25 years at United: Ferguson's biggest achievement
"It has all been a fairytale dream - give or take the occasional nightmare."
On Sunday, November 6, 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated 25 years in charge of Manchester United. That's more than the age of half of the players in his current squad. The likes of David de Gea, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley, Nani, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez weren't even born when Ferguson took over at Old Trafford in 1986.
A quarter of a century and 37 trophies later, the 69-year-old is still going strong, his retirement near, but not imminent. It is a remarkable feat in every way, and the numbers only serve to highlight just how incredible and unparalleled his achievement really is.
TURBULENT BEGINNING TO DOMESTIC DOMINANCE
It may be hard to believe now, but when Ferguson joined United, the club was in the relegation zone in a First Division being dominated by Liverpool. (It really was a different era!) Although he led them to a secure 11th position that season, the team's inconsistent form in his early years saw United finish 2nd in 1987-88, but also 13th in 1989-90.
In fact, in 1990, Ferguson's position was actually under threat, difficult as it may be to imagine that now! (An infamous banner displayed at Old Trafford in December 1989 read, "3 years of excuses and it's still crap ... ta ra Fergie.") A streak of eight games without a win had brought the Red Devils close to relegation, and the popular story goes that Ferguson would have been sacked had they been knocked out of the FA Cup by Nottingham Forest in the third round. As it was, United won that tie 1-0 on January 7, before eventually going on to win the competition and give Ferguson his first trophy as Manchester United manager.
It was the start of things to come. And once the first league title was secured in 1992-93 - ending United's 26-year long wait for a top-flight title - there was no looking back. Since then, United and Ferguson have won 12 league titles, and never finished lower than third in the table. Total dominance? Absolutely!
The key to the club's sustained success lies in the quality of the teams which Ferguson has built over the years. Indeed, what sets the Scot apart from other managers is the fact that he has built such title-winning teams not once, not twice, but three times.
There was the first team that won two titles before finishing behind Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95, boasting of the likes of Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, a 'fledgling' Ryan Giggs and of course, 'King' Eric Cantona. They were then joined by the now-legendary 'class of '92' - David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt - coming up through the ranks of United's consistently productive youth system. These 'kids' weren't supposed to win anything (so said former Liverpool captain and media pundit Alan Hansen) - Instead, they wrote their name in history as the unprecedented 'treble winners,' bringing Ferguson his first-ever Champions League triumph and, for good measure, knighthood as well.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it took even Ferguson a while to replace this team, even as first Arsenal and then nouveau riche Chelsea began take centre-stage. United endured one of their leanest periods when Sir Alex announced his intention to retire after the 2001-02 season, finishing out of the top two for the first time in 11 years. He changed his mind, but the club's fortunes continued to plummet - In 2005-06, the club crashed out of the Champions League group stages. Once more, there were question marks over Ferguson. But the manager rebuilt yet again, this time bringing Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic together with surviving veterans Giggs and Scholes; and the result was a second European triumph, in Moscow in 2008.
SPOTTING 'EM YOUNG
All the players in these successful teams were nurtured by Ferguson. Of course, money played its part and big-money signings were common from the start, be it Mark Hughes (1988), Andy Cole (1995), Jaap Stam (1998), Ruud van Nistelrooy (2001) or Dimitar Berbatov (2008). In fact, he has broken the British transfer record seven times while in charge of the Old Trafford club. However, the Scot's knack of buying - and selling - the right players at the right time is uncanny. He also identified the talents of many at a young age, such as with Keane, Schmeichel, Rooney and Ronaldo, and these players then developed at United, moulded by Ferguson in keeping with the Manchester United ethos.
KEEPING THEM UNITED
One of the main reasons for his lasting success, in fact, has been Ferguson's man-management. As manager of one of the biggest clubs, he has had to deal with the temperaments and egos of a large number of players from different regions, cultures and backgrounds, while blending them into a cohesive team. The approach varied, be it the famous 'hair-dryer' treatment that left David Beckham with stitches over his eye, or a gentler, more friendly approach that got the best out of a brilliant but mercurial Cantona. Roy Keane was booted out for publicly criticizing his teammates; at the same time, Rooney was convinced to stay on at United despite questioning the club and demanding a transfer. Of course, his fiery temperament has seen the Scot get into trouble with referees and even the press on numerous occasions - He has missed 17 games due to touchline bans in his United career. Whatever the method, Ferguson ensured no player was ever bigger than the club - or the manager, for that matter!
In a sense, Ferguson's teams are shaped by their manager's character, echoing his tireless enthusiasm for the game, intense competitiveness, tremendous work ethic, unwavering confidence and resolute strength of character. Neither Ferguson nor his teams ever accept defeat, so great is their hunger to win and desire to be the best. Indeed, that is the reason why so many of United's victories have come in 'squeaky bum time'- It was in the 85th minute that United scored to win the FA Cup and complete the 'double' in 1996, while Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer netted in the 91st and 93rd minutes respectively, to stun Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final. No setback fazes the manager and his team, but only serves to lead to further glory.
Ferguson is, in the modern era, the epitome of Manchester United, and vice versa. He has put his stamp on every single aspect of the club, from training regimes to the scouting network and youth set-up, having overhauled it on his arrival 25 years ago. His legacy - the system and culture that he has put in place at Old Trafford - has secured the future of the club, ensuring a continuity that will last long after he is gone.
Ferguson's innate management skills, his meticulous preparation for games, his flexibility in adopting tactics and his ruthlessness in making decisions - All these are qualities that have set him apart from others. But what is the achievement that makes Ferguson so special? His successful trophy haul? His capability of rebuilding teams while still staying competitive during the period of transition? His astute sense of mixing youth and experience to produce a winning squad? His ability to get the best out of every player? His role in laying the modern foundations of the club?
25 AND STILL COUNTING...
Perhaps the answer is his longevity. For a manager to stay at a club for 25 years, that too one like Manchester United where the expectations, scrutiny and pressure are relentless on a daily basis, is an astonishing feat. Moreover, it has been a successful stay - Of his 1,409 matches so far, he has won 59.3% and lost just 17.5%, in the process lifting 12 league titles, five FA Cups, two Champions Leagues, four League Cups, 10 Community Shields and a Cup Winners' Cup. It's more than the trophy haul most clubs can boast of!
Ferguson has moved with the times, adapting to the demands of the game as it has developed in the modern era. Be it spearheading United's move to their state-of-the-art training ground in Carrington in 2000, or introducing new, scientific techniques in training, with a focus on diet, fitness and psychology; be it negotiating the change in the club's ownership or dealing with the changing attitude, demands and even Twitter misadventures of modern players and their agents; be it adapting to new styles of play on the field or playing 'mind games' to rattle his opponents - Ferguson has survived different eras, but with plenty of success.
Both the Premier League and the Champions League did not exist in their present-day forms when Ferguson took charge in 1986. 1,052 managers have come and gone in the English game since he was appointed at Old Trafford. Yet Ferguson, now touching 70, is still there on the touchline every day, chewing gum, tapping his watch, shouting at the officials; all the while, keenly observing the game, still pushing to win matches. And therein lies his greatest achievement.
There are other managers who have lasted longer, won more trophies (at least European ones), significantly influenced the way the game is played, or achieved success in more challenging environments. Yet, for all his achievements as the most successful manager in British history, there will never quite be another manager like Sir Alex Ferguson.
P.S. - Remember, he isn't done yet!