By Andrew Embling
- Spent whole playing career in Scotland
- Scored 171 goals in 317 appearances
- Amassed a total of 49 trophies in his managerial career
When Alexander Chapman Ferguson was born on 31st December 1941 no-one could have imagined the impact he would make on the landscape of British football.
Born in the tough Govan area of Glasgow, renowned at the time for its shipbuilding and industry, the young Ferguson would learn the grit and determination that would see him become the greatest manager in English football history. Ferguson’s own playing career was far from as successful as his managerial life would become. A prolific striker, he started out as an amateur with Queen’s Park before moving to St Johnstone.
He became a full time professional in 1964 when he signed for Dunfermline, but missed out on a place in the Scottish Cup final the following season. His prowess in front of goal led him to be signed by Glasgow Rangers for £65,000 – a then record fee between two Scottish clubs, but was blamed for a goal they conceded in the 1969 Scottish Cup final and left the club for Falkirk in the wake of the mistake.
Ferguson’s final playing days were spent at Ayr United, before hanging his boots up in 1974 having played a total of over 300 league games for his various clubs. At only 32 years of age a young Ferguson took his first steps in management at East Stirlingshire before joining St Mirren on the advice of another legendary Scottish manager, Jock Stein.
Ferguson was not afraid to throw youth into the fray and uncovered a wealth of talent at the club, turning their fortunes around by taking them from a lowly Second Division team to First Division champions in only three seasons with the average age of the team at only 19. But Ferguson was to be given the sack by St Mirren – the only club to give Ferguson his marching orders – for breach of contract and he lost his claim for wrongful dismissal.
He was not to be out of a job for long as he took over the managerial hot seat at Aberdeen in June 1978, where he achieved incredible success over his eight year tenure.With Celtic and Rangers the foremost teams in Scottish football it was a tough ask to break the Old Firm dominance, but Ferguson did so in 1980 as his side became the first team other than the two Glasgow giants in 15 years to win the Scottish League title.
A Scottish Cup followed in 1982, with Aberdeen taking their place in the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season as a result. Ferguson’s star was rising and it was about to blaze even more brightly as his Aberdeen side defeated German heavyweights Bayern Munich on their way to the final, where they beat Real Madrid 2-1 to become only the third Scottish side to win a European trophy.
European champions Hamburg were despatched in the European Super Cup the following December as Aberdeen put themselves firmly on the footballing map, retaining the Scottish Cup in the process. A third Scottish Cup in a row was achieved in 1984 along with another league title. More silverware followed with a second consecutive league title in 1985 -currently still the last time a team other than Celtic and Rangers would win the title – followed by domestic cup triumph again in 1986.
Ferguson had by that time been awarded the OBE for his services to football and was appointed manager of the Scottish national side for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico following the untimely death of Jock Stein, but stepped down from national team duty after they failed to get out of the group stages.
With his reputation at an all time high offers came thick and fast to ply his trade in the English First Division. Both Arsenal and Tottenham had offers spurned for Ferguson’s services, but when Ron Atkinson was sacked at Manchester United in November 1986 after a poor start to the season it was an offer Ferguson couldn’t resist. The Scot, notorious as a strict disciplinarian with a fiery temper, was to take charge at Old Trafford on 6th November – it was the beginning of a love affair which would give birth to over almost 27 years of unparalleled success.
But it could have been so different as Ferguson struggled to make United contenders despite finishing as runners up to Liverpool in his first full season at the helm. It looked like United were building a team to challenge for the title, but despite spending money on the likes of Neil Webb, Paul Ince and Gary Pallister the results failed to materialise and Ferguson’s position looked increasingly under threat as they closed out 1989 just above the relegation zone with a 5-1 defeat to cross town rivals City amongst their results.
With pressure mounting in the press Ferguson’s luck seemed to be out as United were drawn against in-form Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup Third Round, with many predicting the end for the United boss if the result didn’t go their way. With key players out injured Ferguson turned to the club’s youth system, selecting Mark Robins in the line up.
