Manchester United is one of the world’s most illustrious sports clubs. In fact, it claims to have more supporters around the world than any other team, with some putting the estimate at over 700 million fans. To gain such standing, a team needs to have a rich history. That history is charted on this website here. However, we would like to go into detail on the man who is arguably the club’s most influential figure – Sir Alex Ferguson. The Fergie (as he was affectionately known) Years were the most successful in the club’s history. And those years tell us more than just a chapter in United’s history; Ferguson was partly responsible for the creation of soccer as a global multi-billion-dollar business.
The Early Years 1986-1990
Nonetheless, Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford untested in the cauldron of English top-flight soccer, and he soon realized that success was not a given. United finished 11th in his first season in the then-English Division 1. He improved to 2nd place in the 1987-88 season. But United performed poorly the season after, finishing in 13th. The club had by then reached two decades without a league title, and the silverware-hungry fans were starting to get restless.
It was in January 1990 that one of the most important sliding doors moments in sports history occurred. After a disastrous run of results, Ferguson was given an ultimatum by the United board: Win the upcoming FA Cup game against Nottingham Forest or face the sack. United were disappointing, but the little-known Mark Robins popped up with two goals to save Ferguson’s skin. United went on to win the FA Cup at the end of the season – the first of many, many trophies under the Scottish manager. Robins, who openly admits he was something of a journeyman player, wrote himself into the annals of United history with his goals.
The Foundation for Success 1990-1992
Now that United had won the FA Cup, there was a growing belief that Ferguson was the man to finally deliver a League Title, something that the club had not achieved since the 1960s. That optimism was further enhanced by United’s winning of the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup, beating the mighty Barcelona in the Final. United’s league position had improved to sixth in the same season. The team was getting closer.
In the 1991-1992 season, Ferguson’s United were able to add another trophy – the Football League Cup. But more importantly, the team pushed Leeds United all the way in the League Title race, finishing second. It was agonizingly close. But Ferguson was soon plotting revenge, and he had his eyes on the mercurial Frenchman who led Leeds’ attack – Eric Cantona.
The Premier League Era Begins (1992-1995)
The Premier League was established to replace the old Division One in English soccer. The change was more than just a cosmetic name change, though. New money would pour into the clubs via lucrative broadcasting deals, notably with Sky Sports. There was more focus on soccer than ever before, and the eyes of the media and fans were increasingly turned on United.
Led by the brilliant Cantona in attack, United finally won the top title in English soccer in the 1992/93 season. A year later, United retained the Premier League title and put the cherry on top by winning the Double, AKA the Premier League and FA Cup. While Cantona’s arrival is widely regarded as being the catalyst for United’s success in the early Premier League era, the team was also aided by two younger players, Ryan Giggs and the fiery Irishman Roy Keane. The former would go on to become the most decorated player in United’s history. The latter, who would soon be named captain, became the embodiment of Ferguson on the pitch.
United let go of the Premier League title in the 1994/95 season, although they did still manage to win the Charity Shield. United had started as favorites in the betting for the Premier League, but nouveau-riche Blackburn Rovers pipped the Red Devils to the title. Blackburn’s main talisman was Alan Shearer, the top scorer in Premier League history. Ferguson made no secret of the fact he’d like Shearer to join United, but the dream move never transpired.
You Can Win Anything with Kids 1996-1998
Across all sports, the greatest coaches will, at times, show incredible insight and fortitude despite what the critics say. This is apparent from everyone from Charles Driesell right through to modern coaches like Bill Belichick. Ahead of the 1996/1997 season, Ferguson had his moment. He got rid of established stars like Paul Ince and replaced them with “kids”. It was the equivalent of an MLB club calling up a host of prospects to replace CY Young winners, Gold Glove recipients, and Silver Slugger award winners. While he kept some stars, such as Keane, Cantona, Giggs, and Andy Cole, the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Gary Neville were all youngsters and expected to become the backbone of the biggest team in England.
