In part three of our retrospective look over Sir Alex Ferguson's incredible 26-year reign at Manchester United, we chart the journey through to a modern era that has seen unprecedented successes both on and off the pitch.
Ferguson at Old Trafford: The Empire is founded (1992 to 1997)
It is November, 1992. Manchester United have begun the season with mixed results, and, with the onset of winter, are reverting to the type of football that they displayed at the tail end of the 1991/92 season, which saw them hand the league title to their rivals across the Pennines, Leeds United. Scoring, in particular, is becoming an elusive habit and there is already talk of a title challenge fade out.
In the office of Martin Edwards, Alex Ferguson is bunkered down with his CEO, discussing how they might resolve that very same on-field issue through the capture of a high-profile forward that can set their season alight again. Many names are discussed, with English strikers David Hirst and Matt Le Tissier chief amongst them, but, in the end, neither are signed.
The phone on Edwards’ desk rings. It is his Leeds United counterpart, Bill Fotherby. Looking to reinforce his Championship-winning side, he enquires about the availability of United left-back, Denis Irwin. Ferguson shakes his head adamantly across the table from Edwards: Not for sale.
Then something happens. Quite what remains uncertain to this day and now appears to be lost in the mists of time. One legend has it that Ferguson became possessed by the Football Muse, took up a note pad, and wrote on it for Edwards: “Ask about Cantona”.
Another, less romantic version holds that Edwards and Ferguson simply phoned Fotherby to enquire about the Frenchman’s services and were stunned when the answer came back in the positive.
Regardless, by the time Edwards had hung up the phone, the deal that many point to as the single greatest of Ferguson’s entire reign was set in motion. Cantona was to become a Manchester United player.
It is a moment of pure footballing genius, and the transfer cannot be underestimated with regards to its impact on that team, Manchester United as a club – and as a brand – and English football at large. Ferguson’s flaws are many, but his strengths are even greater, and this one moment in time provides a telling example of his genius and complete understanding of the game.
For in Cantona, Ferguson saw the oft-quoted “missing piece in the Manchester United jigsaw”. A tall, brutally strong, yet elegantly subtle player, Cantona possessed all the qualities that Ferguson in the past has summarised simply as “looking like a Manchester United player”.
Cantona inspired his teammates through example not words, and was often the difference between victory and a defeat or draw for Leeds in their title run-in the previous season. If there was anything that Manchester United needed in that November of 1992, it was more than just another forward – they needed a talisman. And boy did they get one.
Cantona proved the catalyst in some mad, alchemic experiment that ultimately transformed each of its constituent elements into everlasting monuments of legend. The 1992/93 Manchester United team, which went on to achieve in the following season the first of Ferguson’s three FA Cup and League ‘Doubles’ in the ‘90s, is fondly remembered as perhaps the Scot’s greatest mix of experience and youth, silk and steel, and pace and power, of fantasy and hard graft at the forge.
A back-line comprising the granite boulders from the North East in the shape of Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce and marshalled by the imposing Dane, Peter Schmeichel, arguably the greatest goalkeeper since the mythical Lev Yashin, was augmented by a combative midfield containing the fiery upstarts in the form of Paul Ince and a very young Roy Keane, plus the legend that was Bryan Robson, into his final two seasons at the club, who at last got to touch Championship glory with the club he served so nobly for so long in 1993.
On the wings, Andrei Kanchelskis, Lee Sharpe, and Ryan Giggs eviscerated opponents with a most lethal combination of trickery and pace, becoming the pin-ups of an entire generation of football adolescents, and, up front, Mark Hughes – never a great goalscorer but a scorer of great goals – was rejuvenated by a perfect partnership with that creative force of nature that blew in from the south of France and across from the Yorkshire dales.
Come the summer of 1995, a mere two years after their initial title triumph, however, and half that team would be gone. Schmeichel, Pallister, Irwin, Bruce, Keane, and Cantona remained but they were to be joined in the ranks by what is now famously known as ‘The Class of ‘92’; Beckham, Scholes, Butt, and Neville the elder, all reunited with the already-graduated Ryan Giggs in the United first team.
Shipping off the increasingly-troublesome Ince and Kanchelskis to Inter and Everton respectively, and reluctantly relenting to Hughes’ wish for first-team football elsewhere (Chelsea, it turned out), after the purchase of frontman Andy Cole from Newcastle United in January of ‘95, Ferguson shaped his second great generation.
This, despite Alan Hansen’s ‘prophetic’ “You can’t win anything with kids” comment in the wake of an opening day away defeat at Aston Villa in 1995/96, which has since come back to haunt the former Liverpool great as one of the greatest underestimations of a team in English football, all while underlining the visionary capacity of Alex Ferguson.
For who else in the modern game of English football, after all, would so rightfully have entrusted the future of an entire club to a bunch of local lads (and one from Walthamstow) that nobody had ever even heard of? ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ had taken flight, and a second Double in 1996 followed before yet another successful defence of the League title in 1997, led by now-captain Cantona.
Ferguson’s faith in the ‘Class of ‘92’ was to be repaid an infinite number of times over, but the role the greatest manager the English game has ever seen played in their success is as equally attributable, it must be said, to the French wanderer without a home who found what he was looking for when he turned up at Old Trafford, his collar turned defiantly up at the world.
The ‘kids’ loved him, and numerous interviews exist of the likes of Beckham and Giggs simply fawning, freely expressing their unhindered admiration for and gratitude to a player who not only had it all but who, moreover, worked hard, long hours in perfecting every aspect of his game. Here was a man who understood that footballing greatness was a ceaseless journey, and not a moneyed destination that comes too soon to young players.
Inspired, they followed suit, and the commitment and professionalism that today’s youngsters point to when they speak in reverential tones of that now-veteran class of players was directly informed by the example set all those decades ago by that most mercurial of Gallic talents at that old training ground at The Cliff, Salford, Manchester.
The transfer of Cantona from Leeds United to Manchester United on 26 November, 1992 is further testament to Ferguson’s uncanny ability to fashion together supreme individual talents into a perfectly-balanced team. It is no mean feat.
Consider, for instance, the failures of Mourinho’s Real Madrid, led by their own talisman and United’s ex-player Cristiano Ronaldo, or the Galactico project in the Spanish capital at the same club some ten years earlier. The history of football is littered with teams packed with star players who underachieved by virtue of the fact that they could never, ever transform themselves into a star team.
Football isn’t about the best eleven players in the world all wearing the same shirt. It’s about the intricate complexities and dynamics that forge together ultimately selfish professionals into a unified entity that must move at the same velocity along a single trajectory.
On that occasion in the Manchester United CEO’s office that November afternoon, Ferguson proved perhaps definitively that his gift in life is an innate ability to grasp exactly how football – as an exercise in eleven daft lads kicking a leather ball about – works in all its utterly complicated dimensions.
It is not difficult to argue, then, that the Franco-Scottish auld alliance of 1992 was, perhaps more than any other event in history, crucial in Manchester United becoming an empire with dominion over not only England but also, it proved, the entire earth.
Next in Fergie at Old Trafford: The Treble and the three-in-a-row Titles (1998 to 2001)
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