Henry Winter, The Telegraph
On his 25th anniversary, Sir Alex is being hailed as one of the greatest managers of all time. Rightly so. He possesses the four qualities that shape the finest leaders of footballing men: he buys well, bonds well, prepares well and exudes an aura. Never underestimate the power of an aura in a sport where psychology is key.
Everybody salutes Ferguson, the ultimate football man. His greatest achievements? Barcelona, yes. Moscow, of course. But there’s so much more to him. I’ve been covering football for 25 years and have never met a more fascinating, multi-faceted individual. So let’s celebrate the man, as well as the manager. A few years back I enjoyed the rare privilege of being in Ferguson’s office in Carrington and mentioned I was going away to Glasgow with the kids. He recommended three museums to visit, all science and shipping stuff, two of which he was patron of. Typical Ferguson. He can talk about science, shipping, politics, wine, horses, antiques, art and big bands. And more. Sir Alex: so much more than a football man. You’re lucky to have him.
Working out Fergie’s greatest achievement is difficult and easy at the same time. On the one hand, there’s so much to consider, yet on the other it’s so obviously the 92/93 title win. Everything that’s come since then is a direct consequence of it, and before it happened, it was all that we wanted – the rest is gravy. Hawksmoor bone marrow gravy, but gravy nonetheless.
I only passed ten years of my consciously United-obsessed life without seeing us win the league, but it was more than enough, and though the European Cup took a fair bit longer, the desperation to possess it was nowhere near the same. Once we won the league, anything was possible – not even possible, but inevitable – whereas the title was something that happened to other people, and always those we didn’t like (with varying degrees of intense hatred).
But while we’re here, it’d be rude not to consider the treble. The biggest compliment I can pay it is that over the last couple of seasons, when United have been in with a chance of it, part of me wonders if them doing so would denigrate the feat of the ’99 lot. They were a very special side – far, far superior to what we’ve had recently – and if anyone ever does emulate them, then it ought to be a team of requisite quality.
Both the ’93 and ’99 sides were true to all that we love about United: men, mavericks and local lads playing fast, hard, attacking football, boiling with attitude and zest. And a lot of that is down to Fergie, who, for all his faults, is a preposterous, inspirational, incredible character and concept, responsible for joy that we could never have imagined. A salut.
Of course our gaze gets captivated by all the trophies in the cabinet, understandable considering we’ve won so much under Sir Alex, that you’d have to get an Abacus (google it, oh young readers) to count up exactly just how many we’ve welcomed. We stopped counting Charity Shields, when once upon a time we’d be giddy about ‘winning some silver early’.
But come with me on a journey, because whilst the room almost continually stocked full of trophies since 1990 is the clearest definition of his success and achievements,it is not just his trophy cabinet which actually defines him. Leave that room, past the spanky ever growing museum which now includes his own history and that of his players and walk along the corridors of both power and passion, where normal fans can sit, near to prawn sarnie munchers, pacing through the updated facilities and at time unwholesome corporate ornaments on view, and look at how Old Trafford and Manchester United has grown and changed along with Fergie.
United have always been on the forefront of ground development, and we have always been the bottom line to pay for it, but if pretty much none of this would have been possible without the Red Army, certainly the club owes the debt for enabling all its way and all it has done to the man who has become part of the fabric. Certainly, these past 6 years and more, he has kept it all together, he is the one the scent of Ginge must thank.
United have always been good at, pretty much (don’t mention the Frank O’Farrell debacle, from both sides) of staying loyal and keeping managerial upheaval to a minimum, and if we are blessed to have had two men in the same mould as Sir Matt and Sir Alex, what makes the latter and his time that much more remarkable is the pace of that around him. Football spiralling out of control, yet somehow he manages to ooze control over club, team and players.
You just run out of superlatives. You can say he shaped a dynasty, the success laid out for all to see, like a embryo growing in the womb, the shoots of 1990, growing with each phase, the tiny patter of a ECWC in 1991, and then re-born in 1993. Such is his way, you can pluck a cliche out of thin air. But they work. Not standing still on a moving bus as he used to say (though I doubt he’s travelled on many of those since coming down), accepting every challenge; try and don the cap of Sherlock Holmes to work out where it came from, the ingredients that combined like pure science (or our sort of religion) so Eric like we clicked and then some, but that first Holy Grail we’d have accepted with glee and pretty much then put up with normality. Yet he tore the script up, so we went on and on. 1994, 1996, 1999. To some everything else since 1999 appears a bit dimmer; how can you beat that? But incredibly, him just trying, is worthy, let alone what we actually have achieved since that barmy night. Every year we seem in with a shout of a repeat. Never able, perhaps never will, but the feat of wanting it again, whilst the very players who’d got him there were questioned not long after the Nou Camp for resting on their laurels, gazed themselves at a manager who would accept nothing less, however able or unable the squad at that time around him, however limited or limiting, to eye such treasured heights. But no words, eulogies, do it – his drive, his determination, his stubborness, his ‘mix’ – justice.
