the 1991-92 season, United lost out on the title to bitter rivals Leeds, having led the league for most of the seasons duration. Finally in 1992-93 with a squad that included newly acquired £1.2 million signing Eric Cantona from Leeds, Ferguson achieved what so many United managers had failed to do for twenty six years, and guided Manchester United to a winning margin of ten points and the newly named Premier League title, the first step of United’s climb to English football dominance.
In Ferguson’s incredible managerial career at United he has won twelve League titles, four League Cups, five FA Cups, two Champions Leagues, and one each of the Cup Winners’ Cup, Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, mixed in with ten Charity Shields for good measure. Bar the brilliance of the current Barcelona team that Champions League tally would probably have been four. His ability as a manager is emphasized by the mountain of individual honours he has received which include UEFA Champions League Manager of the Year 1998-99, eight Premier League manager of the Year awards, the award for Manager of the Decade for the 1990’s, an induction into English Football Hall of Fame in 2002, as well as the honour of being the only manager in English history to keep his team within the top three of English football for twenty years running. His and United’s capture of the 19th title in 2011, breaking the record set by arch rivals Liverpool, cemented what had been already widely regarded for several years: that Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest manager English Football has ever seen, and the greatest manager of his era.
Although incredible achievements such as the treble of 1998-99, encapsulated by that memorable win in Munich, and the hat trick of titles between 2006 to 2009 must be attributed to the squad, the way Ferguson has handled his players, showing on a number of occasions his strength of character to sell those players who disagree with him, no matter their importance, must not be overlooked.
Under his watchful eye we have seen players like Scholes, Keane, Beckham, Ferdinand, Cantona, Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Rooney blossom into world class talents, put on centre stage for us as fans to behold in appreciation for the stars that they are. Throughout his time at Old Trafford he has reshaped, reformed and re-mastered United from one generation to the next, each more effective than the last, from the days of Cantona and Beckham, into the teams centered around Van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo and now the new generation of Rooney, Young and Welbeck. Each is different; each is brilliant.
But yet we mustn’t forget how different things would have been for United and for English football, had all those years ago Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford been brought to an end before it had even began. Would it be incorrect to say that the start of English football’s rise to becoming the best league in the world started that day in Nottingham? Who knows; but what is certain is that whether you support United, Chelsea, Leeds or Liverpool, we are all football fans, and his achievement that is to be encapsulated on that banner that will hang from the Stretford End on November 5th , should be appreciated to some degree by everyone that loves the game and appreciates the servant that he has been.
Will Ferguson ever call it a day? With the noisy neighbours, Manchester City, ruffling United’s feathers and Barcelona dominating Europe, Ferguson still believes their is plenty to do before he retires. Proving that money cannot win trophies and usurping perhaps one of the greatest teams of all time will do for now. In a day and age where for a manager to last 5 years is considered an achievement his 25 reflect just how important he has been to Manchester United Football Club and it is an achievement that will most likely never again be matched in our lifetime.