Part One | Part Two
In the mid-1980s, from north of the English border, came a man who had managed Aberdeen Football Club1 to awaken the sleeping giant of an underachieving club called Manchester United. Ferguson would turn the tide of mid-table mediocrity and relegation battles into a crashing wave of success while maintaining his own no-nonsense style. He would also succeed in making the club the most unpopular in the country, until of course Roman Abramovich opened his cheque book at Chelsea.
He Arrives At Old Trafford
Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager at Old Trafford on 6 November, 1986. Although United were one of the richest clubs in Britain, they were second from bottom in the First Division2 and relegation looked a real possibility. Ferguson was worried that many of the players were living unprofessional lifestyles and drinking too much, and was 'depressed' by their level of fitness. But in a style later to become his trademark he increased the players' discipline and United climbed up the table to finish the season in 11th place. However, his mother died from lung cancer in late 1986.
Ferguson made several major signings in the 1987/88 season, including Steve Bruce, Viv Anderson, Brian McClair and Jim Leighton. The new players greatly improved the team and that season they finished as runners-up in the First Division, nine points behind rivals Liverpool.
United were expected to do well when Mark Hughes returned to the club, but the 1988/89 season was a disappointment for them, finishing 11th in the league and losing 1–0 at home to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup quarter-final.
First Trophy In England
During the summer of 1989, United signed two new midfielders to bolster their chances of success in the 1989 - 90 season: Nottingham Forest's Neil Webb and West Ham United's Paul Ince. Middlesbrough's 24 year old central defender Gary Pallister also joined the club for a fee of £2.3 million. On the opening day of the 1989/90 season United beat defending champions Arsenal 4-1, and there was hope that the league title would return to Old Trafford despite having being absent since 1967. But in September, United suffered a humiliating 5–1 away defeat against neighbours Manchester City. Things did not improve during the rest of the 1989, with many journalists and supporters calling for Ferguson to be sacked, and in November a banner declaring Three years of excuses and it's still crap. Ta ra Fergie. was displayed at Old Trafford. United went on a run of six defeats and two draws in eight games and Ferguson later described December 1989 as 'the darkest period [he had] ever suffered in the game.'
In January 1990, Manchester United were drawn away to Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup. Forest were one of the most feared cup teams in that era, and it was expected that United would lose the match and Ferguson would consequently be sacked, but United won the game 1–0 and eventually reached the final. This cup win is often cited to this day as the match which saved Ferguson's Old Trafford career.
In the final United drew 3–3 with Crystal Palace. United's goalkeeper, Jim Leighton, was heavily criticised for two of Crystal Palace's goals, with his form over the whole season having been poor. Ferguson surprised many by replacing Leighton with Les Sealey for the replay, feeling that Leighton was 'not in the right mental state' to play the match. United won the match 1–0 with a goal from defender Lee Martin. As FA Cup winners, United became England's representatives in the European Cup Winners Cup the following season. However, they had finished a disappointing 13th in the league.
European Success (Of Sorts), but League Disappointment
Although United's league form improved greatly in 1990–91, they were still inconsistent and finished sixth. However, their cup performances were far more impressive. They reached the League Cup final after impressive wins over Liverpool and Arsenal, but lost 1–0 to Sheffield Wednesday, who were managed by Ferguson's predecessor at United, Ron Atkinson. They also reached the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup, beating that season's Spanish champions Barcelona to take the trophy. After the match, Ferguson announced to journalists that United would win the league the following season. It was a brave statement, considering that the club had failed to do so since 1967.
The 1991/92 season was a disaster for United, and in Ferguson's words, 'many in the media felt that [his] mistakes had contributed to the misery'. They won the League Cup for the first time but lost out on the league title to Leeds United after leading the table for much of the season. Ferguson felt that his failure to sign Mick Harford from Luton Town had cost United the league, and that he needed 'an extra dimension' to the team if they were to win the league the following season.
