Sunday, December 19, 2010

24 Not Out: the greatest manager of all time?

Today is a historic day for both Manchester United and its manager Sir Alex Ferguson as he surpasses Sir Matt Busby’s in becoming the longest serving manager in the club's history.

On a day that United's fixture against title rivals Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge, was postponed due to the snow it is, perhaps, fitting that there was nothing that could overshadow this astonishing achievement.

It is a sad indictment of the game that achievements such as these are so rare in a culture of mass turnover of managers is something we have become accustomed to. Just ask Sam Allardyce. Just ask Chris Hughton.

This is, however, an extraordinary reign which stems almost a quarter of a century. Ferguson has now been at the helm of the Red Devils for 24 years, one month and 14 days, overtaking the great Sir Matt Busby in the process.

Ferguson succeeded Ron Atkinson as manager of Manchester United in 1986, having enjoyed success as manager of Aberdeen in Scotland. Upon his arrival he was quick to point to his fellow compatriot's achievements and vowed to follow in Busby's footsteps, placing an emphasis on nurturing youth and bringing them through the ranks.

He endured a difficult beginning to his managerial career at Old Trafford. With inconsistent league form and a lack of trophies, Fergie was reportedly on the verge of being dismissed but was saved, it is widely believed, by a Mark Robins goal that saw United win 1-0 away to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup on January 7, 1990.

Ferguson has since admitted that it was at this stage during his reign that he was "for the first time, feeling uncomfortable about his position". Before Robins' goal, United had not won a league game since mid-November. The feeling of disenchantment was clear for all to see as a banner was unfurled at the Stretford End that read "3 Years of Excuses and Its Still Crap Ta Ra Fergie!". The victory against Forest may not have saved Ferguson's job but it bought him valuable time.

United went on to win the FA Cup that year, beating Crystal Palace in a replay, becoming Ferguson's first piece of silverware. The first trophy Sir Matt Busby won was also the FA Cup, some 27 years earlier, in 1963.

This FA Cup win was to the springboard for continued success at Manchester United under the stewardship of Ferguson. His first piece of silverware was swiftly followed by the European Cup Winners Cup and the UEFA Super Cup after beating Barcelona 2-1 and Red Star Belgrade 1-0 respectively, in 1991.

A domestic league title still eluded Ferguson and his team though and in the 1991/1992 season they finished runners-up to bitter rivals Leeds United in the old First Division. The following season heralded the start of a new era at Old Trafford and for Sir Alex.

The introduction of the Premier League saw a break-away league that formed the top-tier of English football, made up of 20 clubs. Having finished runners-up to Leeds the season before, Ferguson was keen to bolster his squad and, in doing so, made of the most significant and shrewd signings in the club's history.

Sir Matt had one 'king' playing for his United team in Denis Law and Fergie thought it was about time he had one. Paying Leeds £1.2million to acquire the services of Eric Cantona raised eyebrows at the time but over time Cantona was to become the new 'king' at the Theatre of Dreams.

Ferguson, with the help of Cantona, ended United's 26 year wait for a domestic league title and became the first Champions of the Premier League. This was repeated the following season but the 1994/95 season saw Blackburn Rovers pip Ferguson's men to the title on the final game of the season. It was a sad season for Manchester United as they had to say goodbye to the greatest manager they'd known as Sir Matt Busby died, aged 84, in 1994.

This failure, and the heartache of Busby's death, only spurred Sir Alex on though and in the 1995/96 season he guided United to their first ever League and FA Cup double. This achievement was undoubtedly made sweeter as it was the season in which emerging talents such as Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Phil Neville became integral components of the team. Following United's 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season lead to former Liverpool player and pundit Alan Hansen famously saying "you'll never win anything with kids". He's never been able to forget that comment.

One of Ferguson's greatest achievements came in the 1998/99 season. It was no secret that he wanted to win the UEFA Champions League, after all Sir Matt had won it in 1968. By the time the final arrived, United had already clinched the Premier League and the FA Cup. Ferguson and his players were standing on the edge of greatness. A double was magical, a treble was unthinkable. Trailing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in a packed Nou Camp in Barcelona with injury time fast approaching, it looked as though United had missed out on European glory. United won a corner and, as Beckham's cross was headed to the edge of the area, Ryan Giggs' scuffed shot was bundled home by Teddy Sheringham to draw level.

With seconds of injury time remaining United won another corner. Beckham whipped in a cross which was glanced on by Sheringham only for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to stab the ball past Oliver Kahn in the Munich goal. United were delirious, Munich were broken. Ferguson had done it, he'd won the treble and in the most dramatic of fashion.

Ferguson, like Busby before him, was knighted for his services to football in 1999. He followed this personal accolade up by becoming the first manager to win three consecutive Premier League titles. This record is still intact.

As the third round of the FA Cup of the 2010/11 season approaches with a date with Liverpool at Old Trafford, the trip to Forest in the same competition, in 1990, must seem a million miles away for Ferguson.

Since winning the FA Cup in 1990 he has guided Manchester United to 11 league titles which now has them tied with Liverpool on 18 domestic league titles. He has lead United to five FA Cup victories, four League Cup's, an Intercontinental and FIFA World Club Championship trophy and two Champions League victories.

Surpassing Busby's record in Europe was another astonishing achievement in Fergie's reign which was made better as it consisted of a nail-biting penalty shoot-out win over domestic title-rivals Cheslea in Moscow in 2008. Ferguson missed out on becoming the first team to retain the Champions League, since its re branding, when they were beaten 2-0 by Barcelona in Roma in 2009.

When Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford he promised to share the same vision as Sir Matt with the inclusion of youngsters from within being the key to success. It is fitting then, that on a day that Ferguson becomes the longest serving manager in Manchester United's illustrious history that David Beckham, one of the products of the Ferguson regime, is to be awarded the BBC Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Sports Personality of the Year ceremony.

When Sir Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United he vowed to follow in the footsteps of Sir Matt Busby. He’s done just that.. And then some.

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