Sir Alex Ferguson – a will to win

Sir Alex Ferguson

Guest Author: Daniel

As we are all very aware, November 6th marks the 25th anniversary of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford. We’ve lived through his achievements and witnessed the superb sides he has assembled over that period. Daniel Burdett, a key writer for the football blog The Faithful (on Twitter), has put together the following account on Sir Alex and his will to win.

You can following Daniel on Twitter.

November 2011 marks a special celebration for Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United and all its supporters, with it being the 25th anniversary of Ferguson becoming United’s manager. It has been a truly remarkable time having him as our manager, and we have achieved unbelievable success with him. This anniversary means a lot to me personally as well as, at the start of this season, it was my 25th Anniversary of supporting Manchester United home and away at matches – so I am extremely proud to have witnessed what Fergie has done for our club right from the start.
When I started going to matches at the start of the 1986-87 season, United were struggling on the pitch, under manager Ron Atkinson, and had not won a league title since 1967. The pressure was on Atkinson and by November 1986, following a shocking 4-1 League Cup defeat away at Southampton, the club decided to sack him. I remember being told this news as I finished school and was surprised about that. Atkinson’s replacement was soon announced as Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson. Fergie had enjoyed huge success at Aberdeen, winning league titles, domestic cups and even a European Cup Winners’ Cup, breaking the dominance of Rangers and Celtic up there. In addition, he had been in charge of the Scotland team at the Mexico 1986 World Cup, following Jock Stein’s shock death. I particularly remember Fergie at that World Cup, as I remember watching him in Mexico visiting victims of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. It really impressed me that he was taking time out to do that. Fergie wanted a fresh challenge at Manchester United, trying to restore the club back to greatness again and he would soon realise what a challenge he would be taking on with this. At Fergie’s 1st home match against QPR on 22nd November, he was presented to the fans, directors and club officials on the pitch before the match. That was the 1st time that I became aware of what a special person he was. As the directors and club officials went up to congratulate him – patting him on the back and shaking his hand, Fergie immediately backed away from this, clearly saying ‘don’t congratulate me on anything yet, this is just the beginning for me here.’ This action by Fergie really stood out for me and I remember it clearly to this day.

Right from the start, Fergie set about addressing every area of the club and how it needed to be improved and the benefits of all this would be felt for many years to come. Fergie clearly saw himself as the club manager and not just the 1st team manager, which would prove to be hugely beneficial. His workrate during his early years at the club were truly remarkable and set the scene for how he still continues now. As well as rebuilding his 1st team squad in those early years with great signings like Brian McClair and Steve Bruce, Fergie completely transformed the clubs scouting and youth system too. Had Fergie not done that, it is questionable how many of the likes of Giggs, the Nevilles, Beckham, Butt and Scholes would have made it to United’s first team like they did. On the pitch, it was a difficult time for Fergie and United for the rest of the 1980s. They finished 11th in 1986-87, having been in the relegation zone when Atkinson was still manager that season. In 1987-88 the club finished 2nd, a big improvement, but not enough for Fergie who stated at the end of that season ‘This club should not be accepting 2nd best’ – a statement he has instilled in the club ever since. In 1988-89 the club finished in 11th and in 1989-90 finished 13th. Until 1990, the club had not gone on any decent cup runs either, which put added pressure on the manager. Losing 5-1 to Manchester City in September 1989 was the lowest point for United fans at the time. However, things would change and it was good riddance to the 1980s for Manchester United.

United’s 1990 FA Cup run was the real start of the special times for United and Fergie. I was fortunate to be able to go to all those FA Cup matches that year and it was a truly great experience. Right from the start of his time at the club, Fergie had stated the importance of United’s support and always made time for the supporters, particularly in his early years at the club. During that cup run, United and Fergie had an amazing support behind them. In each round they were drawn away from home and at each of these games we took a great following to the games. Nottingham Forest away in the 3rd Round was a very tough match, as they had a great cup side back then, managed by Brian Clough. It has been said many times that had United lost that match then it is likely Fergie would have got the sack – we’ll probably never know. Jimmy Hill, working for the BBC that day famously said on TV before this match that United looked like a beaten side – how wrong he was to be. From there, United went on to beat Hereford, Newcastle and Sheffield United in the following rounds. At Sheffield United, particularly our support was magnificent and Fergie identified this too, making sure that every player went over to applaud our fans at the end of the match. The semi-final against Oldham was a great match, as they took us to a replay at Maine Road. It was the same in the final against Crystal Palace as they took us to a replay too, which we won 1-0. That win marked the start of an incredible run of success in the 1990s and proved that the club had been right in backing Fergie. The FA Cup Final replay also showed Fergie’s confidence in making difficult decisions for the team to succeed, as he dropped the out of form Jim Leighton, in favour of Les Sealey who would have one of the matches of his life. Since then, Fergie has had to make numerous difficult selections and leave players out, but to his credit these decisions usually work out for the best.

