Mark Ogden, The Telegraph
But for that, would United have gone on to be successful for so long? I just think that was the platform for everything because it lifted the weight of expectation and it was perfectly timed, with the biggest club suddenly becoming the best team at precisely the moment that Sky came in to inject money and global appeal into English football.
I was six years old when Alex Ferguson became Manchester United manager. I lived on a council estate in Lower Broughton and at that age thought I’d live there forever and that was perfectly fine by me. Of course I didn’t know who he was at the time or if I did I can’t recall it, football up until the age of about ten mainly meant playing wally with my friends against the exterior wall of the house at the end.
In the 25 years since I’ve grown up, lived in four different houses, six different apartments, been around half the world, earnt a bit of money, spent a bit money, got married and started a family.
The world has changed in the last quarter of a decade, you’re reading this on the internet, on a computer, on a telephone that can take pictures and give you a weather forecast. Twenty five years ago oil was $11 a barrel and there was no talk of Middle East Billionaires buying English clubs.
Twenty four years ago the Herald of Free Enterprise sank, killing 189 people, twenty three years ago the Soviets left Afghanistan, twenty two years ago the Berlin wall was toppled and twenty one years ago Nelson Mandela was freed. There’s been two decades since all those things happened and much more has changed, indeed those of us who lived through a lot of these stories will know it feels like a lifetime ago. To throw in an easy yet accurate cliché – the world’s a different place.
But there’s one person who fought to get to the top in 1986, succeeded, and is still there now. Step forward… Robert Mugabe. No, seriously, the constant we all remember through our football lives is Sir Alex Ferguson and sometimes you need to look back on just what has happened in this 25 year period to appreciate what a long time it is. It’s not just the outside world either, if you’re a United supporter of a similar age to myself then Ferguson’s reign at United and your life will be entwined throughout, personal memories morphing into football ones and likewise.
My earliest stand out football memories revolve firstly around my dad trying, in vain, to explain to me that Bobby Robson wasn’t actually Bryan Robson’s dad and, when Manchester United won the European Cup Winners Cup, dancing on the back of a truck with all my friends. The truck was stationary at the time fortunately. I look back on these periods and they seem other-worldly in comparison to today’s football. Like comparing the Hovis advert to the modern realities of running out of bread and having to drive to the petrol station.
Yet the constant remaining throughout is still Alex Ferguson. Four years after the European triumph Eric Cantona was my hero, I loved everything about that man so when he jumped into the crowd and kicked a supporter my biggest fear was him being forced away from the club. Well, I had to do something about it, so went down to the Cliff training ground as I had often done but this time waited until all the other children, and big kids, had left. It was raining and seemed like hours but eventually Alex Ferguson left the office building and walked towards me, I can’t remember exactly what he said and it changes with the legend I’ve made it in my own mind but the conversation went something like this:
“What are you doing here pet?”
“Well, Alex, I just, er, wanted to ask, if, erm, I want to know, YOU’RE NOT
GOING TO SELL ERIC ARE YOU?”
“Of course not pet, don’t you be worrying yourself about that.”
Subsequently this made me think I’d helped to keep the Frenchman at the club, how much my influence was depends on how many I’ve had to drink when you ask me. It’s no doubt one of my favourite memories. Things like this are a constant, nearly missing the end of the 2008 season as I was in hospital having a baby stands out and my subsequent inability to travel to Moscow. Yet I watched that final thinking my son had ‘seen’ United win the league and Champions League before being a month old. From being a little girl who begged Ferguson not to sell her hero I was now chuffed the same man was leading the team to further triumph now my first child was born.
To reiterate how long a quarter of a century is, just think what you’ll be doing in 2036. Hopefully my son will be coming towards the autumn years of a successful career at Manchester United. Back in 2011 that son, now three, can sing Glory Glory Man United word perfect. It’s about time he learnt a new one, perhaps ‘Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson.’
Winning the treble in 98/99 was, without doubt, one of Sir Alex’s best achievements but was it his greatest? It probably wasn’t. In fact, it only comes second to the glorious double-winning season of 07/08 – purely for the fact that this campaign, if you had to pick one out from his 25 years in charge, confirmed, if it needed confirming, just how great a manager the Scotsman is. Let’s not take anything away from ’99 first; it was a wonderful team with excellent players, but arguably the side that beat Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final was more superior ability-wise – but that’s debatable and not what I want to focus on. Instead, my reasoning centres around my idea of what a manager in this sport should do and be able to do – that is build a team, a distinctive team, recognise the demands of modern football and make sure that you’re able to cope with anything. He did just that.
This Manchester United side were absolutely breathtaking to watch – and it was all masterminded by the brilliant Scot. Fergie was fearless, building his team around speed and fluidity. He even experimented with a very successful 4-6-0 system which got the best out of his players; it saw Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Nani/Giggs rotate seamlessly into different positions, and without a recognised front man, took it in turns to be the striker. United profited from it, as did 42-goal Ronaldo. And when they took on Barcelona in the semi-final, they played what the media dismissed as “negative football”, but United were purposefully pragmatic in order to nullify the Catalan club and – what do you know – it worked a trick. United’s ability to adapt to almost any situation earned many plaudits and, for that, Sir Alex deserves credit. He was a genius and this went some way in validating that claim.
Could the depths get any lower? In 1995, at the age of seven I ‘discovered’ United and football definitively despite attending my first game when I was five. Following that nerve-shredding 1994/95 title run-in, the heartache of United losing the league on the final day (fuck you Tim Breaker – and your hand) was compounded a week later via an FA Cup final defeat against an average Everton side. Jigging to D:Ream at school discos back then, I was under the impression that things can only get better. Au contraire.
