On the 6th November 1986, Alex Ferguson set about rebuilding Manchester United in his own image. We all know what happened next. For November’s top five, in honour of its proximity to his anniversary, it seemed like it might be fun to pick out Fergie’s five best league title wins.
Number Five – “I Would Love it if we Beat Them”: 1995/6
Newcastle United were a heck of a fun side under Kevin Keegan. Never more so than when they blew their league title challenge after Keegan’s spectacular television meltdown. He revealed a pure rage and frustration at the machinations of the Machiavellian Manipulator extraordinaire that was Alex Ferguson. Although, actually, what Fergie said was relatively pedestrian, and the legend of his “mind-game” prowess was overstated by just how easily he got under Keegan’s skin.
The football was brilliant that season. The season turned on United’s backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win at St James’. Peter Schmeichel was absolutely immense that day, and, of course, Eric scored.
I’ve included this season as my one really personal pick. There might be other “bigger” league wins, but it is important to remember, that having lost the title to Blackburn the season before, it was not yet inevitable that Fergie’s United would become the 13 title winning behemoth it did.
Getting the trophy back from Keegan’s upstarts was vital. It was also the season which saw Cantona come back to the fold after his minor fly-kicking-someone-in-the-
It was also, of course, the “win nothing with kids” season. The Class of ’92 announced themselves, and with the mentorship of Fergie, Cantona and the other senior players, proved Alan Hansen’s proclamation as ill-advised as Keegan’s.
Number Four – Fergie’s Best Ever Side: 1993/94
I love the 1999 United team. I’m quite partial to the 2008 vintage. Heck, even though we’re a bit “not that great” I really love our current bunch.
But 1993/94 was something else. To quote no less a football authority than Status Quo “Schmeichel, Parker, Pallister, Irwin, Bruce, Sharp and Ince. Hughes, McClair, Keane and Cantona, Robson, Kanchelskis and Giggs!”
Denied European success by the three foreigners rule, which included those from Scotland and Wales, United’s domestic dominance was total. Keane had been added to the already brilliant side, Cantona scored 25 goals in all competitions and United won the league by 8 points over a very decent Blackburn Rovers side.
The moment the season turned on, in my memory, was the FA Cup Semi Final against Oldham. Behind in extra time, Mark Hughes scored an absolutely stunning goal which took that game to a replay, and added momentum to United’s title charge and victorious FA Cup run. Not the last time a goal in an FA Cup semi-final would be critical in a multiple trophy winning season…
Number Three – Viva Ronaldo: 2007/08
The summer of 2007 saw the expensive acquisitions of Nani, Anderson and Owen Hargreaves. Although none of them would be successful in the long run, they all made significant contributions to one of Sir Alex’s best ever achievements.
It is often said of tennis that players raise their game when facing superior opponents. 2007/08 saw United fend off the challenge of a resurgent Chelsea, who came within 2 points of winning the league and one not at all hilarious John Terry falling over and missing a penalty, let me just say that again, John Terry falling over and missing a penalty, of winning the Champions League.
However, we won them both. Partly because Alex Ferguson had thoroughly rediscovered his mojo. Partly because the dominant defensive triumvirate of Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were at their very best. Partly because Anderson and Hargreaves added much needed quality to our midfield (for a bit).
However, even with all those immense contributions, the lion’s share of the plaudits for United’s 2007/08 season belong to a preening Portuguese football genius. It was the campaign in which Cristiano Ronaldo truly stepped onto the stage as a world great. He won the Ballon D’Or for his troubles, and scored goal after spectacular goal as United marched on to glorious success.
Number Two – Where it all Began: 1992/93
I was 15 years old when United won the first league title they had won in my lifetime. 26 years might as well have been forever. Fergie had been so close to winning the league on the more mathematically pleasing 25th anniversary of our last title win, but a limp second half of the season put paid to that.
1992 marked a brave new world, as the Premier League (or “football” if you believe Sky Sports) was born. It also marked a brave new world for United and Fergie. Everything changed forever on the 26th November, when the most surprising, magical and successful transfer I can ever remember happened. Eric came along and galvanised a spluttering side whose record in the league up to that point was a peculiar LLDWWWWWDDDDDLLW.
Having lost four games before he arrived in November, United only lost two more for the rest of the season, and won the league by 10 points. A new era had truly begun.
Number One – Manchester United Have Reached the Promised Land: 1998/99
Fergie’s most remarkable season couldn’t have happened without the league title, so 1999 wins the number one slot.
Like each of the three trophies in the treble, the league was hard-won. Arsenal’s excellence was forced into second place by effort of will and remarkable determination. The difference between the style of the two sides is evident in the league table. United’s goal difference was one better than the Gunners’, but we scored 21 more goals than they managed. Their mean defence was their biggest strength, our swashbuckling attack was ours.
Famously, United needed to beat Spurs on the final day of the season. Of course, Spurs went ahead, because it was 1999, so nothing could be easy. Les Ferdinand later reported mixed feelings, as his goal looked like it might give Arsenal the league.
It didn’t, however, thanks to David Beckham and Andy Cole’s superlative lob.
Arsenal were not United’s only challengers, with Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea only 4 points behind. However, United had too much for all comers, in the end, and managed to win one of Fergie’s most hard fought league titles.
For more details on the nuance of the season, Daniel Harris’s brilliant book “The Promised Land” is well worth a read. Time spent glorying in the 1998/99 season is always a treat. The sheer triumph of May 1999 will never be forgotten by anyone that witnessed it.