United, on their return to Europe in the 1990-91 season won the European Cup Winners’ Cup beating Barcelona in Rotterdam, which was another massive boost to the club. Confidence was growing and Fergie was starting to assemble his 1st great side. He had been forced to let players like Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside go, but was bringing in quality replacements. He spent big amounts on players like Paul Ince, Gary Pallister and Mark Hughes, but at the same time found some true bargains in Lee Sharpe, Andrei Kanchelskis, Denis Irwin and Peter Schmeichel. These were some of his greatest signings, along with snatching Ryan Giggs from under Manchester City’s noses, and meant that in the 1991-92 season the club could realistically challenge for the title again. In the end, that season would end in severe heartache as United, faced with a huge fixture pile up due to great domestic cup form, lost the title to Leeds United – following defeats to Nottingham Forest, West Ham United and Liverpool in the space of a week. To his credit, after the defeat at Anfield, Fergie came out and congratulated Leeds on the title win, even though he was hurting so badly at the time, like our supporters. This only served to make United stronger, especially Fergie, as he would prove on so many occasions in the following seasons. The 1992-93 season was a landmark season, especially with the signing of Eric Cantona for a bargain £1.2 million in November 1992 from Leeds United, as United won their 1st League title since 1967. The atmosphere and scenes at Old Trafford as we were presented with the trophy in May 1993 were amongst the best ever seen there that night. It really was like a tremendous weight had been lifted off the club’s shoulders by Fergie and his players. It would get even better the following season, as United, with new signing Roy Keane, went on to win the club’s 1st ever domestic double. Not only was it a successful season, but also Fergie’s side played such entertaining and attacking football. The 1994 side is seen as one of Fergie’s best ever sides by supporters everywhere.

Focus for Fergie and the club then also turned to the European Cup, or Champions League as it became known. The 1st attempt in 1993-94 was a disappointment as United lost on away goals in a controversial 2nd round match against Galatasaray in Istanbul. The 1994-95 season was also frustrating for United in their 1st season competing in the Champions League group stages form. Hampered by the rules of the time limiting the number of foreign players in the side, United suffered bad defeats to Barcelona in the Nou Camp and to Gothenburg in the Ullevi Stadium, which meant that they did not get past the group stages. In the Premier League, United failed to lift the title, losing out to Blackburn on the final day of the season as we drew at West Ham United. We also lost to Everton in the FA Cup Final. The situation was not helped by Eric Cantona’s lengthy ban for his kung fu kick of a Crystal Palace supporter who had given him severe abuse in January 1995. At the end of that season, Fergie decided it was time to make some big decisions for the long term benefit of the team. He decided to allow Paul Ince and Mark Hughes to leave, followed in controversial circumstances by Andrei Kanchelskis. In their place, along with Andy Cole, who was signed in January 1995, Fergie had decided to give home grown players a real chance in the team. Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Phil Neville, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt had been given some 1st team opportunities prior to this, but now they would be 1st team regulars for all matches. This proved to be another inspired decision by Fergie, although at the start of the season it was questioned, especially after losing to Aston Villa, which prompted Alan Hansen’s ‘You’ll win nothing with kids’ quote on TV that night. Fergie again knew best, as these home grown players, together with the returning Eric Cantona and established players like Schmeichel, Pallister, Irwin, Keane and Giggs, helped United win a domestic double again in May 1996. Clinching this with a 1-0 victory over hated rivals Liverpool in the FA Cup Final proved to be the perfect ending to the season.

For the 1996-97 Season, Fergie strengthened his side with some overseas signings – some of whom failed to make an impact such as Karel Poborsky and Jordi Cruyff, while others, especially Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would prove to be hugely successful. United again won the league in 1996-97 but the Champions League campaign ended in frustration with semi final defeats to Borussia Dortmund. This season also marked the end of Eric Cantona’s hugely successful time with United. He will always be remembered as an iconic player for United and Fergie’s way of managing him to the best possible effect played a huge part in this. 1997-98 season, with Teddy Sheringham replacing Eric Cantona, was another frustrating one as Arsenal won the domestic double and we were knocked out in the quarter finals of the Champions League. However, this disappointment proved to be yet another example of making Fergie and United much stronger and more determined to avenge this.

The 1998-99 season would prove to be a truly historic season for United as the club achieved the historic treble of the League, the FA Cup and the Champions League. Fergie strengthened the side with some excellent new signings with the likes of Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist which added the finishing touch to what was needed for his side. He also successfully managed to rotate his squad meaning we could compete in all 3 competitions. Not only did Fergie land these 3 trophies but he was also rewarded with a very well deserved knighthood in June 1999, becoming Sir Alex Ferguson. That 1999 squad is another that is seen as one of Fergie’s best ever sides.