Then and now. United, he, we. We’ve all changed. But we’re all the same, somewhere, and when you look at our lives, and then the world around us, it’s mad to think there is a man, greyer, as fearsome if not as often, still doing the jig, still wanting it. It’s almost scary. The Presidents and Prime Ministers, the Dictators and despots, they may well have gone from their own realms, but our leader, facing the occasional grumblings of discontent from his people, remains. In a scary world, he is less scary and our focal point. We may moan about him – some way too often – but he keeps us, the United world I mean, safe.
Now we’re on the Old Trafford pitch, having walked through a different tunnel, a stand just for Families (nice if more kids would be allowed elsewhere….), and where once we joked it resembled the film set of Vietnam it was so bad, now it is pretty much able to cope with concerts, rugby, Rooney overhead kicks and Diego Forlan stripping. We’ve a third tier, so high we can’t see them, and they can’t see us.
It’s all changed.
In 1987 when Red News sat down with Fergie for the first time for an interview, the hotel was fairly ramshackle on a pre-season tour of Scandinavia. There were no groupies, bar us oddballs waiting for him, and he called the group in to an empty breakfast hall as he pondered cereal and greater plans for what was to become his club. Able to get away with calling it ‘his club’ where others might be scorned because he’s ingratiated himself so well into the fabric, the custodians allow it. There have been mistakes, and some have called him for them. I haven’t liked some decisions, but as with my own frailties in life, I have always said that, sadly, even the perfect aren’t quite as perfect as you’d want them to be. I look in the mirror, and hush loud calling.
Nobody came into that breakfast hall. No photographers, no stalkers (bar us, again) and in between the egg cups and coffee pots he laid out a vision. ‘To make Europe once again take notice of United’. We’ve always been big, if not the biggest, but now we are in a different universe to then, again of his making, again not all great, all of which the bean counters should be grateful for, but here he laid our his plan to put United back on the map. A map remember all screwed up because, because of them, we weren’t even allowed into European competition back then. He’d argue time and time again behind the scenes for reinstatement – he had a plan you see.
At times we doubted the plan in those early days. He talked of playing ‘total football’ in one programme before a game where I struggle to remember seeing any type of football, but we know now. Not settling to just concentrate on the first team and save his skin. If we remove ourselves away from Old Trafford, look at Carrington; he was working not just on the XI we were watching, but the ones that would come afterwards, and those in ten years time. He picked up Sir Matt’s blueprint, long since discarded. And had a go.
In his time we’ve seen the road we all share littered with glory and trophies – Warwick Road itself is now Sir Matt Busby Way. The core and essence is still there, what we stand for, thanks primarily down to him whatever our recoil about those above him and those he has to deal with it, but every facet; the Cliff, gone, terracing, gone, Assistant Managers coming and going, yet he has not just stayed, and remained, he’s evolved. He’s finger tipped a connection between then and now. And not let go like a Taibi short connection.
Steve McClaren was supposed to be the innovater of our first changes into Sports Science, Carlozzz into defence, tactics, but it devalues and doesn’t give credit to the man who employed them, and took something from all of them. We have quibbles as any family does, but the man picking cereal is now a Sir, the ground all seated, the trophy cabinet full. In changing times, Thatcher in charge, then Grey, then Blair, etc, we have our constant. As I conclude the Ed in the RN 25th edition: “It’s only when he’s not in charge any longer that it will just sink in just what he’s achieved. And how much were going to miss him.”
I talk to younger Reds and they can’t believe some of the horror stories from the 70s and 80s. There is a fear of that cycle returning if this one ends. But not under SAF, time and time again seeing the media throw him into the water for sharks with ‘crumbling empire’ talk, he calmly walks to shore, drying off, and eventually sitting on his lounger, laughing his tits off. Wondering how to carry all the treasures he’s just picked up.
It’s not just been a remarkable journey, it’s been a life shared. We have walked each step, we have grown old, been born, had kids ourselves, become men from kids, all during his reign, and that’s what it feels like, like a fiefdom such its length. Ruled over maybe, but connected. We’ll pick out on field memories to translate that quarter of a century into specifics that makes it easier to comprehend, none more so than the Nou Camp, we’ll think of off field moments – Eric signing, Keane gone, in an instant – but it is he who touched every one. If you’ve met him, you won’t forget it. It may have been but a second, but he carries the aura that only the greats like Sir Matt and Bestie can.
