On the Third Day of Christmas: Three Decades of Fergie

“NO!” I exclaimed.

‘Big Ron’ Atkinson had been fired.  My Football League Panini Sticker Album was now out of date.  I was ten years old and for the majority of my life, Man United’s manager had been Atkinson.  He’d won us FA Cups.  I guess my young mind was just used to him being the manager.

Like many more mature United fans at the time, I didn’t care for this Alex Ferguson person that had come in.  All of this upheaval and we weren’t even very good.  In fact at times we’d been just as horrible as in Atkinson’s final days.  I was self-assured that Man United had made a mistake.  In fact, one of my earliest expressed football opinions (I was a quiet child) was that we needed a different manager.  Ferguson was rubbish.  As was Jim Leighton.

Little did I know that even in the darkest days of his early Old Trafford career, Alex Ferguson was already setting the wheels in motion on building his regime.

In his more public efforts, he’d walked into the club to find a heavy drinking culture and a shockingly poor fitness regime.  He informed the players that this had to stop.  In particular, star players Paul McGrath, Norman Whiteside and Bryan Robson were taken to task for their boozy lifestyles.  They were told to shape-up or ship-out.

Robbo complied.  McGrath and Whiteside called the gaffer’s bluff.  Fergie stood his ground.  Birthing a philosophy that he would stick to throughout his tenure, the two were informed that nobody was bigger than the club.  The new manager followed through with his threat and the two were transferred to Aston Villa and Everton respectively.

Off the field, Ferguson was ushering in a new era of discipline, training and an overhauled scouting system.

Match days however, were bearing less obvious fruit.

His early years at Old Trafford were marred by a yo-yo’ing inconsistency.  From mediocre to solid and down to poor, it seemed that every time something started to go right, United would lose the plot and hit a spell of ugly form.

In 1989-90, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United started to tank again and there was a notion in the air that he wouldn’t survive this time.

Whether Ferguson was truly facing the axe as Man United faced the high-flying Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, or if it was all just narrative and urban legend, is still not entirely agreed upon.

The media and fans seemed to feel this was his final chance.  Fergie and those on the board at the time, claim to this day that his job was not in jeopardy.

As is now carved in history, young Mark Robins was the unexpected saviour on the day, scoring the winner in a 1-0 victory, sending Forest out and allegedly saving Fergie’s position. The club went on to win the FA Cup against Palace in the final replay, 1-0 after an exhilarating 3-3 draw at Wembley.  Ferguson was going nowhere.

The following season saw an improved performance, though the club didn’t have the consistency to truly threaten for the title.  They did however, succeed in the Cup Winners Cup.

In fairness, United seemed to have fate on their side, as they drew the likes of Pecsi Munkas and Wrexham on their way to a second major final in as many years.  Carlos Valderama and Montpellier was about as sexy as those European nights got.  That was until they reached the final in Rotterdam, where the powerhouse Barcelona stood in wait.

It was there that Mark Hughes, who had endured an arduous time with Barca between his two Man United stints, got a measure of revenge on the club that had given up on him, scoring two goals (though there’s an argument that his second was already going in after Steve Bruce’s header and Hughesy simply bundled it over the line).  Though Ronald Koeman pulled one back, Man United had done enough and ensured English football had some silverware to show for that season’s return to European football.  I was too busy being swung around by my delirious father.

There would never be any serious talk of Alex Ferguson being sacked by Man United again.

1992 brought title challenges on multiple fronts but after this led to a heavy end-of-season schedule, dropped points, a title race lost to Leeds (boo!) and the consolation of our first League Cup. Fergie’s stance about fixture congestion and policy of playing kids in the League cup was born.

Then in 1993, it happened.  For those old enough to see Busby’s last title win like my Dad, it had been 26 years.  For me personally, it had been a few days short of 16.  My whole life I’d seen Liverpool rule the roost but Manchester United had done it.  The team I’d supported my whole life had won the league.  Suddenly the accuracy of my 1987 Panini Sticker Album didn’t seem so important.