On 19 August 1995 I attended my first United away game at Villa Park on what was a blisteringly hot summer day (note: never confuse auspicious weather as an omen for an auspicious result). Clad in the blue-and-white away strip, I was disappointed to discover that when the Reds emerged they looked as dull as Dalglish in what was the footballer’s funeral kit. Umbro had seemingly hired the adidas designer who conjured up the so-bad-it-was-good acid-inspired Haçienda tribute, only this time he must have been on anti-depressants.
And the depression filtered on to the pitch and the stands. United were 3-0 down at half-time as Dwight Yorke wreaked havoc with the coup de grâce from the penalty spot after Ian Taylor and Mark Draper had fired the Villans into a two-goal lead. Despite missing Cantona, Giggs, Cole and Bruce the 30-minute capitulation was still as surprising as it was startling. Even David May was missed. Brian McClair meanwhile dryly mused afterwards that they only needed 40 points to avoid relegation.
Retrospectively, Alan Hansen’s knee-jerk critique is more preposterous when one considers the absentees. Supporters did however share his reservations at Alex Ferguson not strengthening the squad after the departures of Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis while Ferguson said that ‘there was not a lot wrong’ with the Scot’s statement. Phil Neville was making only his second league start, John O’Kane emerged from the bench while McClair was the foil for a heavily burdened 20-year-old called Paul Scholes.
What Hansen neglected to acknowledge was the experience the ‘kids’ had already accrued. Gary Neville was already a first-teamer at the club, Nicky Butt had played as far back as having an instrumental role in Hughes’ Wembley volley against Oldham and Scholes had scored seven goals in his debut season. The younger Neville even made his first league start in a Maine Road derby that year and David Beckham had made headway after a loan spell at Preston, netting a consolation in the Villa defeat.
Also overlooked (or not remembered) was that after the interval United, led by an indefatigable Keane, battered Villa and were only thwarted by a dazzling display by Mark Bosnich. So there was a silver lining on an otherwise grey sunny day in the midlands, and that bore fruit when Fergie’s Fledglings recorded five successive wins, including a memorable nocturnal win over champions Blackburn. To emphasise football’s fickleness, Sky’s commentator Rob Hawthorne waxed after Beckham’s curling winner that, ‘Alex Ferguson is delighted that one of his youngsters has restored Manchester United’s lead!’
Naturally though, Cantona was the catalyst. Seventy minutes into his comeback after literally kicking racism out of football in January he equalised against Liverpool, but it was not until the turn of the year that no one could move move move like the Red Tribe did. A 2-1 FA Cup 3rd round replay at Roker Park, courtesy of a last-minute Cole header sparked a ten-game winning run halted at Loftus Road, where in true United form a last minute equaliser saved the day.
Cantona nodded that one in during a possessed and inspiring period when he scored in six successive league games, hitting the only goal in four 1-0 wins. Too young to remember him spurring United on to achieve their first title in 26 years, this was a fascinating spell of showmanship that more than compensated for missing out on the 1993 hegemony.
From the depths in August to the heights in May. A drab day weather-wise and a drab game it may have been, but it was a welcome omen after the sun soaked beginning to the season in the capital. Irrespective of the quality of the occasion, United beat Liverpool to make it a Double Double in the first cup final I attended; the polar opposite to the previous year’s disheartening denouement. Rarely recalled is Tommy Smith’s assertion in the programme that, ‘If there is one team in the country who frightens Man United it must be Liverpool and I feel that we will turn them over today.’
Driving back from Birmingham at the beginning of the campaign, there was a Tottenham coach in front of us and two lads around my age recognised my kit and promptly mocked me from the sanctuary of their back seats. Spurs have won two cups since then, United won two that season.
As for the grey kit, imagine the points United would have accumulated if they had tossed those morose replicas into the nearest skip? KK may not have needed to implode.
I guess in many ways it’s a little predictable to say Fergie’s greatest achievement was knocking Liverpool off their perch last May. Afterall, I think for probably the last ten years we knew it would be likely to happen at some point. So is this actually his best achievement? Perhaps and I’m sure many will argue the point that it is, but I’d like to go with something different. No, not those two minutes in the Nou Camp ’99 that secured a trophy which, just seconds earlier, seemed out of grasp. Not even United’s victory in Moscow, which saw not only a physical victory over Chelsea, but also a metaphoric one over Roman’s millions which were threatening to chastise the sport.
In fact, I see Fergie’s greatest achievement the sheer longevity of his United tenure. The Sunderland match a day prior to his 25th anniversary will be Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1,410th competitive match in charge of the club. In an era when managers are barely given a season to prove themselves to trigger happy owners and chairmen, it is astonishing what the Scot has achieved purely in terms of time spent in Manchester. A win percentage of nearly 60% for a club that, in there first years under Fergie’s watchful eye, were ridiculed. Coming into the club when United hadn’t won the league since 1967 and only a few FA Cups throughout this interim period, Ferguson has since taken United to the biggest club in the world. Was he lucky to come in not long before Sky revolutionised the sport? Maybe. But does this diminish his achievements, not at all. He has seen managers come and go at his rival clubs – Manchester City have had 18, Liverpool 9, Chelsea 16 and even Arsenal have had 6 all during the time Ferguson has been at United.
So Fergie’s greatest achievement is maybe not all his winner’s medals – maybe it’s the fact that we’re here, 25 years on, having this conversation.
Part II will be up later today
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