19 years without a league title. In 19th place in the league. This was Manchester United in 1986. Today, they are known for their 19 league titles, more than any other club in England’s history.
On 6th November 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson completes 25 years as manager of Manchester United. A landmark no one thought possible when he came to the club in 1986, attempting to awaken a sleeping giant. The glory days of Sir Matt Busby were a distant memory, and they had gotten used to being in the shadow of Liverpool, who were collecting not only league titles but also European Cups. Legend has it that one of Fergie’s first statements upon taking over as manager was that he would “knock Liverpool off their <expletive_deleted> perch”.
Believe it or not, it took him 4 years to deliver success. An eternity in the modern game. Who can imagine a manager at a big club getting so much time today? Calls for Fergie’s head reached a crescendo in 1990, but chairman Martin Edwards and director Sir Bobby Charlton stuck to their guns and kept him. It’s often said that an FA Cup 3rd round match with Nottingham Forest on Jan 7th 1990 was the decisive match of Fergie’s life. Had they lost, the axe would have fallen within a matter of days. As destiny would have it, Mark Robins won the game for United. Not only did United get to the next round, they won the FA Cup that year, beating Crystal Palace in a replayed final. Fergie got breathing space. And got even more of it by winning the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1992 League Cup.
What started the revival was his quiet transformation of the club’s background. Drinking culture went out, stars like Paul McGrath were dumped, youngsters like Lee Martin and Mark Robins were brought in, and a discipline unseen at the club earlier was instilled. Shrewd signings like Gary Pallister and Brian McClair were made. The youth setup of the club received a total makeover, whose results would be seen in the coming years. Stars like Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel were blossoming fantastically under the watchful eye of the gaffer.
In 1992, it looked like Fergie would lead the club to its first league title since 1967 under Busby. But with pressure proving too much, United choked to let Leeds steal the title from under their noses. A workmanlike Manchester United couldn’t cross the finishing line because they didn’t have enough magic in the side. This was the time Fergie took his most extraordinary gamble and brought in a player who was nothing but trouble wherever he went. A player who had punched a teammate, fought with another, thrown a ball at a referee, and called every one of his country’s football federation an idiot. His name was Eric Cantona.
A manager who was a traditionalist in every other way brought in a combustible genius who transformed the club. Unsurprisingly, United won their first league title in 26 years in 1993. Extraordinary moments like Steve Bruce’s two headers against Sheffield Wednesday and Fergie’s golf trip when a caddy said Aston Villa had lost to Oldham to give United the title meant that no fan would ever forget this campaign.
Fergie followed up his first title with another in 1994, coupled with the FA Cup. When Cantona launched himself into a fan at Selhurst Park and received an 8th month ban, that resulted in United winning nothing in 1995. Blackburn Rovers, then the richest club in England, had bought their way to the title and were posing a serious challenge to United.
This is when Fergie again showed his managerial genius. He resisted his initial instinct to dump Cantona after his atrocious act, and in fact flew to France to convince him not to quit football. What’s more, he dumped the very established Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, and replaced them with the unproven Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham. Pundit Alan Hansen famously said “You’ll win nothing with kids” when United lost the opening game of the 1995-96 season to Aston Villa. But at the end of the season, the club had won the Premier League title back from Blackburn, and added the FA Cup too. The extraordinary manner in which United hunted down Newcastle’s 16-point lead and the way Fergie made Kevin Keegan crack into his “I would love it if we beat them” rant became the stuff of legend. Cantona returned from his 8-month ban in October and proved the magician who inspired the Double, with the only goals in 6 crucial 1-0 wins, including the title decider at Newcastle and the FA Cup final against Liverpool.
One more title in the bag in 1997, and Cantona shocked everyone by announcing his retirement at the age of 31. But with the youngsters of 1995 maturing into excellent players, there was still enough talent at the club to continue winning things.
But this was the moment Fergie received an unexpected challenge. Another sleeping giant, Arsenal, were stirring after the coming of the crafty Arsene Wenger. A manager who would revolutionize the very philosophy of the club. In his first full season of 1997-98, Wenger prised the Premier League title from Manchester United and won the FA Cup too.
Just when we wondered if Fergie’s best years were behind him, he responded with his greatest season ever. Nobody will ever forget the Treble winning season of 1998-99, when an extraordinary team including Schmeichel, Stam, Giggs, Beckham, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer won the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the club’s first Champions League since 1968. Extraordinary days like the two 3-3 draws with Barcelona, a stunning comeback against Liverpool in the FA Cup, the greatest FA Cup game of all time in the semifinal against Arsenal, and the miraculous Champions League final when two goals in stoppage time defeated Bayern Munich meant that Fergie had entered the gates of footballing immortality. Shortly after the incredible Treble, Fergie had 3 more letters added to his name. Sir.
Having reached the very top, the only way was down. Such were the high standards United had set themselves, that winning only the Premier League in 2000 and 2001 was seen as a come-down. They were struggling to replace Peter Schmeichel. A barren season in 2002 was proof that recent experiments with Paul Scholes as a striker and Laurent Blanc replacing Jaap Stam had failed. After an almost unexpected title win in 2003, the club went 4 years without the league title. The Roman Abramovich revolution at Chelsea made them briefly more successful than United, when Jose Mourinho led them to back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.
But having seen off the Wenger challenge, the Abramovich-Mourinho challenge was not insurmountable. In 2006-07, Fergie did it again by dumping star players like Roy Keane and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and winning the title with a new side that included Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Carrick and Louis Saha.
But he had one more itch to scratch. After the unforgettable events of 1999, United had underachieved in Europe. The tactical nous of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich, the obdurateness of Bayer Leverkusen and the surprise package of Mourinho’s Porto had all conspired to keep United away from the Champions League title for several years. But that changed in 2008, when a new-look Manchester United beat Chelsea to win the Champions League in Moscow. A team brimming with wizardry in the form of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez had too much class for all other teams on the continent. Fergie had won his 2nd Champions League, proving that 1999 was no fluke.
He wasn’t done. He had vowed to knock Liverpool off their perch, and did it in style when United equalled Liverpool’s 18 league titles in 2009, and went one better with the 19th league title in 2011. He now has a record no other manager has reached and will reach. 12 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, 1 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 2 Intercontinental Cups, and 1 World Club Championship sit on his roll of honour. What an amazing 25 years it has been. And we look forward to more.
His appetite for a challenge knows no bounds. After repelling the challenges of Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal and Chelsea to remain England’s premier footballing force, the latest and greatest challenge is from the blue half of Manchester, where a Sheikh-up has seen the city’s other club emerge as the world’s richest, and a genuine contender for the Premier League title. In Europe, United has twice fallen way short of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, currently one of the greatest sides the world has ever seen. Barcelona beat United in the 2009 Champions League final and repeated the same feat in 2011. Winning the Champions League a third time ahead of the Catalans and keeping the Manchester City challenge at bay would make Fergie the greatest manager who ever lived. And you wouldn’t put it past him.