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Published: 19 November 2002

by John Ryan

In late 2000 Alex Ferguson announced that he would retire from the position of Manager of Manchester United at the end of the 2001-2002 season. The decision at the time made perfect sense as Ferguson approached his 60th birthday, wanted to spend time with his family and had done so much to make Manchester United the great club it is today. But now 2 years on from the announcement, United lie 5th in the Premiership, have question marks over their results and last season finished outside the top 2 in England for the very first time in 10 years. Alex Ferguson last season announced he would stay on as Manchester United Manager for 3 more years. What implications does this at this point have for Manchester United and when Alex Ferguson does leave the Manager's post, just how will he be remembered?

Alex Ferguson began being noticed by officials of English Clubs in the early 1980's after his success in Scotland with Aberdeen. With Celtic & Rangers domination proceedings, he smashed open their powersharing deal and set Aberdeen on the road to glory. As Manager of Aberdeen he brought them League Success in 1980, 84 & 85 including "The Double" in 1984, and beating the mighty Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup Winners Cup final. Ferguson took the job of Manager of Manchester United on November 6th 1986. Bryan Robson was quick to point out Ferguson's approach in comparison to United's previous manager, Ron Atkinson. "Ron would throw his arm around you and come out for a drink with the players. Alex tends to bully you to see how tough you are, what your response is". Although Ferguson had a lot of sorting out to do in bringing Manchester United back to the top of English football, United were still capable of beating Liverpool, the dominant team of that era. With his first visit to Anfield, he managed to lead United out of there with a 1-0 win and it wasn't until his 5th game V's Liverpool as United manager that United were beaten. This though might have been more symtomatic of United of that era, as despite failing to produce anything of note in the Title race in the early 80's, the previous manager had won 5 & drawn 7 of his 15 games V Liverpool. Ferguson though did throw down the gauntlet to Liverpool & stated that for United to become England's top team, Liverpool would have to be displaced. Ferguson's mandate was to make United Champions of England.

What Alex Ferguson's Manchester United have achieved is known to almost every fan of English football and beyond. From the time Ferguson landed his first trophy, The FA Cup in 1990 until his biggest prize of all, The European Cup in 1999, he had amassed 5 English titles, 4 FA Cups, The League Cup, Cup winners cup and then the Champions League. Yet a lot of his success is attributed to fear & motivation he instills in his players. Almost every player past & present to play for Manchester United have received what Gary Pallister (United 1989-98) described as "The Hairdryer teatment". This is where Fergie would stand toe to toe with a player & scream abuse in the players face, almost like a hairdryer drying the players hair. Ferguson was also famed for throwing tea cups about the dressing room at half time during games, using foul language to get his message across and in general being a no-nonsense manager. Others might criticise his methods, few will argue with his results.

In the modern game there is a belief that Alex Ferguson lacks tactical awareness, relying totally on fear, motivation & man-management. With United enjoying a trophyless season in 2002 the word seems to be that the expensive foreign signings are not receptive to Fergie's bouts of anger. Some claim that Ferguson has failed in Europe because playing against top players his tactics are exposed. But although Ferguson's record in the Champions League might be called to question simply because Manchester United have won the competition only once under Ferguson in 8 attempts, it would be wholly unfair to say he lacks tactical acumen. In European Competition Ferguson has won the Champions Cup, 2 European Cup Winners Cups and 2 European Super Cups. In a career so far in which he has competed in Europe 14 times, he has won 3 major trophies. In 8 Old Trafford efforts at the Champions League he has reached the quarter finals at least on 6 & the semi finals on 3 occasions. With Manchester United he has defeated Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Fiorentina, Valencia, Montepellier, Internazionale, and numerous other clubs. These wins are hardly the work of a manager relying totally on fear or man management to get him through a cup tie. In fact it is his days at Aberdeen where he should get most credit, as with a side who are not known for European conquests, he managed to beat Bayern Munich & Real Madrid to win the European Cup winners Cup. The following is a reference, which appears on the AberdeenFC website, describing Fergouson's reaction to going 1-2 behind at Pittodrie to Bayern in the CWC quarter final, a game Aberdeen had to win: Ferguson did not panic. He Made 2 changes bringing on John McMaster and John Hewitt.". Both players had a hand in the goals which gave Aberdeen a 3-2 win & sent them on their way to glory. In truth, few managers in the game can say they've won a European trophy with a club of the size of Aberdeen.

Possibly Ferguson being a man who is passionate to the core about Machester United is the reason people outside Old Trafford question the tactical mind of the Manager. Comparing him to Arsene Wenger & Gerard Houllier, Ferguson is easy the most likely of the 3 to get hot under the collar during a game. Does that mean they are more relaxed, even more intelligent Managers than him? That is entirely a matter of opinion, but Ferguson is the one with all of the silverware tucked away in his cabinet. Even when the media speak about "mind games" and how Arsene Wenger wound Ferguson up to win the title, it is a complete myth. Wenger did infuriate Ferguson in 1997 when Ferguson called for an extension to the season but got no support from the Arsenal Manager. The Myth is highlighted as United were still crowned champions that season, while Arsenal won the title the year after. Added to that, Wenger had to endure 3 seasons in Ferguson's shadow before Arsenal's 2002 double and saw his 1998 double overshadowed by the 1999 Treble. In truth, is there a manager in England who can say he has truly out-foxed Ferguson in terms of trophies or success?