1992/1993: The Wait Is Over
After a slow start to the season, with United coming 10th out of 22 at the beginning of November, it looked as though United would miss out on the championship again. However, Alex Ferguson then paid Leeds United £1.2million for their temperamental French striker Eric Cantona3, a deal which proved to be a turning point in the history of the club. Cantona formed a strong partnership with Mark Hughes and fired the club to the top of the table, ending United's 26-year wait, and also making them the first ever Premiership Champions after the league reform. Alex Ferguson was voted Manager of the Year by the League Managers' Association.
1993/1994: The Double
1993/94 brought more success for Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. He added Nottingham Forest's 22-year-old midfielder Roy Keane to the ranks for a British record fee of £3.75million. Keane was to be a long term replacement for Bryan Robson, although the Old Trafford legend remained in the squad for one more season.
United led the 1993/94 Premiership table virtually from start to finish and this time they finished champions ahead of runners-up Blackburn. Eric Cantona was top scorer with 25 goals in all competitions despite being sent off twice in the space of five days in March 1994. United also reached the League Cup final but lost 3-1 to Ron Atkinson's Aston Villa. In the FA Cup final Manchester United achieved an impressive 4-0 scoreline against Chelsea, and the result confirmed Alex Ferguson's place as one of the greatest managers in the English game. United had become only the sixth club ever to win the League Championship/FA Cup double. Ferguson made only one close-season signing, paying Blackburn Rovers £1.2million for David May.
1994/1995: Trophyless Season
1994/95 was perhaps Alex Ferguson's second most difficult season as Manchester United manager after 1989 - 1990. Key players like Paul Parker, Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis were absent in many matches because of injury, and Eric Cantona was absent for the final four months of the season as he began an eight-month ban for assaulting a Crystal Palace supporter in a game at Selhurst Park4. Cantona also received a 14-day prison sentence for the offence but the sentence was quashed on appeal and replaced by a 120-hour community service order. On the brighter side, United hit the headlines two weeks before the Cantona incident when they paid a British record fee of £7million for Newcastle's prolific striker Andy Cole, who began his Old Trafford career with 12 goals in 18 league games.
However, the championship slipped out of Manchester United's grasp as they drew 1–1 with West Ham United on the final day of the season, when a win would have given them the league. United also lost the FA Cup final in a 1-0 defeat to Everton.
1995/1996: 'You Can't Win Anything With Kids'
Ferguson was heavily criticised in the summer of 1995 when three of United's star players were allowed to leave and replacements were not bought. First Paul Ince moved to Inter Milan of Italy for £7.5million. Ince was a regular England international but had fallen out with Ferguson. Within 24 hours of Ince's departure, long-serving striker Mark Hughes was suddenly sold to Chelsea in a £1.5million deal, after it emerged that he had not signed the contract he had been offered the previous January. Shortly afterwards, Andrei Kanchelskis was sold to Everton. It was widely known that Ferguson felt that United had a number of young players who were ready to play in the first team, but there was considerable scepticism that they would be adequate replacements for Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis. The youngsters, who would be known as 'Fergie's Fledglings', included Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, who would all go on to be important members of the team.
When United lost their first league match 3–1 to Aston Villa, the media swooped upon Ferguson with undisguised glee. They wrote United off because Alex Ferguson's squad contained so many young and inexperienced players. Indeed, BBC's Match of the Day pundit, Alan Hansen infamously proclaimed that 'you can't win anything with kids'.
However, the young players performed well and United won their next five matches. Although boosted by Eric Cantona's return from suspension, they found themselves fourteen points behind Newcastle at one stage. However, a series of good results in early 1996 saw the gap close, and from early March onwards United led the table. This contrasted with a disastrous run of form for Newcastle, whose manager, Kevin Keegan, succumbed to the immense pressure of the title race, and the mind games Ferguson famously loves to play with opposing managers. His famous outburst on live television, 'I'd love it if we beat them! Love it!' has gone down in football legend as Fergie's greatest personal victory over another manager5. Their Premiership title success was confirmed on the final day of the season thanks to a 3-0 away win over Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough. They played Liverpool in that year's FA Cup final, winning 1–0 with a late goal by Eric Cantona.