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Premier League Hall of Fame: Sir Alex Ferguson

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was amongst the first two managers alongside Arsene Wenger to be inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame in 2023.

NameSir Alex Ferguson
Date of birth31/12/1941
Place of birthGlasgow, Scotland
Premier League clubsManchester United
Premier League matches810
Premier League wins528
Premier League titles13
Premier League Manager of the Month27
LMA Manager of the Year 5

When Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986, Manchester United trailed rivals Liverpool by 16 league titles to seven. 

It was hard to envision United taking over Liverpool under the Scotsman’s tenure. It was virtually impossible three years later with Liverpool closing in on an 18th league title and Ferguson nearing the sack.

But sport is filled with sliding doors moments, and there is perhaps no greater sliding doors moment in English football history than Manchester United’s decision to persevere with the underwhelming, underperforming Ferguson. 

From the zenith of the European Cup in 1968, to the nadir of relegation in 1974, each of Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson were left the impossible job of filling Sir Matt Busby’s shoes. 

Docherty took United back to the top flight, winning an FA Cup; Sexton took United to another FA Cup final and a runner-up finish in the league; Atkinson won two more FA Cups and started one league campaign with 10 straight wins.

But ultimately, every managerial hire proved to be no more than a false dawn. Each manager had glimpses of success, but no one was able to restore the glory days to Old Trafford. 

A call was then made to the manager of Aberdeen, a man who’d guided the Dons to a first league title since 1955, a man who’d broken the 14-year duopoly of Celtic and Rangers, then winning two more league titles, four Scottish Cups and even beating Real Madrid to win the Cup Winners’ Cup. 

But following Ferguson’s arrival in November 1986, United’s league finishes were 11th, 2nd, 11th and 13th, and they would end the decade 15th in the First Division.

Despite assurances his job was safe, Ferguson knew pressure was mounting from fans and media amid a lack of success, with a banner citing the ‘three years of excuses’. United had struggled with injuries at various times and the club required a total rebuild, but failure to experience some tangible success in Ferguson’s fourth season would have likely drawn his United tenure to a close.

Back from the brink...

Struggling in the league, the Red Devils finally won some silverware in 1990 with the FA Cup. It was perhaps the trophy that saved Ferguson’s job.

United then won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991 and should’ve won the league in 1992.

Then the Premier League – and Eric Cantona – arrived. 

United were in a position to challenge for a title but desperately needed firepower. Ferguson had signed Dion Dublin, who broke his leg soon after his debut, and made unsuccessful moves for David Hirst and Alan Shearer. Eventually, United turned to a mercurial Frenchman losing his way at Leeds.

Cantona would help fire United to a first league title in 26 years. Two decades of false dawns were behind them, with only sunlit uplands ahead.

United would hold off the challenge of newly rich Blackburn the following season, completing a league and cup double. 

With Cantona serving a lengthy suspension in the second half of the 1994/95 season, United were denied a third straight crown with Blackburn finally getting over the line.

Upon arriving at Old Trafford, Ferguson recognised the club was nowhere near the standard required and an overhaul was desperately needed, particularly regarding the culture within the playing staff. Key members of Manchester United’s cup winning sides of the 1980s would be turfed out. 

In the summer of 1995, Ferguson set about a similar overhaul.

Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis departed, with the likes of Paul Parker, Gary Pallister and Brian McClair playing reduced roles as the Class of ’92 were introduced. 

Having surrendered the title the previous season and lost key players that summer, critics questioned the decision not to make any major signings, even more so when United lost 3-1 to Aston Villa on the opening day of the campaign. 

3-0 down at half-time, Ferguson fielded Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes with David Beckham coming off the bench. Between them, they had a combined 37 Premier League starts to their name.

“You can’t win anything with kids,” was the declaration of Alan Hansen. 

Blackburn failed to build on their momentum, but Newcastle, with Kevin Keegan at the helm and big-money signings at the club, launched a title challenge and looked like going all the way. But for a series of match-winning performances from Cantona after the turn of the year and a collapse from Newcastle, United would have finished second once more. 

As it was, Ferguson had guided United to another double.

The arrival of Arsene Wenger the following season would represent the latest challenge thrown at Ferguson’s door, and unlike Kenny Dalglish and Keegan, the Frenchman really got under Ferguson’s skin. Perhaps recognising that in Wenger he had an adversary who could create and sustain title-challenging sides, Ferguson was quick to belittle Wenger’s managerial accomplishments; after all, he’d ‘come from Japan’.

In 1997, Ferguson would guide United to a fourth title in five seasons. The Glaswegian would later state that his biggest challenge at Manchester United was knocking Liverpool off their perch. That had been accomplished, but they were still seven titles behind, and there was much more to come.

The departure of Cantona and a season-ending injury to new captain Roy Keane saw United toppled by Wenger’s Arsenal in 1998, but United would come back stronger to achieve arguably the greatest accomplishment in English football the following campaign. 

