Manchester United confirmed on Wednesday morning that Sir Alex Ferguson will retire at the end of the season, bringing an end to an era spanning over 26 years of service, with many claiming that we will never again see a manager of his kind in the game.

We look back at his career at Old Trafford, charting his initial period at Manchester United that saw great upheaval and struggles as the Scot struggled to stamp his mark on what was a club that – hard as it is to believe now – was in the doldrums of English football.

Ferguson at Old Trafford: The Early Years (1986 – 1990)

Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford on 6 November 1986. Manchester United lay in second-last position in the old First Division, and the dressing room was rife with big personalities who had won little and drank heavily.

Matters on the pitch couldn’t have appeared much worse. A fading giant of yesteryear, a talented squad hit with injuries and internal problems endured a woeful start to the 1986/87 season under the charismatic Ron Atkinson.

Atkinson had arrived for the start of the 1981/82 season with a reputation built on a progressive team he forged at West Brom Albion, reaching the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup in ‘78/79 and even beating United 5-3 at Old Trafford that season, before finishing as high as fourth in 1980/81. 

Atkinson’s expensively assembled squad at Old Trafford, including Bryan Robson Remi Moses (both from former club West Brom), Frank Stapleton (Arsenal), Ray Wilkins (AC Milan), Gordon Strachan (from Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen), Paul McGrath (St Patrick’s Athletic), and the brilliant Belfast youth Norman Whiteside, stormed to third place finishes in the league (1981/82 and ‘82/83), won the FA Cup twice (1982/83 and ‘84/85), and even reached the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup (1983/84). 

But a bad run of results at the tail-end of the 1985/86 season, which United had actually started with ten straight wins, saw the team finish in a distant fourth to Liverpool yet again with immense pressure from fans for Atkinson’s removal.  Things worsened with a horrendous start to the 1986/87 season and, with the team’s 1-4 loss at home to Southampton in the League Cup, “Big Ron”’s fate was sealed. Tasked with the job of winning the league, Atkinson couldn’t deliver, and the club now entered their 20th year without the title.

In came Alex Ferguson.

Beleaguered by injuries and bad form, the Scot – who has gone on to win 13 league titles at Manchester United – was shocked to also find a culture of underachievement, excessive drinking, and substandard physical fitness.

Clashes with the big personalities of the club’s star players followed, and – in an uncompromising act that acted as a precedent that would last at the club even until the present day – it was the players who were shipped out, and not the manager. In 1989, with no ceremony or argument, the George Best of his day, Norman Whiteside, was despatched to Everton for £600,000, while the team’s defensive man-mountain, Paul McGrath, was sold to Aston Villa for £400,000.

The message was clear to those who remained, including Captain Marvel himself, Bryan Robson. There was a new sheriff in town, and it was his way or the highway.

Within the workings of the club itself, Ferguson was also confronted by a poor youth structure and no scouting system to speak of. 35 miles down the M28, meanwhile, Liverpool Football Club had just won the domestic FA Cup and league ‘Double’ – only the fifth team to ever do so, and had already amassed four European Cups, two UEFA Cups, and sixteen English First Division titles. United, by contrast, had not been champions of European since 1968 and had not won the League since 1967.

When we think about what Manchester United means as an institution and even as a brand in the commercialised world of football in the twentieth century, we must remember where the club was on that dreary, grey day in Manchester on 6 November, 1986.

The idea of United being rebuilt into the most successful club in England, eventually surpassing Liverpool’s record tally of 19 a few short weeks ago, with a further two European Cups proudly on display in its now-bulging trophy cabinet, three Doubles and even one, unparalleled Treble, not to mention being the most supported team in the entire world, would have been rejected as a storyline too fanciful even for Roy of the Rovers. It was simply not possible.

Except it was.

Ferguson immediately and literally drew up a youth scouting network on maps he had had purchased of the Greater Manchester area, making sure to cover every corner of the city. One of his early, and potentially most inspired, acts was to prise a fourteen-year-old Ryan Giggs away from Manchester City to join a revolution that would eventually culminate in the famed ‘Class of ’92’, which also held in its ranks the likes of Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, and a young lad from Essex called David Beckham.

In doing so, Ferguson secured the playing future of the club beyond the world of immediate results managers so often thrive or die by.

It is said that the FA Cup third round win over Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in January 1990 saved Ferguson’s job after over two years of largely unfulfilled promise on the pitch, despite high-profile and high-transfer fee signings in the likes of Brian McClair, Steve Bruce, Viv Anderson, and Jim Leighton, Neil Webb, Paul Ince, and Gary Pallister.

This, however, is actually untrue: so convinced was Martin Edwards and the Manchester United Board of Directors that Ferguson’s work in recasting even the very foundations of the club, particularly around the establishment of a strong and robust youth academy, that sacking Fergie was never even considered.

The dawn of a new era of glory and prosperity has often been traced back to the moment when one of the first batch of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, Lee Martin, scored the winning goal in the FA Cup Final Replay of 1990; the first trophy of an incredible 38 honours the Scot has won at Manchester United. 

Others may more convincingly argue, however, that the club that Manchester United are today was only ever made possible by the direction Alex Ferguson, backed by the club’s far-sighted Board of Directors, set towards working on when he began to instil an exceptionally high standard for his players, resulting in a winning mentality, allied with a rediscovery of the importance of youth that was first introduced at the club in the old glory days of that other great Scot, Sir Matt Busby. 

The period 1986 to 1990 was a hard and often grim time for Manchester United fans on the pitch, watching their neighbours in Liverpool continue their long and unrelenting march to domestic dominance, but – in hindsight, at least – the work conducted by Ferguson behind the scenes that revitalised the entire fabric of the Old Trafford outfit would prove to be the beginning of a period of even greater success than their Merseyside rivals had ever experienced, or even that the fans themselves could have then conceived.

Next in Fergie at Old Trafford:  Up for the Cups (1990 to 1992)

 

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