Sir Alex Ferguson's incredible quarter century at Manchester United
In November 1986, the League Cup holders were Oxford United, now a fourth-flight team.
Wimbledon, the unrefined long-ball merchants, and Luton Town, now a non-league club, were in the top 10 of the table. In communist Romania, Steaua Bucharest were European champions. In Thatcherite England, the average Division One player was paid £544 (Dh3,200) a week, less than Wayne Rooney earns in an hour now.
Indeed, in 1986, the manager of Aberdeen was offered a pay cut to take charge of Manchester United. He took the job anyway.
It was a different game, and world, when Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford. In the subsequent quarter of a century, he has defined eras and straddled them, a pensioner in his 70th year remaining relevant long after younger rivals, such as Howard Wilkinson, George Graham and Kevin Keegan, became yesterday's men.
Ferguson has outlasted, outmanoeuvred and outscored his foes. He has endured a seemingly endless wait for a trophy and turned silverware into an annual gold rush. He has broken the British transfer record seven times and dispensed with a trio of his established stars to prove he could win the double with kids.
He has overturned Liverpool's historic dominance in England and, twice, returned Manchester United, the club who lost at Oxford in his first game, to the summit of European football. He has won more on his own than every other manager had between them in the previous 108 years of the club's history.
"He's surpassed the achievements of Sir Matt Busby," said Kenny Dalglish, one well-acquainted with the feats of great Scottish managers.
Statistically, Ferguson has surpassed pretty much everyone: 15 league titles, 12 of them in England, four major European honours, two of them Champions Leagues, 48 pieces of silverware, 37 of them residing in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet and 1,409 United games, 885 of them involving Ryan Giggs.
No one else has won so often for so long. No one has displayed the remorseless relentlessness of Ferguson. But, while inheriting a drinking culture and installing a winning a culture, few have forged greatness from such unpromising beginnings. In 1990, one of football's most famous banners was designed.
"Three years of excuses and it's still rubbish … ta-ra Fergie", it read. Now there have been 25 years of implausible rhetoric, accompanied by two decades of improbable deeds.
Immortality came on the evening Ferguson finally emulated Busby, with the comeback that became the reference point for umpteen examples of United's indefatigability. The 1999 Champions League final, complete with the injury-time turnaround of Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, featured Ferguson's finest side and provided his most famous quote: "Football. Bloody hell."
That was his defining moment, but his defining team was the first of three great sides (the class of 2008 are the others), the warriors of 1993/94. Their blend of attacking verve and ultra-competitiveness summed up Ferguson. They were inspired by his pivotal signing, a catalyst of idiosyncratic brilliance: Eric Cantona.
And yet to rewind 18 seasons is to be a transported back to another age: where 4-4-2 was invariably adopted, where the team never changed, where pace was less of a factor - while Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis had scorching speed, many of their colleagues did not - and foreign players a rarity. Ferguson was a rarity with three - Kanchelskis, Cantona and the great Peter Schmeichel.
Advance to the current day and a reason for Ferguson's extraordinary durability is apparent. He is the constant who can reinvent himself, the ultimate autocrat who can display a wonderfully deft touch with egos when their talent demands it, the ruthless executioner who finished the Old Trafford careers of David Beckham, Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy but who possesses an unashamedly sentimental streak, the advocate of the League Managers' Association who is less than comradely when peers threaten his pre-eminence, the Glaswegian socialist who has become a staunch defender of his free-market profiteer American owners.
He is 25 not out and, Ferguson being Ferguson, he is casting his gaze on the future. There is always another game to be won, another trophy to be secured, another goal to be achieved. And that, perhaps, is the reason why he has gone on and on and on.
Highlights of Ferguson's career
1990 – The first trophy. Ferguson had come as close as he ever would to getting the sack earlier in the season, and the FA Cup third-round victory over Nottingham Forest is often cited as the turning points. The club went on to lift the cup, winning a final replay against Crystal Palace.
1993 – The first title. The signing of Eric Cantona from Leeds proved inspirational to Manchester United and they went on to win the first Premier League title by 10 points from Aston Villa.
1996 – The phrase ‘You’ll win nothing with kids’ came back to haunt Alan Hansen as Fergie’s Fledglings shrugged off a slow start to pip Newcastle to the league title and beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final.
1999 – The treble. The strike partnership between Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke proved unstoppable as United reclaimed the league title from Arsenal, beat Newcastle in the FA Cup final and then pulled off the most stunning of last-gasp victories in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
2008 – A second European Cup and another league title. Ferguson’s United beat Chelsea to the Premier League and then saw off Avram Grant’s side on penalties in the final of the Champions League.
Published: November 6, 2011 04:00 AM