Thursday, May 16, 2013

The magnificent reign of Ferguson at Manchester United: It all hinged on one quite brilliant signing...

Manchester United have won back the trophy that they lost in such dramatic circumstances last May to local rivals Manchester City. This season's battle for the title was once again contested by Manchester's finest, but the end result couldn't have been more of a contrast; by the end of April, City had all but thrown in the towel and United's consistency saw the Red Devils romp home with games to spare. Job done.

However, the euphoria of winning the Premier League title for the thirteenth time has been overshadowed by Sir Alex Ferguson's decision to retire after 26 trophy laden years at Old Trafford. The thought of Fergie not being on the United bench next season is something the fans' are having to come to terms with and it isn't easy. It will never quite be the same without the man who has given United fans so much pleasure for the best part of three decades.

It's difficult to quantify what Ferguson has done for United; in terms of winning trophies it is easy, quite simply, he is the most successful British manager ever. But Ferguson's remit went way beyond managing the first team; from the beginning, the man from Govan has ruled everything to do with the playing side of the club with an iron rod.  Ferguson's control and leadership has given United stability - an all too rare commodity in the hire 'em 'n fire 'em Premier League.

Often arriving before 7am at Carrington, the club's training ground, Fergie's work ethic is well documented. Hard work is just one of many attributes, less often mentioned, but of equal importance is Ferguson's ability to keep everyone happy. Long after being sold, former United star Lee Sharpe went on record saying that Ferguson would drop players like any other manager, but unlike many of his contemporaries, he always made sure pride was left intact.

His ability to man-manage is rightly lauded, but perhaps slightly less so is his ability to spot a player.  If one player illustrates these characteristics perfectly, it was the signing of Eric Cantona in 1992. At that time, United were still struggling to win that elusive league title. In the summer of 1992, Ferguson had tried to sign Alan Shearer from Southampton and then David Hirst from Sheffield Wednesday, both without success; he eventually ended up signing Dion Dublin, who broke his leg just a few weeks into the season after completing his transfer from Cambridge United.

United faltered after making a promising start to the new season, but then to the amazement of his own players in November, Fergie signed Eric Cantona for just £1.2m. Former Liverpool captain Emlyn 'crazy horse' Hughes, described the signing as a 'panic buy'. Mark Hughes feared it might 'end in tears', while Gary Pallister wondered if Fergie had taken leave of his senses and had Cantona 'lost something' given the low transfer fee?

Despite only playing 15 games, the Frenchman had been instrumental in helping Leeds pip Manchester United on the finishing line to the league title in 1992. Cantona was a cult hero with the Leeds fans, but his relationship with Howard Wilkinson had become strained, so much so that a cut-price deal to bring him to Manchester was struck within an hour following a chance telephone conversation about the availability of Denis Irwin.

Howard Wilkinson famously said of Eric "He likes to do what he likes when he likes - and then f***s off. We'd all want a bit of that." While the Leeds manager had struggled with Cantona, Ferguson did not. The rest of the Manchester United squad soon realised that Eric had found his spiritual home - it was a match made in football heaven. The arrival of Eric helped transform a team of ‘nearly men’ into serial winners.

The importance of Cantona's arrival cannot be understated, and without doubt it was the catalyst that brought about an end to that long 26 year wait for a league title. The long wait finally ended when captain Steve Bruce scored two late goals against Sheffield Wednesday.

In 1993, Ferguson fought off competition from Kenny Dalglish and signed Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest - it was obvious his arrival would make United even stronger and it did with glorious back-to-back league titles. 

In January, 1995, Cantona was the attention of unwanted world headlines after he'd jumped into the crowd at Selhurst Park and kung-fu kicked Matthew Simmons. United suspended Cantona for four months - the FA increased than ban to 8 months. Everton went on to beat United at Wembley in the FA Cup final. Cantona threatened to quit English football, which led to Ferguson riding pillion on the back of a scooter around the streets of Paris in pursuit of his French talisman. What other manager would have gone to those lengths? Ferguson used his powers of persuasion to convince Cantona to carry on and thankfully he eventually agreed.

But in the summer of 1995 and to the fans absolute dismay, Fergie ripped up the team that had secured back to back titles and sold Paul Ince, Andre Kanchelskis and then Mark Hughes. The media had a field day. One of the tabloids ran a big story with an image of a light bulb alongside the headline "Will the last one out turn out the light" that was accompanied by an image of the club crest which had been split in two. From the outside looking in, it looked like United were imploding. United were about to lose three massive fans favourites.

A delegation of 'die-hard' United fans had a meeting Paul Ince, in the hope that sense would prevail. Nothing doing. Ince was sold to Inter Milan. Kanchelskis to Everton, and then Mark Hughes joined Chelsea.

For many United fans, the summer of 1995 was a difficult one. In the previous season, Fergie had blooded his fledglings in the League Cup. Despite what some fans thought at the time, the decision to sell the illustrious trio wasn't an act of madness, Ferguson had a plan. That plan was simple, he would replace a trio of top internationals with rising stars from the 'class of '92'.

Ryan Giggs had become the first of the fledglings to flourish when making his debut in 1991 and by the start of the 1992-93 season, the Welshman had carved out a regular starting place and it was his success that in part paved the way for the rest of the 'class of '92'.

The beginning of the 1995-96 season was something of a journey into uncharted waters - a hitherto successful team had been torn apart as Fergie started with a clean piece of paper. United went on to lose the first game of the new season at Villa Park, when going down 3-1. Match of the Day pundit, and former Liverpool skipper Alan Hansen aired his never to be forgotten quote "You'll win nothing with kids". Like many former top Scottish internationals, Hansen's voice carried authority - at least it did until then; those ill advised remarks have subsequently been rammed down this throat on many occasions.

United went on to overturn Newcastle's 10 point advantage at Christmas to win the title. Cantona wrapped up a League and FA Cup double at Wembley thanks to a memorable goal against Liverpool. In just one season, Fergie had not only ripped up a very successful team, but he'd built a new one. At the heart of it, was Eric Cantona.

The list of great United players who played under Ferguson is long and illustrious, but of all of them, Cantona is the most important. Cantona retired somewhat prematurely, in 1997, during that period United won the league title in 4 out of 5 seasons.
This blog will be looking back at the good and the bad times under Sir Alex Ferguson over the coming weeks.