Looking back now, you can see that during those early, tumultuous years, Sir Alex had been building something. Systematically, he’d cycled out most of Ron Atkinson’s first team.  The only prominent member of that era to survive was club captain Bryan Robson.  Mark Hughes had broken through the youth ranks under Big Ron but after his aforementioned exile in Barcelona, Ferguson brought him back.

In-house now were Peter Schmeichel in goal, defenders Steve Bruce, Garry Pallister, Dennis Irwin and Paul Parker.  The midfield was Robson, Paul Ince, with the exciting wing selection of Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe, Hughes in attack, alongside the magnificent Eric Cantona, with Brian McClair fitting in wherever he was useful.

The same set of players, with the addition of Roy Keane would go on to a dominant double the following year.  They then came close to repeating the feat only to fall on both fronts, on the last day of the league season and the FA Cup final.  The honours instead went to Blackburn & Everton.  Andy Cole had joined part-way through the season but had struggled to score consistently, albeit putting five past Ipswich Town in a 9-0 victory.  A key factor though, was Cantona’s ridiculous kung-fu kick on a belligerent fan, which lead to an understandably long suspension (8 months in total), a conviction for assault and until it was reduced on appeal, a prison sentence.

Sir Alex then went on to cause a frenzy among the media, United supporters and the football watching public alike, by allowing some of the team’s biggest names to move on.

Paul Ince departed to Inter Milan after dithering over making the move, which won him few fans when he finally arrived in Serie A.  Kanchelskis had declared that he was no longer happy at United and was sold to Everton.  None was more jarring though, than Mark Hughes.

I was sitting in the kitchen with my Mum and Dad when there was an enthusiastic tap on the window.  There stood one of my Dad’s mates – himself not a Man Utd fan – pointing gleefully at the large framed picture of Mark Hughes that adorned our kitchen wall (yes, you read that right).  As he walked in the door, the friend cackled and suggested changing the kit to a Chelsea one.

My mother, who had for a long time harboured a soft-spot for Hughesy (hence the kitchen pic) was distraught.  It didn’t seem right.  Hughes had become synonymous with the club, featuring in countless do-or-die games, frequently scoring vital goals in spectacular fashion.  To this day, it still feels weird to associate him with a different club.

Who then would Fergie bring in?  Which international superstars would be brought in to fill these sizable shoes? Ferguson’s response:  Nobody.

Much to the consternation of analysts and pundits, the wily Scot informed the world rather casually that he would simply be relying on the fruitful batch of youth products that were coming through.  To date, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville were getting regular minutes, Scholes was already tapping on the shoulder of struggling record signing, Andy Cole, while Phil Neville and David Beckham had seen a few outings.  Ryan Giggs was of course, already entrenched in the first team.

The clubs critics were incredulous at this idea.  When these criticisms looked right on the mark following an opening day 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, Liverpool legend Alan Hansen, uttered the now immortal proclamation that “You don’t anything with kids”.

As Newcastle United stormed to a massive lead in the league, the empirical evidence seemed to be mounting up, that Ferguson’s plan had failed.  Then came Cantona’s return from suspension to bolster the team.  Form had already picked up prior to his return but his skill and cunning ramped things up five notches.

The mercurial Frenchman, whom Fergie had talked into staying when it looked like the man had no future in England, scored vital goal after vital goal, his flair and creativity augmenting the maturing young talent.

Newcastle’s seemingly insurmountable lead had been gradually reined in.  During the run-in, Fergie played a card that would go down in history and cement his reputation as a master of mind games.

Following a tough fixture against an otherwise underwhelming Leeds United, Sir Alex unleashed brutal accusation at the opposing players, questioning why they weren’t so motivated in other games of the season:

“I’m saying to myself these guys have put their manager in trouble and after seeing how they played against us I can only say they’re cheating their manager. You think for some of them it’s more important to get a result against Manchester United, who are top of the League, than anything else….Of course, when it comes to Newcastle you wait and see the difference.”

