November 6th, 1986, football as we know it changed for good. Alex Ferguson, after guiding Aberdeen to back-to-back Scottish championships, looked for a new challenge and a fresh beginning. After turning down several high-profile offers that included the likes of North London giants, Arsenal and Tottenham, Fergie made his dream move to the ‘Theatre of dreams’.
Martin Edwards, then United chairman, had been eyeing his man for some time and the club finally came calling to the delight of Ferguson. Even back then it seemed a match made in heaven, showered with the blessings of all the footballing gods. And well, it has certainly lived up to the expectations and delivered on all counts. There is no man in contemporary football whose aura precedes Sir Alex’s. As things stand, Ferguson has not only created a niche for himself in this beautiful game but also occupies the pedestal which is over a notch or two above all the modern day greats of the game. Greatness is his middle name and success seems to be his birthright.
Nevertheless, let’s start off from the very beginning when success was very much elusive and a long monotonous road of struggle stared him in the face.
The Beginning – Clearing The Cobwebs At Old Trafford
The beginning had its moments of discomfort as a lot of cobwebs had clouded the terraces of Old Trafford; Manchester United weren’t the force they are now, far from it. To put it in context when Ferguson took over the reins at Old Trafford, the Red Devils hadn’t won the coveted league title for almost two decades while their hated rivals from Merseyside were setting both the league and Europe alight.
The Scot had a lot on his plate from the first day in charge. There was no quick fix available, and the club had to go through gradual reform. Old Trafford was plagued by plethora of problems – the squad was ravaged by injury, completely lacked any self belief while the drinking culture prevalent at the club was a major stumbling block. To put things in context, the club had lost its way entirely.
Two days after his appointment, United faced Oxford and were humbled 2-0. Fergie’s task was cut out and at the end of his tenth day as the manager of Manchester United, the club stood in the 21st place, one place from the bottom. If time is what Ferguson required, it was in short supply. Thankfully, his first win came the very next weekend as United defeated QPR to calm a few nerves.
However, the squad needed a complete overhaul; there were too many players on the wrong side of thirty and too many plagued by their intemperance in drinking. Furthermore, the youth set up at United needed drastic refurbishment and Ferguson was quick to bell the cat.
Boozing was thought to be a right of sorts after a day’s hard work or putting in a shift as they say; however, a professional footballer had no right to take such liberties with his physical conditioning. Before Fergie arrived at Old Trafford, the club rule forbid players from drinking ‘less than two days before a game’. The Scotsman was having none of it, it was an offense for anyone to drink while he was in training and that’s the bottom line that the new man at the helm underlined.
The legend says outgoing manager Ron Atkinson threw a lavish farewell party, it was ill timed and it’s needless to say it didn’t go down well with the new man in charge. Fergie’s first big challenge at Manchester United wasn’t knocking Liverpool off their perch but slaying the devil that lay within. United finished 11th in the league after his first season in charge, hardly flattering but there were bigger fish to fry and immediate success wasn’t necessarily the foremost objective.
First of the Ferguson’s sides (86-91): A Work In Progress
Although the club didn’t win the league during Sir Alex’s initial few years in charge, there were undoubtedly some memorable moments and phenomenal players who graced the club during this rebuilding phase. Three of those legendary United players were Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and Paul Mcgrath. This trio was simply irresistible both on the pitch and to the annoyance of the gaffer, off it too.
Albeit beleaguered with injuries and their love for a good life outside the pitch, Robson, Whiteside and Mcgrath were the shining lights of Fergie’s early years at the helm. Robbo perhaps stood out as the legend among legends. Robson was the captain of the club, and his fierce dedication and professionalism created a cult following for the English midfielder among United supporters. Bryan “Captain Marvel” Robson was Fergie’s first leading man.
The United side of this forgotten era flattered to deceive in the league; however the F.A Cup win in 1990 provided Ferguson much needed breathing space to continue his work at Old Trafford which was very much still in progress. There was conjecture in the media that Fergie was getting the sack if United failed to get past Nottingham Forest in the F.A Cup third round. Mark Robins popped up with a winner late on and has since been credited with the title of the man who saved Fergie’s job.
That win was perhaps the turning point as it gave the fans a sense of optimism and the squad the confidence to kick on to greater things as they went on to lift the FA cup that season. United then went on to win the UEFA Cup Winners Cup in 1991 by beating European power houses Barcelona and the fans started believing again.