A dynasty

Ferguson’s United sides had a habit of coming on strong in the second half of the season, and in 1999, they did just that. Battling on three fronts, United went unbeaten in the second half of the season to win the title on the final day, coming from behind to beat Tottenham. They’d then beat Newcastle in the FA Cup final and Bayern Munich in the most dramatic Champions League final of all time to seal a historic treble. 

Two more titles followed in successive years, with United and Ferguson now establishing a dynasty. In the nine years between 1975/76 and 1983/84, Liverpool won seven titles. In the nine years between 1992/93 and 2000/01, United had done the same.

A dispute with the board saw Ferguson shockingly announce his retirement at the end of the following season, a season which United would labour through. Nine points behind Liverpool – who had a game in hand – after 16 matches, it wasn’t for another two months that Ferguson u-turned. It coincided with a period of good form for the Red Devils, though they were too far back in the title race, and would see rivals Arsenal win the league at Old Trafford on the penultimate game of the season.

As they always did after missing out on the title, United hit back strongly. The signing of Rio Ferdinand for a world-record fee strengthened the side at the back, while Ruud van Nistelrooy went on a rampage at the end of the season, scoring 13 goals in the final eight games of the season with United overtaking Arsenal and reclaiming their crown.

It was the summer of 2003 that would signal the start of one of Ferguson’s biggest tests of his United career. Ferguson didn’t just have Wenger and Arsenal to worry about, but the mega-wealthy Chelsea, having been taken over by Roman Abramovich. Chelsea spent huge sums of money creating a brand new side; one that could challenge for the title.

United came a distant third behind Arsenal’s Invincibles, and a new era was ushered in. 

With Jose Mourinho now at the helm, Chelsea had become nigh-on unbeatable. Arsenal were in a position to become England’s top dogs and Ferguson’s squad was in a state of flux. David Beckham had left, Roy Keane was getting older, while the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo weren’t quite ready to take the mantle as team leaders. 

Although United would end Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run – effectively bringing about the end of Arsenal as a title-challenging team – Chelsea would march to back-to-back titles.

After three long years, however, United were ready to challenge again. Ronaldo and Rooney had matured into genuine world class talents while Ferdinand had been joined by Nemanja Vidic in defence. Keane had been replaced by Michael Carrick in midfield as Ferguson evolved his tactical style. The game was less about blood-and-thunder battles in midfield, and the likes of Bryan Robson, Ince and Keane, who’d dominated midfields in the first decade of Ferguson’s reign, were replaced by the more elegant ball-players in Carrick and Scholes. 

It was the second truly great United side Ferguson had assembled. Chelsea had been dethroned, leading to Mourinho’s exit the following autumn, while Arsenal weren’t able to adequately replace Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. 

Mourinho lasted three years and Wenger had lasted longer than the rest, but Ferguson had seen them both off. Arsenal would still be regulars in the top four and Wenger would actually outlast Ferguson in the dugout, but the title battles of years past were no more. Once again, Sir Alex Ferguson stood peerless.

With United claiming back-to-back titles, Liverpool’s Rafael Benitez stepped forward as the next contender. Benitez won the Champions League in his first season with the Reds, but the side was a long way off being title challengers. 

The partnership of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in midfield, however, meant that Steven Gerrard could play a more advanced role behind Fernando Torres. 2008/09 was Gerrard’s best campaign in a Liverpool shirt, while Torres was often unplayable, and Liverpool even recorded a 4-1 win at Old Trafford to keep the title race alive, but Ferguson and United were again too good. It was three in a row once more.

Trouble in paradise

The departure of Ronaldo – as with Cantona 11 years later – proved just too much for United the following year, as Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea reigned supreme. Ferguson had been hampered by a lack of investment, certainly compared to their rivals, and it led to another stern test of Ferguson’s managerial skills.

Manchester City, as Chelsea did a few years before, were out buying all and sundry to create a side capable of challenging for the title, and a few months into the season, Rooney announced his desire to leave Manchester United, citing a lack of ambition from the club. Ferguson made the spat public, offering a peculiar riposte about cows in fields which could be summed up as telling Rooney that the grass isn’t always greener.

It wasn’t a protracted saga, but one that rocked United nonetheless, and Ferguson convinced Rooney to sign a new deal that would see him spend the rest of his days as a top-level footballer at the club. 

Sure enough, Rooney would score the decisive penalty that season that saw Manchester United overtake Liverpool with 19 league titles.

When Ferguson took over in 1986, Liverpool were reigning champions on 16 titles and would add two more in 1988 and 1990; Manchester United, meanwhile, lagged behind with seven. 

Across his 26 years at Old Trafford, Ferguson was perhaps as well known for his quotes in the media as well as any of his achievements in the dugout. Ferguson would take aim at the press, rival teams, rival managers, even his own players on occasion.

But perhaps the most prescient quote was one from 1988: “This isn't just a job to me. It's a mission. I am deadly serious about it. Some people would reckon too serious. We will get there, believe me. And when it happens, life will change for Liverpool and everyone else - dramatically."

Ferguson retired in 2013 after 26 years in the hotseat at Old Trafford. 

Final score: Liverpool 18-20 Manchester United.

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