Upon hearing these comments, Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, latched onto the bait like a herring with a death-wish.

“When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce…

I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimations when he said that. We have not resorted to that. You can tell him now, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something.

And I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.”

Sadly for Kevin, United did get something against Middlesbrough, a plane-banner flew over Riverside, congratulating Ferguson on another title win, Cantona then scored the winning goal against Liverpool in one of the worst FA Cup finals ever played and when the dust settled, Man United had indeed won stuff… with kids.

The following season saw another title win and the birth of a new rivalry.

Arsenal had appointed Frenchman Arsene Wenger who quickly managed to rub Fergie the wrong way.

The Scotsman had long been vocal about his frustrations with heavy fixture schedules.  Having already adopted a controversial policy of fielding youth players in the League Cup, Sir Alex was now pushing to have the season extended.  When Wenger was asked his opinion and responded with firm disagreement, Ferguson went “Full Keegan”:

“He has had a go at us a few times this season – he must have a problem with us. He has no experience of English football – he’s come from Japan – and now he is telling everyone how to organise our football. Unless you have been in the situation and had the experience, then he should keep his mouth shut – firmly shut.”

United went on to win another title the following season, albeit with their post-Euro ’96 signings being hit and miss.  Ronny Johnsen had proved a decent defender, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would of course become a legendary “supersub” for many years.  With the face of a toddler, when he came on to score past Blackburn on his debut, a visiting aunt commented that she’d assumed he was just some kid they’d let play.  Karel Poborsky (who I was genuinely excited about) and Jordi Cruyff (who I was genuinely horrified about) didn’t fare as well.

A season later, the Fergie/Wenger, United/Arsenal rivalry truly took off, with the Gunners doing the double.  1999 was a different story, however.

When it came to its head, Manchester United stood looking like a dominant force.  They couldn’t however, have taken a more dramatic path.

The entire season was a rollercoaster of last-ditch comebacks, late goals and doing absolutely nothing the easy way.  Scoring twice in the last few minutes of the FA Cup fourth round against Liverpool, to come back from a 2nd minute Owen header; Schmeichel denying Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp a late goal from the penalty spot in the FA Cup semis, to set the scene for Giggs to make a box-to-box run, weave through Arsenal shirts, embarass Lee Dixon and rifle the ball into the roof of the net for the winner; 3-1 down on aggregate to Juventus in the Champions League, only for Keane and the prolific partnership between Andy Cole & record signing Dwight Yorke to reverse the score; then with the league title won again and a mercifully uneventful FA Cup final win against Newcastle securing a third double, Man United set off to The Camp Nou to face Bayern Munich in the final of the UCL.

Before long, they were behind to a crafty Mario Basler free kick.  I was watching in my bedroom, stomach quivering as the game ticked away.  As the second half progressed, I’d moved from sitting on the same bed that I’d been jumping up and down on as we came back against Juventus to standing in the middle of the room.  The later it got, the more frantic I became.  At one point I was frantically waving my arms in a “get up the field” motion, while yelling something to the effect of… “get up the field”.

As the game slipped into injury time, UEFA officials tying Bayern-coloured ribbons to the European Cup, United won a corner.  I was a foot from the screen.  Clasping my hands togther, muttering “please… please…” the latent Catholic in me made a sign of the cross.  Schmeichel had run up.  Beckham stepped up to the ball.  The commentator asked poignantly “Can United score…?  They always score…?”.

The ball was whipped in, it came out to Giggs who whiffed a grasscutter, fortunately catching it hard enough to roll to Teddy Sheringham who turned it in.  I let out some kind of cry jumped around like a lunatic.  I could hear my family roar downstairs.

The camera was showing Jens Jeremies on the bench.  “Name on the trophy…” the announcer sympathised.

Unbelievable.  A reprieve.  We were going to extra time.  Or so I assumed…

Then it happened.