Initially, Ferguson was derided, as results were sluggish at first. A defeat to Aston Villa early in the season caused broadcaster Alan Hansen to famously exclaim “You can’t win anything with kids.”. But things turned around for Ferguson, and Hansen soon regretted his words. United would end up as Double winners again, taking their third Premier League title and FA Cup under Ferguson. The “kids” would go on to become among the biggest names in English football, leading United to even more success.
The First True Rivals and European Glory 1998-2003
United did not retain the Premier League title the next year. It went to Arsenal, a team with new ideas and flair under the hand of Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman would become Ferguson’s main rival, and the battles with Arsenal over the next five years would be the most pulsating matches in Premier League history. The season also ended on a downer as Eric Cantona decided to retire. It came as a shock, but United seemed to be outgrowing their talisman.
While Arsenal had taken United’s crown, it would not last long. In the 1998/99 season, United would complete the Treble – winning the Premier League, FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League. The team was box office material at this stage, capable of handing out thrashings to any other one and able to complete miraculous comebacks. The never-say-die attitude was exemplified by Ferguson’s lieutenant on the pitch, club captain Roy Keane. The likes of Beckham, Scholes, and Giggs made the headlines in the sports pages, but Keane was the beating heart of one of the most exciting teams in world soccer.
After winning the Treble, United did not let up, winning two successive Premier League titles. The team did learn a harsh lesson that winning Champions League titles was less easy. Arsenal, however, were becoming a formidable force. The Gunners won the 2001-2002, and surprisingly, United finished in 3rd. It was the first time that United had finished outside the top 2 since the Premier League was inaugurated a decade beforehand. United would retain the title a season late, but the mid-2000s were relatively barren. United would go three seasons without winning the Premier League. Some whispered that Fergie’s time was over. The critics were, once again, badly wrong.
Ferguson’s Second Great Team 2006–2010
United had to deal with several key departures in the mid-2000s, including Roy Keane and David Beckham. Some like Giggs and Scholes remained. However, two young players had arrived in 2003 and 2004 respectively, and they would go on to become United legends. The club signed Wayne Rooney from Everton in 2004, and he would become the top goalscorer in the club’s history. In 2003, they signed an awkward-looking Portuguese teenager that few fans had heard of before. That was, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, Rooney, and others, such as Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Edwin Van der Sar, and Patrice Evra, would go on to form Ferguson’s truly great side. The team would once again win three Premier League titles in a row from 2006 to 2009. They would also gift Ferguson a second Champions League title in 2008. Two more Champions League Finals would come in the following years, but Ferguson could not get one over on Pep Guardiola’s legendary Barcelona team, inspired by Lionel Messi, of course.
The Last Trick and Goodbye 2010-2013
Ferguson had two more Premier League titles in the bag by 2013. It meant that United had won 20 league titles overall, two more than Liverpool. When Ferguson started the job, United had only seven. By this point, soccer was changing in England. The league was awash with money, and United no longer had only one rival; they had several. Notably, we saw the emergence of United’s neighbors Manchester City. Having been bought over by the Abu Dhabi Group, City had unlimited money for transfers. City soon became champions. Again, we were told Ferguson’s time was over.
In the 2012/13 season, Ferguson pulled off his last trick. He signed Robin Van Persie, a brilliant Dutch striker who had dazzled for Arsenal in the preceding years. Van Persie inspired United to a 13th Premier League title in 20 years, despite the fact the team was heavily unannounced at the beginning of the season. Ferguson announced his intention to retire. After twenty-six years at United, he had won 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 2 Champions League titles, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and a host of secondary titles like the Charity Shield and UEFA Super Cup.
The Fergie era was over in 2013. When he took over the club in 1986, the average sports fan could probably not name even a handful of players in the squad. By the time he left, United posters would be adorned on schoolkids’ bedroom walls from Cambodia to California, Shanghai to Syndey. His most important achievement was not arguably the fact that he won so many trophies but the fact that he was able to adapt to different eras. He won when hard-nosed coaches were still smoking cigarettes in the dugouts and players were drinking pints of beer the night before the game, and he won when cerebral European coaches entered the Premier League alongside dieticians and sports scientists. He built modern Manchester United and, to a degree, modern soccer.
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