Blessed to have both he and Sir Matt, only Manchester United could have both. Its story, his story, they sort of merged somewhere. Manchester United’s journey will continue of course, as it always has, but for now, pause for thought about when you joined this marvellous adventure, and all the changes then and now (the FA were still after us, so no rare change there then), and that is as defining as all the silver that glistens. That United coped in a football industry that suddenly speeded up and mutated, whether we liked it or not. Fergie is that link between past and present, and bloody hell, hopefully more future too. Because, yes, I really do. I love him like every single one of us.
Forget the 36 trophies, and incredible longevity for a second, and think about the groundwork laid by Sir Alex Ferguson for success. That is his greatest achievement. Recognising Manchester United as a club on its knees – almost bankrupt, with a decaying stadium, and booze culture among a group of average players – Fergie set about rebuilding from the ground up in a way no manager will be allowed to do again.
Ferguson is a long term thinker, and this has paid off almost every time. He reignited the club’s youth policy – a decision that would bear fruit almost a decade later. He change the mentality of his squad, perhaps even the club, from one of winning an occasional cup, to seeking glory at every turn. And he set about this with an obsessive degree of control, and attention to detail, that is uncommon among his peers. In an era when administrators and even supporters are obsessed with the balance sheet, Ferguson truly is United’s greatest asset.
In a word, youth. Michael Keane became the 80th teenager to be given his first team debut by Fergie, at least three a year – a phenomenal achievement particularly given how much the game has changed. Every time the squad has been rebuilt he’s chosen to combine youth with some marquee signings – to do that once and succeed is something of a masterstroke but to do it time and time again is pure genius.
After winning the league last year, Fergie exclaimed, “That’s the future of Manchester United, young people”. People always want to know the secret to his longevity; it probably lies within that statement – youth. Young people keep him hungry; they provide new managerial challenges and a sense of pride if they develop through the club to the first team.
Carrying on the traditions of Sir Matt Busby, he’s continued one legacy and built another. The Ferguson era will never be replicated. The story of Fergie’s Fledglings will be told for generations to come. That’s his greatest achievement – not just achieving success, but achieving it with a core nucleus of young players.
Rebecca Stephenson, Freelance sportswriter and broadcaster
When asked to put down on paper Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest achievement of his 25 year tenure at the helm of Manchester United, I could turn to my heart; my spine tingling memories and some of the most amazing moments of my (almost) Ferguson-encompassing life.
But during a recent visit to Carrington I decided not to answer instinctively with the moment that gave ME the most pleasure, but by opening my eyes more and focusing on the picture that far outweighs one goal, game, season, trophy haul or signing.
As you stroll through the corridors of Old Trafford and Carrington in 2011 you realise that this one man has formed an empire. Much as Microsoft and Apple echo to the personas of Gates and Jobs. Manchester United, is now a reflection of 25 years of one man.
The glorious history of the Busby Babes and the tragedy of Munich, may well have occurred decades before the man from Govan was ever a dot on the horizon of the club, but his staunch adherence to the culture initiated by Sir Matt Busby has intrinsically linked him with the entire entity of Manchester United.
Today, it is difficult to see where Sir Alex Ferguson stops and Manchester United begins, or to imagine that one will eventually have to function without the other.
25 years of teams constructed, destructed and rebuilt; 25 years where legends were born; formed and consigned to history; 25 years of footballing structural, economic and Bureaucratic revolution.
The footballing world and the Manchester United of today is almost unrecognisable from 1986, but one man remains a constant. A chameleon who has adapted to every twist, turn and explosion to keep the club atop of the ever changing tide of football, and continue to deliver those superficial tokens of the underlying successes.
A dream world of trophies, pulse-raising players and goose-bump inducing moments and memories. All fruits of the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson
So how can you define his greatest achievement? Perhaps it is as abstract as his workplace itself. Old Trafford isn’t Manchester United, nor a shirt, nor a crest. So his greatest achievement is Manchester United and what it is today. That and the legacy that will engulf it until the club’s heart no longer beats.
I used to love Big Ron when he was United manager. Dripping with jewellery and diamonds. Looking like a car sales man that would give you the best deal on earth. Woollen coat so big and thick you could smuggle Gordon Strachan in there, and he would think it was a three bedroom house. The man was the walking epitome of what United was back then. If that specific history was happening now the kids of today would call it ‘swagger’.