We will never know what would have happened if United had lost, but Ferguson’s gamble paid off as Robins scored the only goal of the game and United, with some of their players back from injury, made it all the way to Wembley where they faced Crystal Palace in the final. United struggled in the game, Palace pushing United all the way to a 3-3 draw with Mark Hughes the saviour as he equalised with just seven minutes remaining to take the game to a replay.
Once again Ferguson made a bold selection change – Jim Leighton had been far from his best in the first game and the United boss dropped him with Les Sealey taking his place. It was to prove another master-stroke by Ferguson as Sealey made a string of saves before full back Lee Martin proved to be the unlikely hero with the only goal of the game. United and Ferguson were not to look back, the FA Cup victory becoming the catalyst for even greater success.
The Cup Winners’ Cup followed the following year as Ferguson’s side beat Barcelona 2-1 in the final, Mark Hughes proving to his old employers that he could make the difference as he scored both United goals. Ferguson’s troops were getting used to the taste of success and he brought in Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel to add further quality to his side as he attempted to break the yoke around United’s neck and win the league title for the first time since 1967.
A first League Cup followed with victory at Wembley over Nottingham Forest, but the League title slipped through their fingers as Leeds pipped them to the final First Division title. The dawn of the Premier League followed the next season, but United started poorly with defeat away to Sheffield United.
Ferguson had continued to integrated youth in his side with the introduction of Ryan Giggs, but he also had an eye for a deal and the capture of mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona for just £1.2 million was to prove to be a stroke of genius. Cantona immediately felt at home at Old Trafford and United grew in stature as the season progressed. The mistakes of the previous season were not to be repeated as Ferguson led his side to their first league title in 26 years.
With the weight of the millstone removed from United’s shoulders the team went on to dominate English football. Ferguson’s ability to revitalise his side and convince quality players to arrive at Old Trafford was crucial as United retained the league and beat Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup final to complete the club’s first Double. They narrowly failed to retain the Double the year after, failing to beat West Ham on the final day of the league season as big-spending Blackburn pipped them to the league title and Everton defeating United 1-0 in the FA Cup final.
Ferguson’s response was to let star players Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis leave the club, replacing them with a group of unknown youth team players. A 3-1 opening day defeat to Aston Villa convinced many that Ferguson’s side would fail to make a challenge for the title, Alan Hansen uttering the famous line that ‘you can’t win anything with kids.’
But these were no ordinary kids and Ferguson knew it. Having taken time to restructure the youth team set up at United the manager knew he had a special group of individuals on his hands, and so it would prove. The fabled Class of ’92 included Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Nicky Butt and Ferguson was not afraid to throw them into first team action.
The youngsters were to come of age quickly, and along with the return of Cantona from long term suspension, United and Ferguson were to prove Hansen and all the doubters wrong. United had suffered in the previous season from the loss of Cantona after he had been banned for nine months for jumping into the crowd at Crystal Palace, but Ferguson once again showed his incredible man management skills as he convinced Cantona to return.
The Frenchman almost took it upon himself to make the difference single handedly as United clawed back a 12 point gap to overtake Newcastle and reclaim their title, with Cantona also supplying the winner in the FA Cup final against Liverpool as the Double was completed once again.
Ferguson’s had the ability to play mind games with fellow managers and as United clawed back the deficit and Newcastle started to slip back in the title race the United boss increased the pressure on Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan, who spectacularly blew up on live television. Another title followed the following year, but the one thing which kept eluded them was European success.
Ferguson, though, was to mastermind the greatest season in United’s history as 1999 became the stuff of legend. No English team had ever won the Treble of League, FA Cup and European Cup, but Ferguson was to deliver and in dramatic style. Ferguson’s teams followed the United way, full of attacking flair and purpose and that swashbuckling style led them through to the final day of the league season where they defeated Tottenham to regain the league from Arsenal.
