Alex Ferguson – A lesson for modern football

“I will be leaving Manchester United at the end of the season and that is it.”

It has only taken 11 years for Alex Ferguson to live up to that statement, but now, after the announcement that David Moyes will replace him during the Summer, we are finally at the end of Fergie’s dominance of English football as he draws the curtains on a managerial career that has spanned almost four decades.

Sir Alex Ferguson with the Premier League trophy

Opinions about the man himself will differ depending on who you ask but it is impossible to dismiss the fact that he is one of the top managers the world of football has ever seen.

Before trying his hand at management, he played as a striker for a number of Scottish clubs including Queen’s Park, Dunfermline, Falkirk and Rangers, and although he never stayed at one club for very long, he can still boast a decent goalscoring record, scoring 171 goals in 317 league games.

“Ferguson was a frightening bastard from the start”

The words of ex player, Bobby McCullen, as Ferguson started his managerial career at East Sterlingshire in 1974. The team didn’t have a single goalkeeper at the club at the time but that didn’t stop him making a name for himself, attracting St. Mirren.

He managed the Paisley outfit for four years, taking them from the bottom half of the old Scottish Second Division to First Division champions in 1977. It was here where the first signs of the Scot we all know and love/loathe (again, depending on who you ask) emerged, when he was accused of intimidating behaviour towards his office secretary.

In 1978, Ferguson was sacked due to a breach of contract after he agreed to join Aberdeen.

After a difficult first year at Aberdeen, he was able to break up the duopoly of Celtic and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division and for the first time in 15 years, the league title was not heading back to Glasgow. Overall, he would go on to win the league title 3 times, in 1980, 1984 and 1985, but since then Aberdeen have not been able to win a single league title, which is in a way a testament to the job Ferguson did.

Ferguson celebrating with the ECWC trophy

He did not only bring domestic success to Pittodrie though, as he guided them to the European Cup Winners Cup, where his side beat Real Madrid in 1983, and then dispatched European Cup winning Hamburg in the European Super Cup, which the vast majority of people were not surprised about, considering how good Ferguson’s side was.

Along with the league and European titles, during his time in the Granite city, he also picked up four Scottish Cups, three of which in succession in 1982, 1983, and 1984, and a Scottish League cup.

Following summers of rejecting numerous job offers from England and Scotland, allegedly even Liverpool considered him to replace the retiring Joe Fagan, setting up one of the biggest “what if?” moments in football, he took up the position of Manchester United manager following Ron Atkinson’s sacking in November 1986.

“Three years of excuses and it’s still crap … ta-ra Fergie.”

These were the words written on a banner displayed at Old Trafford following a run of six defeats and two draws in eight games. It is nice to see that some fans and journalists were just as happy to get on a manager’s back in those days too, thank god Twitter wasn’t invented in the 1989/90 season.

Granted, at the time United were hovering above the relegation zone after a dismal start to the season but the club was in a position of transition ever since Fergie took the reigns.

When he first came in he was greeted by players with “depressing” levels of fitness due to heavy drinking, but, being the disciplinarian that he is, soon changed that and as the season went on the results started going their way. They finished the season in 11th after being in 21st place when he first took over.

This was followed up by finished in 2nd place the next season, 9 points behind champions Liverpool.

The before quoted banner

By the 1989/90 season, the entire United team, bar Bryan Robson and Mike Duxbury, had been overhauled. Over the three years that Fergie had been at the club, 16 players were signed at a cost of approximately £16m, and 18 had been shipped out, including star players Norman Whitehead and Paul McGrath in an attempt to get rid of the teams boozing. The signings included the likes of Steve Bruce, Paul Ince, Brian McClair, Viv Anderson and Mike Phelan.

After an good start initially, beating Arsenal 4-1, their form took a turn for the worse and that’s when the grumbles within the United fan base and media started to rear its ugly head.

More defeats led up to a cup game against Nottingham Forest, a game that had Ferguson’s career on a knife edge allegedly. For all the hype this game received it was a dour affair but it ended in Fergie’s favour. His fondness of using youth players paid off as a 20 year old Mark Robins nodded home a Mark Hughes cross, thus, making him “the man who saved Alex Ferguson’s job”.

It was later revealed that the board had assured him his job was safe and they were well aware of the factors behind their poor form, including several major injuries.

He would later go on to lift the FA Cup against Crystal Palace in a final replay and then the ECWC in 1991 for the second time in his career. This was only the beginning though as he vowed to win the league the following season.

Over the next few summers the United squad was changed further with the signings of Peter Schmeichel, winger Andrei Kanchelskis, and striker Dion Dublin. Youngsters from the United academy also made their way into the first team squad including Lee Sharpe and a certain Ryan Giggs.

Fergie couldn’t deliver on his pledge on winning the league during the 1991-92 season, but he did win the League cup. However, mid way through the 1992-93 season he signed a player who would change United’s and Ferguson’s future – Eric Cantona.

The Frenchman was signed from rivals Leeds United for £1.2m and was brought in at a time when United were in 10th place. By the end of the season United had a 10 point gap at the top of the league.

“You can’t win anything with kids”

Over the next few years more players that my generation of football fans will associate with United made their way into the squad as Roy Keane and Andy Cole were signed, and David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville were all promoted from the youth squads.

The words of former Liverpool defender and Match of the Day analyst, Alan Hanson following United’s 3-1 loss to Aston Villa on the opening day of the 1995-96 season.