Of course, the swagger was lined with a huge problem. And that was the inability to win trophies. ’83 and ’85 brought us two fantastic FA Cup wins, when that was about the maximum we could expect to achieve in any given season. Big Ron had brought us Bryan Robson, and he was our king. And the teenage talents of Whiteside and Hughes gave us hope for the future…
But ultimately we knew our place in the food chain. We were the team every neutral loved because we were the glamorous losers of English football.
The day Atkinson was sacked I felt ill. I was just a child of 10 years old. I knew nothing and no one different. So when we recruited a dour looking Scot as his replacement I didn’t really blink an eye. The club had survived on the glamour of the past so long that when we were faced with a bit of reality (we were second to bottom in November when Ron was sacked) it really was the most depressing of things. I could smell we were about to be relegated. How would I face all my mates who supported Liverpool and Everton when we went down to Division 2?
That season Ferguson saved us and we ended up mid table. I was deliriously happy with 11th place! 25 years on, and as a Manchester United supporter I’ve lived a fairytale life with my team.
I was always brought up to believe that United would play well, and then probably lose. It wasn’t a completely defeatist attitude to football. It was just how many non-Liverpool fans felt about their clubs in the 1980s. Everyone tried to win… and then Liverpool took the trophy home. I never had the choice of supporting Liverpool. It was impossible in the dynamic of our family. You supported United through every trial, and grinned and bared it as you watched Hughes, Hansen, Souness, or a Dalglish lift the big trophies.
When Fergie bought Steve Bruce, I thought “Who the fuck is Steve Bruce?” I wanted heroes to follow. I wanted more Robsons! What we got was Viv Anderson, Jim Leighton and Brian McClair. I actually liked McClair as I watched him be prolific for Celtic. But all in all it was a bit of a yawn fest to sign these names. However, finishing 2nd to Liverpool back in 1988 felt like a huge step forward. The scousers didn’t even blink an eye as they cantered to 9 points clear of us but it produced real hope for United fans.
The following year we came 11th again. Order had been restored. Hope had been put back in permanent storage.
The next couple of years were tempestuous. I was stood in the Stretford End as we beat the newly crowned champions Arsenal 4-1, with Neil Webb’s volley almost flying down my throat, only being stopped by the goal net from where I stood. But a few weeks later we got stuffed 5-1 at Maine Road and life was depressing once again.
I had little time for Ferguson. I didn’t ‘get’ him. I knew he wanted the best for the club, but I could see no way of him achieving it. And that’s why 13 year old boys, like I was then don’t run football clubs!
I remember Mark Robins goal that saved the manager’s job at Nottingham Forest. History has warped that part of Fergusons reign slightly but I remember it all clearly. Fergie was a goner. Lose in the Cup and he was sacked. It was more ‘expected’ than a possibility. Somehow we shaded a very good Forest team out of the Cup, and despite being entirely rubbish in every other tournament, we went on to win that blessed old trophy. Winning the 1990 FA Cup was up to that point the greatest thing I had seen in football. I just didn’t believe it got any better than that.
So twenty one years have passed since us beating Crystal Palace for that FA Cup at Wembley. I don’t need to list all the titles we’ve won since then. I don’t need to list the heroes that Sir Alex has cultivated, from your Cantonas to your Giggs, Rooneys to Ronaldos. But what I will testify is this: Lady Luck shined down from the heavens when she delivered us a nutjob from Aberdeen. Nobody knew it back then. No one could possibly believe that the man would win us one solitary league championship, yet alone be knighted for his incredible achievements for us. But Fergie is the modern footballing architect. The Godhead who equally builds and destroys. A man who refuses to live on past glories, and only looks forward. It is him ALONE that we owe the last 21 years of success to..not the players. He is the true creator supreme.
And soon, he will be gone. We don’t know when. Reality always gives me a sharp jab when I think of Jock Stein (Fergie’s mentor of sorts) I watched him die on the sidelines on my TV. You can’t help but think Fergie’s fate will be the same in some morbid poetic fashion. But the truth is Manchester United will have to survive without him in full capacity in the not so distant future. The Blue Menace and its cross-town monies are upon us, and the future may well look nothing like the 1990s and 2000s did. Football is cyclical. Maybe it’s another clubs time?
But Fergie has given us the attitude that we need not think like that. That if we dig in, and search your heart and use your experience, that you can beat anyone, at any time.
That is Sir Alex Fergusons greatest gift to us, The Red Army. Not the 37 trophies he’s brought us. Even when the man is gone, a statue of him will stand outside of our grand old stadium. And it will always remind that the truth is: We are Manchester United. The greatest football club the world has ever seen.