Where critics of Ferguson can claim a victory is in his European battles with coaches of the ilk of Marcello Lippi and Ottmar Hittzfeld. Against Lippi, Ferguson's United have played Juventus 6 times with Ferguson winning 2 drawing 1 & losing 3 of the battles. In the champions League group stages of the 1996/97 & 97/98 competitions United played Juventus 4 times, winning 1 & losing 3 of those encounters. The 3-2 win in Oct 1997 was a high point in european terms, but the reality of the situation was that Juventus advanced to the final in both years. A semi final and quarter final was the best United could manage. Despite that one of Ferguson & United's greatest results was the 3-2 win in Turin in the 1999 CL semi final second leg. At 2-0 down Ferguson did something similar to all those years previous at Aberdeen when playing Bayern - he didn't panic, had belief in his team & won 3-2. That belief, one of his greatest assets stood to United that season & brought the club the glory it craved. Against Hittzfeld, Ferguson's record is less impressive. Hittzfeld, as coach of Borussia & Bayern has pitted his wits against Fergie on 9 times in the past 6 seasons. The results speak for themselves. Ferguson 1 Hittzfeld 4, 4 draws.Indeed were it not for the CL final win of 1999 Fergie's record V's Hittzfeld would be abysmal. Are these the facts the Ferguson critics thrive on? Possibly, but if this is the only armour Fergie's critics can display to knock his tactics then it is clear proof that United's floor in recent years has been Liverpool & Arsenal's ceiling. While Fergie has pitted his wits against the 2 aformentioned giants of the management world, Houllier & Wenger have had to deal with coaches & teams of lesser standing. I think Alex Ferguson relishes the greater challenge always & wants to be the best. To him, that means beating the best.

By his own admission, Ferguson appreciates loyalty. As a player he felt Glasgow Rangers did not show him loyalty & he turned his back on them. Having read his autobiography, he has given severe talkings to players like Mark hughes, Roy Keane & Eric Cantona in the past, yet has rarely if ever criticised them in public. In 1994 when Manchester United beat Sheffield United in the third round of the FA Cup at Bramall Lane, Mark Hughes was dismissed for a foul on one of the Sheffield players. Ferguson refused to criticise Hughes in the after match interviews yet after watching the video of the game, he privately berated Mark Hughes for "almost dislodging the players' testicles". Ferguson has done the same with Cantona & Keane, but all 3 players obviously appreciated his loyalty to play under him for so long. On the field too, Ferguson shows loyalty to his players. Andy Cole, after a difficult first full season at Manchester United was never shunned away in the reserve teams. Brian McClair when reaching the end of his playing days, was not asked to leave by Ferguson, instead kept as a seasoned professional on the bench ready to be called upon. The fact McClair was advising the younger players on their contracts with Manchester United was also a huge help to Ferguson. The mutual loyalty Ferguson enjoys with his players is a rich recipe for success. However there is also a limit to this as Jim Leighton found out after the drawn FA Cup final in 1990. When tough decisions have to be made, Ferguson is rarely found wanting. Jaap Stam will testify to this too.

In the transfer market, Ferguson is often criticised too with the criticism levelled at him that he is not as astute in the buying & selling of players as Houllier, Wenger, & other managers at lesser clubs. Comparing him with Wenger, the Arsenal manager definitely has done some fantastic business for Arsenal with deals like Patrick Vieira & Nicholas Anelka (the latter making Arsenal almost 20 million STG in profit). Houllier too has made some decent purchases, in players like Sammi Hyppia, Stephane Henchoz & Dietmar Hamann. Possibly, the difference though is that Ferguson has no fear of buying a player. Others may see that as just United being a rich club being able to fearlessly spend to buy top players, but let's not forget that for players who have not been a huge success like Neill Webb, Massimo Taibi and Diego Forlan thus far, Ferguson with the aid of his staff have nurtured the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Gary Neville, David Beckham, John O'Shea, Nicky Butt & Wes Brown. How much would these players make in today's transfer market? It would certainly cast a long shadow over the 20M Wenger raised in the sale of Anelka. Comparing Ferguson to Houllier, Houllier's successful purchases have all so far been defensive players. Ferguson has managed to land players like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Sheringham, Kanchelskis and of course, possibly the greatest signing of all, Eric Cantona. While the 2 French Managers seem reluctant to pay top dollar for the biggest names in World football Ferguson has no such reservations. In the seasons leading up to the Arsenal double of 1998 Wenger bought players like Christopher Wreh, Luis Boa Morte, Alex Manniger & Gilles Grimandi. To his credit, Wenger landed domestic success with these players. In the summer of 1998 Ferguson spent 28 million on Blomqvist, Stam & Yorke. Manchester United won the treble the following May. Therefore criticism of Ferguson in the transfer market seems a tad harsh, given the successful youth structure put in place & unparalled success achieved since 1990.

And now, Fergie is almost 6 months through the extended 3 years of his contract. His desire to win seems to be as bright as ever and passion for the game has not diminished. Manchester United's last trophy was in May 2001. United had secured the title 4 games from the end of that season but lost 3 of the last 4. In the 2001/2002 season, United lost 9 Premiership games, a feat not achieved since 1990-91. Many pundits put the loss of form down to Ferguson announcing his departure early. Theories were laid down that the players at Old Trafford no longer feared Ferguson & the will to win at Old Trafford was gone. If this is the reason behind Manchester United's trophyless season in 2002, does it not reflect more on the players than on Ferguson, his tactics or his methods? And now, half way through November 2002 Manchester United have lost 3 games in the Premiership. Manchester City were United's last conquerors, added to defeats against Leeds United, Bolton Wanderers, Zalaegerszegi & Maccabi Haifa this season. It seems that the era of Fergie being able to rest players and still get big results is gone. Yet if Alex Ferguson brings the European Cup back to Old Trafford this season, will he then be the greatest British Manager of all time? There is certainly enough evidence to suggest he already is that and it was a lucky day for Manchester United, that first November day he walked into Old Trafford. I doubt any other Manager in the world would have done the job Alex Ferguson has. He will be remembered as a legend.

John Ryan

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