Another corner as the final seconds of injury time melted away.  Beckham whipped in, Solksjaer poked out a foot and United had done the treble.  As Fergie succintly put it afterwards: “Football.  Bloody hell.”

Ferguson announced that he would retire in 2002 but it never came to fruition.  The club battled Arsenal for titles until 2004, when the Gunner’s “Invincibles” season became an unintended watershed for the seemingly entrenched top 2.  United finished 3rd that year and Arsenal haven’t won the Premiership since.

Instead it was Chelsea that became the dominant force, built on new owner Roman Abramovich’s billions under the guidance of Jose Mourinho.  This lasted two seasons, until the pair had a falling out, at which point United enjoyed yet another great spell.

The spell between the Treble and 2006 had seen a few notable occurrences for the club.

In 2002 Carlos Quieroz had been brought in as Ferguson’s assistant manager, supplementing Fergie’s man-management, talent acquisition and motivational skills with a keen, modern tactical mind.  Barring a brief and somewhat unsuccessful spell as Real Madrid manager, the relationship lasted until 2008, when the chance to manage his national team Portugal emerged.

The squad transitioned into a new era.  In 2006, Edwin Van Der Sar arrived to finally fill the gaping, Schmeichel-shaped hole that had persisted since the 1999-2000 season.  Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra (ending the short-but-sweet tenure of Gabriel Heinze) lined up in defence alongside Gary Neville.  Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes formed a formidable midfield partnership, alongside a rotation of Darren Fletcher, the “converted central midfielder” incarnation of Ryan Giggs and the Gold-Plated Swiss Army Knife of utility players, Park Ji Sung.  Cristiano Ronaldo came in to grow from a flashy teenager into the best player on the planet. Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha and Ruud Van Nistelrooy added to the heady attacking selection.

Sometime amongst all this, United had a series of departures and injuries that briefly saw their attacking options limited to Alan Smith and David Bellion.  Alas, Smith and Bellion.

A couple of other features of this period were Fergie’s “nobody bigger than the club” philosophy in high-profile action and a very brief, unsuccessful departure from his approach to transfers.

The latter refers largely to Juan Sebastian Veron and to an extent to Fabian Barthez.  You see Sir Alex wasn’t actually that keen on signing established, elite stars, from big clubs outside of England.  If that doesn’t sound right, take a look.  You might, at a stretch, add Owen Hargreaves and his tragic knees to the trio, though I don’t think he would genuinely fit the description of “elite” in his role.

Sir Alex Ferguson instead tended to limit his “established star” signings to players within the Premiership, with his other source of big signings being up-and-coming names that had yet to arrive at an elite “destination club” (basically a club of such stature that a player couldn’t realistically leave for one significantly “bigger”).  The likes of RvN, Vidic and David De Gea are all prime examples.

In any case, Veron came in with a reputation of being as good as it got in his role, yet failed to adapt to English football.  Barthez was solid at times but his eccentricities tended to make him a liability, to the point that it ultimately outdid the actual talent he possessed.

Van Nistelrooy of course, was a prime example of Ferguson’s strict demands for deference to his leadership and a dedication to the team as a whole.  In 2006 United, as was their policy, had largely fielded second string squads in the League Cup, along with Louis Saha who had been using the minutes as rehab after a serious injury.  When they reached the final, Ferguson rewarded Saha with the start over Ruud.

When the media decided to play this up as a snub, RvN rejected the notion, claiming he understood the decision.  Unfortunately, he made the mistake of supplementing this claim by stating that he expected to start league games.  As a result, Ruud started just one more game for Man United, despite having been prolific in front of goal throughout his tenure and was sold in the next transfer window.

David Beckham infamously left among a flurry of flying football boots and Spice Girls associations.  Sir Alex deciding that the celebrity lifestyle that came with being married to the girl band’s “Posh Spice” had turned the player from one with extreme work-ethic and dedication to his craft, to one with a new set of priorities that had become a distraction.

