That’s how last year ended for Manchester United and Alex Ferguson. Our inspirational captain had left us, we didn’t get past the group stages in Europe, and the country was celebrating “the decline of Manchester United.”
There were eighteen games to play in 2006 until the end of the season, with a maximum of fifty four points to pick up. The year didn’t start any better than it had finished, with us drawing 0-0 with Arsenal, drawing with Burton in the Cup, then losing 3-1 against City in our next game.
Twenty two days in to the New Year United kick started their season. Liverpool, who hadn’t lost a league game since October, winning eleven and drawing one of their past twelve Premiership games, came to Old Trafford. United were second in the league, one point ahead of their age old rivals, although Liverpool had two games in hand on us.
New boy Evra, who had been heavily slated after his forty five minute display on derby day, stood in for us at left back in place of Heinze. Fletcher and O’Shea were our two central midfielders with us yet to replace Keano, and Paul Scholes was out injured. Ronaldo was suspended, so Kieran Richardson, who had been filling in as a left back for parts of the season, stepped up to the plate. Liverpool more or less had their first team available, and things didn’t look too good for this United team “in decline”.
We all know what happened though, Rio Ferdinand became a hero, scoring a header from a Ryan Giggs free kick in the final minute of the game. Following the Liverpool game, United went on to win eleven of the remaining fifteen matches, securing second place in the league, nine points behind Chelsea, and one point ahead of Liverpool.
United went on to beat Blackburn at home in the Carling Cup, putting us in to the final. We demolished Wigan, with Rooney scoring two, with Ronaldo and Saha also on the scoresheet. This was also a defining moment for us in terms of Ruud van Nistelrooy, with Ferguson using Richardson, Evra and Vidic as substitutes in the game. “I exploded and started swearing at Ferguson. That was the killing moment,” Ruud has said since.
United salvaged something from the 2005-2006 season, with a trophy as well as the coveted automatic place in the Champions League, something they’d missed out on for the previous two years.
The summer was a defining moment for United for several reasons, mainly revolving around the World Cup. United’s main story of the summer was the events in the England vs Portugal game. Every newspaper talked of how Rooney and Ronaldo could no longer player together, and some even suggested Cristiano couldn’t even play in England anymore, after his house was vandalised and his niece attacked. Meanwhile, rumours of Ruud’s departure were rife, with the Dutch man also falling out with van Basten, and being dropped from the Holland side.
We return from the World Cup after declaring interest in players like Riquelme, Gattuso, and the Juventus stars Cannavaro, Vieira and Zambrotta. The press reported Ronaldo and Ruud were both talking to other clubs, whilst we were getting knocked back for Kuschzack and Carrick. It wasn’t looking good. However, on the day Real Madrid revealed Ruud as their latest signing, we announced a fee for Carrick had been agreed.
In the pre-season in South Africa, we saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Paul Scholes return to the team, looking surprisingly capable after so long on the sidelines. Ferguson had announced that their return would be as good as new signings, which was met with a cynical response, claiming the Scot was desperate. Sky Sports penned United in for a fourth place finish behind Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. “Dominance of the domestic scene comes in cycles – just as Liverpool controlled the 80s, and United the 90s, it is now Chelsea’s turn to be the pre-eminent force and impatient Red Devils fans must be prepared to bide their time. A greater impact in the UEFA Champions League will be expected, but a cup may again be the best last season’s Carling Cup winners can hope for, unless Ferguson brings in a couple of last-ditch signings.” They added, “Sir Alex Ferguson will celebrate 20 years in charge in November and he will be determined to mark the occasion with another title, but the lack of major activity in the transfer market could hinder those prospects.”
Whilst I am a biased and over confident United fan, even I couldn’t have expected the start to the season we’ve had. Well, we’re not even talking about starts anymore, because we’re over half way through the season. We’ve had a lot of “I told you so” moments from Ferguson so far. Firstly, Paul Scholes has been a revelation this season, just as Ferguson said he would be. Whilst Ronaldo has taken the plaudits with his dazzling skill and plentiful goals, Paul has been the driving force behind our success so far this season. He is having one of the best seasons of his career, which says a lot when you look at his track record at our club, and has been more important than any player we had the possibility of signing. Secondly, that our squad is capable of competing with Roman’s Chelsea. At this point, whether we win the league or not is irrelevant, because Ferguson has proved he’s capable of putting together a team that can challenge at the top, which is something that had been written off in the summer. Thirdly, that Ferguson was right to sell on Ruud van Nistelrooy. The press said it was a mistake, and that United needed this guarantee of goals. Well, a few months down the line, United have an average of more than two goals a game in the league, with Ronaldo, Rooney and Saha all in the top four scorers bracket in the league. Fourthly, that Ferguson was right to put his faith in Rooney and Ronaldo, who have flourished together this season. The start of this was first day of the season against Fulham, when the two youngster steam rolled the opposition. Rooney scored two, and Ronaldo bagged one. Since then, it is clear there is no bad feeling between the pair of them, with them both working hard to provide for the other, playing some dazzling football.
Ferguson ends 2006 with his sixty fifth birthday, on December 31st, and whilst he’s had better, more trophy filled years as a Manchester United manager, this one ranks pretty highly. Let’s not forget, with no Roman Abromovich, United would be starting 2007 fourteen points clear at the top of the league. Now we have stiffer competition, and whilst it’s taken us a couple of years to adjust, we’re finally proving a point. Whilst we know dominance of the domestic scene comes in cycles, United aren’t ready to give up theirs yet. Here’s to 2007 starting as well as 2006 finished.