Sir Alexander Chapman Ferguson, a name synonymous with the success that has created the modern footballing behemoth of Manchester United, was born into the humble surroundings of 1940s Glasgow and grew up to become a modest professional footballer with St Johnstone and Rangers (amongst others) before setting out on the managerial career for which he has become so well-known.
So remarkable has Ferguson’s success been at Old Trafford over the last 24 years, his previous feats with St Mirren and Aberdeen have unfortunately been somewhat eclipsed. Starting his managerial career with East Stirlingshire at the age of 32 following his retirement as a player in 1974, Ferguson was convinced to join St Mirren by Willie Cunningham and Jock Stein after just a few months with The Shire.
It was to be with St Mirren that Ferguson established his reputation as one of Britain’s best young coaches, taking The Saints from their status as a relatively nondescript Second Division club to First Division champions in just three seasons. In Ferguson’s first full season in charge – the 1975/76 campaign – St Mirren finished sixth in the second tier with a relatively unspectacular record and a goal difference of zero.
However, just a season later the Love Street outfit showed signs of the newfound strength and confidence they had gained under Ferguson’s tutelage. With an astonishingly low average age of just 19, their brand of attractive passing football saw The Saints dominate the Second Division in 1976/77 and comfortable secure promotion to the Scottish Premier League.
The following campaign saw St Mirren’s young team narrowly escape the drop after a prolonged battle against relegation, an impressive achievement in itself, but behind the scenes Ferguson’s relationship with club chairman Willie Todd had dramatically worsened. Towards the end of the season Todd presented Ferguson with a list of ways – nearly all of which he still contests – in which the manager had breached his contract with the club, most of them involving disciplinary issues. Ferguson was promptly sacked, the only time he has ever been dismissed from a managerial post.
After attempting (and failing) to sue the club for wrongful dismissal, Ferguson took on the vacant managerial position at Aberdeen in the June of 1978 and set about transforming the club into a genuine force on both the domestic and European stages. His first season at Pittodrie was fairly underwhelming, The Dons – who had finished second the previous year – only managing a fourth-place finish to go with appearances in the semi-final of the Scottish FA Cup and the final of the League Cup.
As was the case with St Mirren, it was during his second season at the helm that Ferguson made a decisive and dramatic change to Aberdeen’s fortunes and its history. In 1979/80 Aberdeen pipped Celtic to the Premier Division title by just a solitary point, spurred on by the bewitching performances of a young Gordon Strachan on the wing. Despite missing out on the title a year later Ferguson’s Aberdeen were back to winning ways in 1982 with a Scottish Cup triumph before an astonishing Scottish Cup and Cup Winners Cup double in 1983.
The European success – which culminated in a 2-1 extra time victory over Real Madrid – was, before his time with Manchester United, Ferguson’s crowning achievement. Having clearly demonstrated his supreme managerial talent, the Scot left Aberdeen to join Manchester United in 1986 after Ron Atkinson’s sacking with The Dons established as one of the Scottish Premier League’s eminent forces.
Appointed at Old Trafford in the November of 1986, Ferguson’s tenure in Manchester didn’t start with the relentless success he has since come to be defined by. He had inherited a club with a strong drinking culture and what was rumoured to be a rather poor work ethic, the new manager being concerned that talented players such as Paul McGrath and Bryan Robson were squandering their careers with off-field excesses. A 2-0 defeat to Oxford United in Ferguson’s first game in charge did not bode well as the Red Devils stumbled to an eleventh place finish.
Ferguson’s first English title may not have come until the 1992/93 season, but all the while he was laying plans, changing the internal culture at the club and steadily constructing the team that would go on to dominate domestic football during the early 1990s. Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce and Viv Anderson all joined the club in 1987 and quickly improved United’s fortunes as they finished second to Liverpool in Ferguson’s second season. A very disappointing campaign was to follow in 1989/90 – the closest the Scot has ever come to losing his job at Old Trafford – before an FA Cup triumphed salvaged United’s pride.
It may not have been a particularly smooth start to life in Manchester for Ferguson, but as soon as the first title arrived – in the inaugural season of the Premier League – he didn’t look back. A master of refreshing his team season after season, Ferguson continually added to his squad players of a remarkable calibre. The likes of Roy Keane, Eric Cantona and Andy Cole all arrived at Old Trafford during the mid-1990s and had an enormous impact on the club, United steamrollering their way to four titles in six years.
One of the main features of Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford has been the effective way in which he has nurtured young talent, a policy that paid dividends during the 1998/99 season which saw United claim an historic treble – Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League – inspired by a maturing generation of youth players including David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers.
It was during that season that Manchester United were at their imperious best under Ferguson, the team perfectly balanced in all departments all the way from Peter Schmeichel in goal through to Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke’s prolific strike partnership. The late drama of the Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich was a fitting tribute to the excellent football and fighting spirit of what has gone down as one of the greatest British teams of all time.
It would have been easy for Ferguson to rest on his laurels after the treble but again he set about regenerating his squad. The early 2000s saw another three league titles claimed with a new generation of players including Rio Ferdinand and Ruud van Nistelrooy coming to the fore and continuing the club’s domestic dominance. A brief barren spell in the league beset the club between 2003 and 2006 before United emphatically returned to form during the 2006/07 season
Indeed, the late 2000s, with his team spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, was to be prove yet another glittering period in Ferguson’s career. Demonstrating an increasing tactical flexibility “Fergie” guided his team to three consecutive league titles and, in 2008, another Champions League triumph as Chelsea were beaten on penalties in the final in Moscow. Despite occasional rumours that the Scot was soon to retire resurfacing intermittently throughout the last decade, United’s recent achievements have shown that Ferguson is as capable as ever and just as astute in his tactical strategy and development of young players.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s success in British football is unmatched and his legacy continues to grow at an astounding rate. A true managerial great.