The two fell out and one of the most famous players in history and a United icon, left for Madrid.

Even the seemingly bulletproof captain, Roy Keane was hastily ushered out of Old Trafford, when he condemned certain teammates in an interview for their lack of dedication.

The highlight if this era was of course, the 2008 Champions League.  United actually made three finals in short order but two were awful performances against the coming-of-age living legends of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and two (including 2008) were blunted by pre-viewing spoilers.

The 2009 final was an honest mistake.  Mere days into a new job, my supervisor made mention that some people had been watching the game in the break room.  Before I was able to say “Don’t tell me the score, I’ve DVR’ed it…”, she told me the score.

2008 was another matter altogether.  To this day, I still feel a seething resentment when I recall returning from lunch to find taped over my monitor, a sheet of paper with the halftime score, the scorers and the minute in which the goals had been scored.

A colleague, a fellow football fan and somebody I had expressly asked not to tell me the outcome, thought it would be a hilarious prank.  As I sat there bemused, he continued to come over with updates.

At the time, I simply assumed he was joking and pretending to tell me the result.

As I watched the game after work at a friends house, we both roared with delight as Ronaldo put United ahead.  In the 26th minute.  I froze.  Then I said “Wanker”.

Either this was a huge coincidence, or my colleague had given me the exact details of the match.  When Lampard equalized in the 45th minute, my worst fears were confirmed.

Fortunately, I hadn’t paid attention to his efforts to tell me the other details, though I later recalled that he had in fact told me that the game had gone to extra time and then penalties.  Nonetheless, I didn’t truly know the outcome, so I still got to enjoy the success.

When Ronaldo finally got his dream move to Real Madrid after the 2009 season, Fergie having added a new record of three Premier League titles in a row to his expansive list, I feel we saw the end of the last truly great Ferguson era.

I’m more pragmatic than most about the end of Ferguson’s time with United.  Despite his detractors and some of United’s more critical fans repeatedly declaring ahead of each season that we wouldn’t be good enough with the current line-up, domestically we defied the naysayers and Fergie added further league titles in 2011 (finally beating Liverpool’s record of 18 titles) and his final season in 2013.

Some have since claimed that Sir Alex had left too big of a rebuilding job in his final years.  I disagree.

There was enough young talent and enough older heads to mentor them through a transitional period.  Unfortunately, Moyes wasn’t the right man for the job and put himself in a difficult position when against Ferguson’s advice, he fired much of the support staff and brought in his own men.

Had Moyes worked better with the likes of Vidic and Ferdinand, they could have aided him, instead he underwhelmed, lost their belief and his successor found a team now truly in need of rebuilding.

I’ve said in the past that Fergie needed to make some vital signings which never came to pass, namely in midfield.  However, this wasn’t in the context of maintaining domestic success – it was in the context of getting United back in elite UCL-contender shape.  However, while some of his detractors saw this same issue as a sign of him passing his best, I simply think that it was down to timing.

Ferguson couldn’t have foreseen Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreave’s devastating injury problems.  He also expected the promise of Anderson to be better fulfilled.

I’m sure Fergie also anticipated having Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba coming through the ranks (though the Pogba situation still baffles me).  It wasn’t that he didn’t have plans or was neglecting the situation: it’s that the plans just didn’t quite fall into place.

In any case, with the 12 Days of Footy Xmas essentially killed by this piece, it’s obvious that the child who looked on in irritation as Ron Atkinson’s firing was announced was oh so very wrong.

Sir Alex Ferguson was the best thing to happen to Man United since Sir Matt Busby and was undoubtedly the best thing to happen in the football-watching side of my life, providing me with many incredible moments.

He was a phenomenal manager who proved it at multiple levels.  His feats with Aberdeen were arguably as great given the Old Firm monopoly on Scottish football.  He was also smart enough to know where his weaknesses lied, selecting his staff accordingly and even as an older man, showed an adaptability and drive that few younger men could match.

He was in my opinion, the best manager the world has ever seen.

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