Sir Alex Ferguson will quit as Manchester United manager at the end of the season.
The Scot took charge of the Old Trafford club back in November 1986, when he succeeded the sacked Ron Atkinson. At the time, the Reds had gone 19 years without winning the league title, and they were flirting with relegation after six defeats in their opening 13 matches. Ferguson eventually steered them to an 11th place finish, and the following season, his first full campaign, there was a marked improvement as they finished runners-up and just nine points behind champions Liverpool.
Knocking the Anfield club off their perch was to become something of a personal quest for the United manager, but the Merseyside club won their 18th title just two years later when their rivals from Manchester were still stuck on seven. Little could anyone have guessed at the time that the years that followed could see Liverpool fail to add to their tally, whilst Ferguson was about to embark on a trophy-collecting spree like none before.
The FA Cup came first in 1990, which was followed by the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1991, the League Cup in 1992, and then, finally, the end of a 26-year wait for the title when the Reds won the inaugural Premier League in 1993. The remainder of the decade would see a further four titles, three FA Cups and a first UEFA Champions League since 1968; a haul which included two Doubles (1994 and 1996) and a unique Treble (1999).
United began the following decade with two more title wins, and then Ferguson announced he would step down as manager at the end of the 2001-02 season. However, just when it looked as though Sven Goran Eriksson was set to be installed in the hotseat, the former Aberdeen boss had a change of heart and he continued at Old Trafford, winning more titles in 2003, 2007, 2008 and, in 2009, a record-equalling 18th crown. This period also coincided with more FA Cup success in 2004, three more League Cups in 2006, 2009 and 2010 and, in a memorable shootout win against Chelsea, a second Champions League.
Liverpool were finally knocked well and truly off their perch in 2011 when United officially became the most successful team in English league history, as they won a record 19th title. And after missing out on goal difference against neighbours City last season, Ferguson has this season secured another title, to make it 20, with a typically relentless pursuit ensuring the crown was wrestled across Manchester before the calendar had turned to May.
There have been disappointments, of course. Such as in 1992 when it looked as though the wait for a league title was over, until a sequence of three defeats in their last four matches gave Leeds United glory. Three years later, when going for a third successive success, it was Blackburn Rovers and old foe Kenny Dalglish who spoiled the party, when they pipped the Reds by a single point. And then, arguably worst of all, last season, when it looked as though the title was in the bag until Sergio Aguero won it with the last kick of the campaign.
Only Aston Villa’s George Ramsey can boast more than Ferguson’s five FA Cup wins, but the last time United tasted success in the famous competition was back in 2004 when Millwall, of the second-tier, were beaten 3-0. There were heartaches in 1995 when, after missing out to Blackburn in the league, Everton beat the Reds at Wembley; 10 years later a negative Arsenal held United to a goalless draw before lifting the trophy after a penalty shootout; and in 2007, a late Didier Drogba goal was enough for Chelsea to collect the honour.
But one of Ferguson’s biggest regrets will no doubt be in the Champions League. Although his two successes – that remarkable comeback against Bayern Munich in 1999 and the penalty success against Chelsea in a rain-soaked Moscow – provide the club with two of its finest moments, there is a general acceptance that the giant pot should have been lifted on more occasions. Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Milan have all stopped them in the semi-final, whilst Barcelona have emerged victorious from finals in 2009 and 2011.
But it will be the trophies Ferguson has won, and not his near misses, which he will ultimately be remembered for – as well as the many number of players who have served under him, and the fine teams he has assembled during his 26-year tenure.
There have been some sensational signings: Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Roy Keane, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Cristiano Ronaldo to name just a few. And then there was Eric Cantona, snatched from under the noses of then-champions Leeds United for a bargain £1million before he went on to prove the catalyst in those breakthrough glory years. There have also been some duffers in there, of course: Massimo Taibi, David Bellion, Kleberson, Dong Fangzhou, Massimo Taibi, Bebe or what about the £29.1million splashed out on Juan Sebastian Veron? A great player, but he rarely showed his quality whilst in England (although Ferguson did once famously insist he was “a fucking great player,” before lambasting the assembled journalists: “youse are all fucking idiots.”)
But some players who didn’t cost a penny would go on to become as good as any of the latest record-breaking transfers, most notably the class of 1992 such as David Beckham, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt. And Ryan Giggs, the most decorated and most represented player in the club’s history who made his debut in 1991 and, at the age of 39, signed a new one-year contract earlier this year. And the production line continues to work: Tom Cleverley, Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck all featuring heavily this season, complemented by young signings such as David De Gea, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Rafael da Silva; players likely to form the basis of the first team for some time yet.
With so many quality players serving under him over the years, it is only natural that Ferguson has built some fine sides. The Treble-winning team of 1999, including the youngsters of seven years previous and bolstered by the likes of Schmeichel, Keane, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, will probably be remembered by many as the best. The team that won the title in 2003, with Scholes, Beckham and van Nistelrooy at their peak, was a joy to watch at times, as was the next title-winning side four years later which included the formidable central defensive pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, as well as the brilliant Wayne Rooney and the soon-to-be all-conquering Ronaldo.
But the 1994 team, more than any, took the breath away: Schmeichel, Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister; Ince, Keane, Kanchelskis, Giggs; Cantona and Hughes. The team that won the club’s first ever league and cup double, and were denied a domestic treble only by a League Cup final defeat to Aston Villa at Wembley. And they would surely have gone far in Europe had they had more experience and were it not for the rule on ‘overseas’ players.
Maybe the next manager will build another side of such brilliance. Who knows? The only certainty is there will never be another manager like Sir Alex Ferguson.