Tuesday, November 1, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: November 4, 10:23 AM UK
Following Ferguson's fortunes
When Alex Ferguson took over as Manchester United manager on November 6, 1986, he inherited a slumbering giant, slumped in the relegation zone and without a league title in 19 years.
For an eight-year-old at the dawn of an obsession, the heady days of Best, Charlton and Law I'd been sold on were nowhere to be seen. This was Liverpool's world, and not even the god they called Bryan Robson could do anything about it. Something had to give, and with the departure of Ron Atkinson came a no-nonsense Glaswegian, tasked with returning our club to former glories.
He came in a grey suit, face flushed, and with a reputation for taking no prisoners. Here was a man bred on the raw streets of Govan, who'd clawed his way up to play for Rangers, then broken the Old Firm monopoly with Aberdeen as a manager. The days of United's legendary 'social club', of lager-soaked afternoons and hungover training sessions, were as good as over.
Players went out, players came in, and with a runner-up finish in the 1987-88 season Ferguson had us believing we were in en route to the title. Big signings like Steve Bruce and Brian McClair strengthened his squad, and when Ferguson seduced our beloved Mark Hughes to return from Barcelona in 1988, it was beginning to look like United had a team capable of ending of the wait.
This is the one, we thought. But by the time The Stone Roses had released their eponymous debut album, in March 1989, United's challenge was over on all fronts. Seven defeats in the run-in saw Ferguson's team finish 11th in the league, and prompted calls for his head. It was the same old story for United fans, but at least Michael Thomas was on hand to break Liverpool hearts at Anfield as Arsenal stole the title.
Whether Ferguson's next season was really 'make or break' will be debated long after he's gone, but there's no doubt United's FA Cup success in 1990 came as a huge relief to everybody concerned. Unlikely heroes in Mark Robins and Lee Martin made it possible, while Ferguson revealed his ruthless streak by dropping good friend Jim Leighton for the final replay against Crystal Palace. Leighton never spoke to him again, but Ferguson slept soundly with his first major trophy.
A Hughes double beat Barcelona to win the Cup Winners' Cup in 1991, but still we waited for the all-important title. It should have come in 1992, when the stars aligned to give us Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel, but somehow Ferguson's team conspired to gift Leeds the glory. Little did our bitter rivals know they were about to give us something far more valuable in return.
Ferguson had the raw materials, but what he lacked was inspiration. It came in the form of Eric Cantona, a swaggering ode to footballing expression who instilled a new belief in everybody around him. I saw him first at Stamford Bridge, in late December 1992, where he volleyed his first United goal and commanded the turf like a bullfighter.
Collar up, chest puffed, Cantona was equal parts athlete, artist and rock star. For just £1.2 million, he was all ours.
And so, as the Premier League era arrived to transform English football overnight, so United finally stole a march. Ferguson was on the verge, and when two late headers from Bruce earned his team a dramatic 2-1 win against Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993, United's manager dropped to his knees in cathartic celebration. Soon after, the 26-year wait was over, and chants of "Championes, Championes" met United wherever they went.
The evolution of Ferguson's team next took in Roy Keane, a snarling warrior who commanded the highest standards from everyone around him. A leaner, meaner United won the Double in 1994, but suffered a spectacular comedown as Cantona leapt into infamy at Selhurst Park the following season.
As design would have it, Cantona's second coming coincided with the launch of a new generation. David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt were the kids you couldn't win anything with, but nobody told Ferguson. United won the Double, and Cantona scored the only goal in no fewer than six 1-0 wins - including the cup final.
A season later, and with another title to his name, The King walked away from Old Trafford the most worshipped player in United's recent history, perhaps ever.
United felt his loss. Arsenal hunted Ferguson's team down on the way to the Double in 1998, and under Arsene Wenger were widely billed as a team ready to rule for decade. Wenger was the future, Ferguson the past, they said. And then came the year that will forever define him.
To live through the 1998-99 season as a United fan was to stroll through the gates of football heaven to be met by an open bar. The Keane-inspired win at Juventus; the Giggs winner against Arsenal; the incredible comeback in Barcelona. It was the stuff of implausible Hollywood endings played over and over, and it culminated in a climax so preposterously fantastical it's hard to believe it really happened. "Who put the ball in the German's net?"
From there, with his European dream realised and Sir Matt Busby finally emulated, Ferguson set about collecting more titles. Then he announced his retirement. Then he cancelled it on the advice of his wife.
The road to the glory of the 2007-08 season was brought about courtesy of the signings of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo several years earlier. One as precocious as the other, they were helped by a cast-iron defence to Moscow, where a Champions League triumph against Chelsea once again proved the Ferguson doubters wrong.
In the three years since, Ferguson has taken United to a record 19 titles, but his teams have twice been eclipsed by the brilliance of Barcelona in Europe. The man himself is humble enough to accept the gulf in class that separated Xavi, Messi and co from his 2009 and 2011 editions. As he approaches his 25th anniversary at Old Trafford, and his 70th birthday, Ferguson burns to redress the balance, and you wouldn't put it past him.
This is the manager who knocked Liverpool off their perch, tipped Kevin Keegan over the edge, out-gunned Wenger, and stood up to Roman's empire. The manager who signed Cantona, Keane, Rooney and Ronaldo, and played alchemist with a group of young players who went on to deliver unprecedented success to a manager who trusted them.
He's an obstinate, volatile dictator, and he'll be shooting them down until his very last breath. But at the same time he's a nurturing, romantic old fool with a wicked sense of humour, whose unfailing passion the game has made him an institution. Love him of loathe him, English football just wouldn't be the same without him. And if you truly despise him, tell me honestly you wouldn't welcome him as the manager of your club next season.
• Will Tidey's book, Life with Sir Alex: A Fan's Story of Ferguson's 25 Years at Manchester United, is available now.
• From Monday 31st October - Friday 4th November at 10.00pm, ESPN Classic will air their brand new five-part series, 25 Years United: Sir Alex Ferguson, in the lead-up to Sir Alex Ferguson's 25 year anniversary in charge at Old Trafford on Saturday 6th November. For details visit: www.espnclassic.com