Second Of The Ferguson’s Sides (92-95): The Pioneers Of The Fergie Revolution
After missing out on their first league title – which would’ve been their first in more than 25 years – and that too by a whisker, Sir Alex didn’t lose hope. On the contrary, he came out all guns blazing the very next. The pivotal moment arrived off the pitch when Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby telephoned Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards to enquire about the availability of Denis Irwin. Edwards was in a meeting with the United manager Alex Ferguson at the time, and both men agreed that Irwin was not for sale.
However, Ferguson had identified that his team was in need of a striker, having recently made bids for David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane, and instructed his chairman to ask Wilkinson whether Cantona was for sale. Fotherby had to consult with the manager Howard Wilkinson, but within a few days the deal was complete. United had found their talisman and Ferguson his new leading man.
Furthermore, the youth academy had started to reap rewards and the first real gem to sparkle would be none other than one Ryan Giggs. At the heart of United’s defence were the twin towers “Daisy and Dolly” – Bruce and Pallister – as you know them. Mark Hughes was still going strong while Andrei Kanshelskis and Lee Sharpe were firing up the wings. “The Guvnor” Paul Ince dominated sides in midfield while Peter Schemiechel indeed proved to be the “Great Dane”. The club finally got it all together and the infuriating wait of 26 barren years finally came to end as Ferguson and United won the inaugural Premier league title.
But that was just the beginning; now that the shackles were removed the Red Devils went one step further the following season with the League and Cup double. Roy Keane had arrived from Nottingham Forest and club legend Bryan Robson made a comeback from injury to further strengthen the United roster. United’s first ever double was achieved and there was no looking back now.
However, on a sombre note, 1993-1994 season brought to an end one of the most illustrious Manchester United careers. At the end of the season, and after nearly thirteen years at Old Trafford, Bryan Robson left to become player-manager of Middlesborough. He remains the longest-serving Manchester United captain. He wasn’t even on the bench for the season’s FA Cup final, a decision subsequently regretted by Sir Alex.
Ferguson’s Jewel In The Crown – The Youth Academy
Playing the ‘United way’ has always been paramount at the club and to drive home that point a strong youth structure was the need of the hour. United’s hitherto sloppy youth set up was revamped from the bottom down to become the bedrock of the club and established a production line of young and supremely talented footballers that would go on to serve the club for years and even decades.
Eric Harrison was in charge of finishing the raw diamonds into finished invaluable jewels and he delivered the most famous batch of scholars to have ever graduated from the United finishing school. The ‘Fergie fledglings’ as they have been termed affectionately were treated with utmost care. Ferguson’s ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’ approach proved to be a lighthouse anchoring their budding careers through troubled waters and in due course moulded them into United class. Giggs, Sharpe, Beckham, the Nevilles, Scholes and Butt made their manager proud and United’s academy was finally considered amongst the elites of European football.
Third Of The Ferguson’s Sides (95-98): The Kids That Played Like Men
The United manager could perhaps be considered somewhat guilty of not letting bygones be bygones and due to his apparent inability to forget and forgive, the Scotsman collects grudges like people collect stamps and once you have fallen out of favour, well you have fallen out of favour. The season 95-96 saw winds of change at United as Paul Ince and Kanshelskis fell out of Fergie’s good books and were shipped out. Mark Hughes a crowd favourite for years was also told that he might have to make do with the bench; Hughes chose to move on to Chelsea.
The Nevilles, Beckhams and Butts of the youth team were now first team regulars to the surprise and amazement of the rest of the country. Once again, Fergie tried to swim against the tide and yet again there would only be one winner. Led by captain charismatic Eric Cantona, United swept all in their wake as the young guns displayed maturity beyond their age. The pundits were dumbstruck as the kids did win and won it in style.
Roy Keane and King Eric were beyond inspirational as they guided and shepherded the inexperienced squad through troubled times and in the face of daunting opposition like Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United. A marvellous blend of youth and experience won United its second double and one of the most cherished ones considering the fact that it made all the detractors eat humble pie.
United won the league title yet again the following year; however, after the defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals of the European cup, Eric Cantona made up his mind and decided to end his unparalleled United career.
No more Ohh aahh, no more Cantona! Au Revoir King Eric!
To be continued in Part 2…