They almost suffered an early exit from FA Cup until late goals from Yorke and Solskjaer helped them turn around a 1-0 deficit to beat Liverpool in the fourth round, but they made their way through the rounds before Ferguson’s side once again delivered in spectacular style as Ryan Giggs’s incredible solo run proved the difference in an epic semi final against Arsenal.
United went on to win the final with ease against Newcastle and travelled to the European Champions League final in Barcelona in high spirits. They faced Bayern Munich without captain Roy Keane and midfielder Paul Scholes, both of whom were suspended for the final, and they trailed 1-0 at half time. Ferguson, though, was able to find the right words at half time as United held on to Bayern’s coat-tails as the seconds ticked down.
When Teddy Sheringham scored the equaliser in injury time the relief was there for all to see, but moments later Solskjaer would win the most dramatic European Champions League final and secure the final leg of the Treble for United. It led Ferguson to quote, ‘football, bloody hell’ and the United boss would become Sir Alex Ferguson as a result.
The fire didn’t diminish as Ferguson again presided over two more Premier League victories and now had one sight firmly set – to make United the most successful team in English football history. Retirement plans, announced in 2001, were shelved as he decided to remain in charge at Old Trafford and he began to rebuild his side once again, bringing in the youthful exuberance of a Portuguese starlet from Sporting Lisbon.
Cristiano Ronaldo was by no means the finished article, but Ferguson’s eye for talent had seen the potential in the youngster and he was snapped up. Ronaldo was not the only player that Ferguson would mould into a world class talent, but he was the latest who would see Ferguson as an influential part in their rise to stardom and as a great mentor.
Ferguson had wanted to knock Liverpool off their perch and with eight titles under his belt United were getting closer to Liverpool’s tally of 18 championship wins. Three years without title success followed, but Ferguson continued to redevelop his side and the Premier League trophy was returned home in 2007.
By that time United had come through some more choppy water, as Ferguson once again rebuilt his side for another assault on European success as well as continued dominance of the domestic scene. With another title in the bag and a Paul Scholes stunner sending them to the European Champions League final in Moscow, 2008 was another year to remember for United.Ronaldo gave United the lead in the first all English final, but Lampard levelled and it went to penalties.
In the pouring rain Ronaldo failed with his spot kick and it looked for all the world like Chelsea would triumph until John Terry sent his penalty against the post and Edwin van der Sar’s save from Nicolas Anelka gave United victory.
United retained the title to win their 11th under Ferguson and equal Liverpool’s record of 18 wins, before topping that figure in 2011. A 20th title was to arrive in 2013 – Ferguson’s 13th – as the great man bowed out in style, retiring at the end of the season and moving to the Boardroom as a Director.
His final home game against Swansea saw him lift the Premier League trophy and deliver his final address as manager to the Old Trafford faithful. He was given a guard of honour by the players as a fitting tribute to one who had given not only United, but the footballing world, so much.
The world sometimes saw Sir Alex as a fiery manager, but he was more than that – he was a man who set high standards of himself and of his players and staff, a man of vision. He had the ability to adapt, not just himself, but his football teams over almost four decades of management but stick to his philosophy and principles about how the game should be played.
As the game moved on, so Ferguson was able to rebuild winning side after winning side, breaking the Old Firm dominance in Scotland before breaking the yolk around United’s neck and leading them to glory, the scale of which has never been seen before.
Ferguson developed younger players, encouraged them to fulfil their talent and built respect and loyalty from his players, many of whom to this day still have the utmost admiration for the man they call the boss.
As well as his many individual awards his team’s achievements speak for themselves –
3 Scottish Premier Division titles
1 Scottish First Division title
4 Scottish Cups
1 Scottish League Cup
2 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups
2 UEFA Super Cups
13 Premier League titles
5 FA Cups
4 League Cups
10 Charity/Community Shields
2 UEFA Champions League titles
1 Intercontinental Cup
1 FIFA World Club Cup
A Winner, A Hero, A Legend, Sir Alex Ferguson can only be described in just two words – The Greatest.