For much of this season the side were trailing Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United, at one point by twelve points but they were able to claw back the deficit.

“I would love it if we beat them, love it!”

Unfortunately for Kevin Keegan, these words came back to bite him on his behind as United pipped Newcastle to the title by beating Middlesborough on the final game of the season. They also won the double yet again when they beat Liverpool 1-0 in the FA Cup final.

More familiar faces joined United over the next few years such as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Teddy Sheringham, who signed as a replacement for Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam.

United celebrate winning the ’99 CL final

The two formerly named players made a huge impact in the Champions League final with Bayern Munich in 1999, in which a win would make United treble winners after winning the league and the FA Cup.

After being 1-0 down for the majority of the game it was left until the dying minutes for the two front men to make themselves heroes in United folklore when they both scored, both from set pieces to make it 2-1, a result which made even Alex Ferguson lost for words as he said in an interview afterwards: “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football, bloody hell!”

I won’t bother with boring you by talking about 1999/2000 onwards as most of you would have lived through it anyway. Ferguson had built a side with an abundance of talent, skill, discipline and most importantly, the winning mentality. It is the latter skill which will be missed most by United when he leaves, how many times have we seen United behind and still end up with the three points? Far too many from this Liverpool fan’s point of view, it is a huge credit to the job he has done. Of course, there have been some sour moments that have left a terrible taste; his many moments of hypocrisy, his and his players’ constant badgering of the referees, and of course, when his team teaches us a lesson in how to play football, that’s the most annoying one. But, that is just his personality on the field – he is a win at all costs kind of guy and evidently it has been effective.

It isn’t just the trophies that he’s won that will set up there as one of the best managers of all time, it will be his ability to constantly keep United the top dogs in English football. He could lose half his current team and still be up there next season without breaking a sweat, and his current side isn’t even one of the best he’s ever had, again, it’s the mentality that he has beset in all of them.

It is easy to hate him when you look from the outside in, but you would have to be an idiot not to be able to respect him for what he has achieved.

It all comes down to another big “what if?” moment of football when you think about that cup game against Nottingham Forest. What if they lost? What if he was sacked? What would English football look like today?

Today too many managers are sacked far too early in to their time at a club; Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers and QPR are examples of clubs that are guilty of this. Managers need time to set their stamp on a team as instant/short term glory is far more appealing than long term glory that will take 4-5 years to come.

Since Benítez, Liverpool are on their 3rd manager in as many years and now I personally just want the club to stick with Brendan Rodger,s as sacking him and bringing in someone else, maybe with a different footballing philosophy, would just ruin all improvements made this season. Granted, I’m not saying he’ll be half as successful as Ferguson just if given the time, but you never know what could happen in the future.

As Fergie proved, it takes time to rebuild a club but it is far more rewarding when the transformation is complete, I just wish more clubs would learn from this.


Alex Ferguson’s honours

St. Mirren

Scottish First Division (1): 1976–77


Scottish Premier Division (3): 1979–80, 1983–84, 1984–85
Scottish Cup (4): 1981–82, 1982–83, 1983–84, 1985–86
Scottish League Cup (1): 1985–86
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1): 1982–83
UEFA Super Cup (1): 1983

Manchester United

Premier League (13): 1992–93, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2002–03, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2010–11,2012–13
FA Cup (5): 1989–90, 1993–94, 1995–96, 1998–99, 2003–04
League Cup (4): 1991–92, 2005–06, 2008–09, 2009–10
FA Charity/Community Shield (10): 1990 (shared), 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011
UEFA Champions League (2): 1998–99, 2007–08
UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1): 1990–91
UEFA Super Cup (1): 1991
Intercontinental Cup (1): 1999
FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2008


LMA Manager of the Decade (1): 1990s
LMA Manager of the Year (3): 1998–99, 2007–08, 2010–11
LMA Special Merit Award (2): 2009, 2011
Premier League Manager of the Season (10): 1993–94, 1995–96, 1996–97, 1998–99, 1999–2000, 2002–03, 2006–07, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2010–11
Premier League Manager of the Month (27): August 1993, October 1994, February 1996, March 1996, February 1997, October 1997, January 1999, April 1999, August 1999, March 2000, April 2000, February 2001, April 2003, December 2003, February 2005, March 2006, August 2006,October 2006, February 2007, January 2008, March 2008, January 2009, April 2009, September 2009, January 2011, August 2011, October 2012
UEFA Manager of the Year (1): 1998–99
UEFA Team of the Year (2): 2007, 2008
Onze d’Or Coach of the Year (3): 1999, 2007, 2008
IFFHS World’s Best Club Coach (2): 1999, 2008
IFFHS World’s Best Coach of the 21st Century (1): 2012
World Soccer Magazine World Manager of the Year (4): 1993, 1999, 2007, 2008
Laureus World Sports Award for Team of the Year (1): 2000
BBC Sports Personality of the Year Coach Award (1): 1999
BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year Award (1): 1999
BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award (1): 2001
English Football Hall of Fame (Manager) : 2002
European Hall of Fame (Manager): 2008
FIFA Presidential Award: 2011
Premier League 10 Seasons Awards (1992–93 – 2001–02)
Premier League 20 Seasons Awards (1992–93 – 2011–12)
Manager of the Decade
Most Coaching Appearances (392 games)
FWA Tribute Award : 1996
PFA Merit Award: 2007
Mussabini Medal : 1999

Orders and special awards

Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE): 1983
Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE): 1995
Knight Bachelor (Kt.): 1999


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