United would retain the Premier League in the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons, plus they won the Inter-Continental World Club title in November 1999. However, they were knocked out in the quarter finals of the Champions League in both seasons by Real Madrid and then Bayern Munich. However, the biggest shock was when Sir Alex made the announcement that the 2001-02 season would be his last as United manager, as he had decided that he would retire then. There was lots of speculation as to who would replace Sir Alex but in February 2002 he made another announcement that he would be staying on as manager, which was a huge relief to our supporters. Despite the signing of big money players like Juan Sebastian Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy, it was a frustrating season, as Arsenal won another domestic double, whilst we also went out in the Champions League semi finals to Bayer Leverkusen. That season also saw the controversial departure of Jaap Stam early on in the season, which was questioned by so many people, as Stam was a hugely popular player at the club. United bounced back winning the league the following season, but again lost out to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter finals. The summer of 2003 also saw the shock departure of David Beckham, following the breakdown in the relationship between David Beckham and Sir Alex. In addition, United let Fabien Barthez leave, as the problems finding a successor to Peter Schmeichel continued.

Seasons 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06 are probably best described as transitional seasons for Sir Alex and United. The club won the FA Cup Final in 2004 and was severely unlucky not to retain it in 2005 as we lost to Arsenal on penalties in the most one sided FA Cup Final for years. We also won the League Cup in 2006, but we did not win the League or Champions League. There were some big name departures over this period including Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane. Keane’s departure was quite dramatic, following a very open and honest interview Keane did for MUTV in 2005 which was subsequently never shown, as it caused huge conflict between Keane and Fergie’s backroom staff. The real positives during this time have to be the signings of hugely talented teenagers in 2003 of Cristiano Ronaldo and in 2004 of Wayne Rooney. These 2 would go on to play a huge part in United’s future success and prove to be 2 of Sir Alex’s best ever signings. In addition, Sir Alex signed some great players without paying too much in Edwin van der Sar, Park Ji-Sung, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra.

Season 2006-07 saw United return to form winning the Premier League and reaching the FA Cup Final where we narrowly lost to Chelsea. It was the following season, with the addition of players like Nani, Anderson and Carlos Tevez, that United would reach the top level again. We retained the league and won another Champions League Final beating Chelsea on penalties in the final on a truly amazing night in Moscow. That trip to Moscow is one that will stay clear in my mind forever more – it truly was an emotional rollercoaster – something which we have seen so much over the years under Sir Alex’s management of United. The 2008 side is seen as another of Sir Alex’s greatest teams, alongside the 1994 and 1999 sides and it creates a lot of debate amongst supporters. To build 3 truly great sides like that is lasting proof of what an incredible manager Sir Alex Ferguson really is.

Since that night in Moscow, United have remained hugely competitive for the top honours. We retained the league in 2008-09 and again reached the Champions League Final in Rome, where we lost to Barcelona. In addition we won the World Club Championship in December 2008. In 2009-10 we narrowly lost out to Chelsea in the league on the final day of the season, whilst we were knocked out of the Champions League in the quarter finals by Bayern Munich. We also won back to back League Cups in 2009 and 2010. In 2010-11 we won a record 19th League title, overtaking Liverpool’s 18 titles – a truly remarkable achievement, especially for Sir Alex Ferguson who famously demonstrated his hunger and determination to match and surpass Liverpool’s league title haul by declaring that he wanted to ‘knock them off their f****** perch’. He certainly succeeded. We lost to Barcelona again in the Champions League Final at Wembley, which was a frustrating night, but hopefully will again be something which makes Sir Alex and United more determined to make amends for. The signings of young players like Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, plus chances being given to players like Tom Cleverley points to an encouraging future for the club again.

The challenge of winning more silverware and building another great United side still clearly remains very strong for Sir Alex Ferguson and there is no sign of him retiring any time soon. At almost 70 years old he has the energy and enthusiasm for life that would put people half his age to shame. In his 25 years in charge of United – the world of football has changed immensely, but he has kept up with these changes and adapted accordingly. He has built up a strong back room staff at the club who always give him the support he needs. He has had a number of assistants at his side – Archie Knox, Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Carlos Queiroz, Mike Phelan, Rene Meulensteen and briefly Walter Smith – some of whom have gone to manage teams themselves, with mixed success. It is also clear that Sir Alex’s management had an effect on his players as so many of them have gone on to become managers – like Strachan, Bruce, Hughes, Ince, Keane and Robson. Whenever Sir Alex talks to the media it is always big news. His books that he has written, especially Managing my Life in 1999, are compelling reading and I look forward to his next book that he writes, probably to be released in line with when he retires. Sir Alex will be remembered for many reasons for what he has achieved and it goes way beyond the trophies that he’s won, for me. I admire his work ethic, his determination, him giving youngsters a chance at the club, the way he has always been accessible to our supporters and his knowledge of the club and its history. It really has been an honour to have supported United over the last 25 years with Sir Alex in charge.

Daniel with the great man himself

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