Sir Alex Ferguson has retired as manager of Manchester United.
Here, we take a look at part four of our retrospective over his incredible 26-year reign, and chart the journey through to a modern era that has seen unprecedented successes both on and off the pitch.
Ferguson at Old Trafford: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times (2001 to 2006).
The Champions League win of 1999, and the three consecutive titles that followed it, imbued that generation of Manchester United players with an unshakable belief that they could achieve anything – if they so desired it. And with Ferguson at the helm, it seemed that desire would never be in lack.
Their opponents, domestically at least, never seemed more afraid of the juggernaut the club had become. The threat of a Manchester United comeback after taking the lead against them often acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy on a number of illustrious occasions, long after the scenes of jubilation at Camp Nou abated.
Memorably, United rallied in matches such as that against Tottenham at White Hart Lane in September 2001. 3-0 down at half-time, when Fergie’s famed hairdryer treatment would have been set to maximum, his players emerged from the tunnel visibly stirred. Within 60 seconds, Cole had got one back and, ominously, 44 minutes of the second half remained. What followed was pure United. Five unanswered second-half goals to set the tone for the season.
Their opponents could smell it: Manchester United were fallible. But what could they do about it? Time and again, Ferguson’s men showed that they had what it took. After twice going behind to Louis Saha strikes against Fulham at home on the opening day of the season in front of a packed Old Trafford, United managed a 3-2 home win.
In March, 2002, United finally wrested control of a see-sawing match at Upton Park when West Ham again threatened to inflict a damaging defeat to United after dumping them out of the Cup in January, 0-1, eventually again running out 5-3 winners in the capital. Later that month, a youthful Leeds United were overcome 4-3 at Elland Road after a late scare.
But something was wrong. Ferguson had announced that 2001/2002 was to be his last season before retirement, and his players had lost their focus. Things became so bad that by Christmas 2001, Ferguson performed a U-turn on his decision to quit the club at season’s end.
The Scot proved to be far from finished, but the season itself seemed beyond salvation. Arsenal romped impressively to a second Double in four years, clinching the title with another 1-0 victory at Old Trafford as they did in ’98. Unthinkably, United finished that season outside of the top two for the first time since 1991.
There was disappointment in Europe, too, when they couldn’t get past a formidable – but in truth not-quite-top-tier – Bayer Leverkusen, departing the competition at the semi-final stage on away goals; this, despite much talk of reaching a showpiece final against Real Madrid at Hampden Park in Ferguson’s supposed last-ever season at the helm.
Things were restored to rights the following season, however, when Ferguson got the best out of Ruud van Nistelrooy and an already-brilliant Manchester United.
Incredibly, Van Nistelrooy notched 44 goals from 50 starts in all competitions that term, with the team memorably beating out Arsenal in a thrilling title race beat out in season 2002/03. The Red Devils played some of their most free-flowing football under their Govan-born manager, with Paul Scholes handed free reign just behind the Dutchman and contributing with 20 goals for the season.
Their irresistible form carried over into continental competition. Revenge was achieved against Leverkusen during the first group stage, home and away this time, while, later in the competition, a strong Deportivo La Coruna team as well as a Juventus team – who were actually favourites when eventually going into that season’s final at Old Trafford against AC Milan – were both impressively despatched.
The away game in Turin, in particular, marked the intent of this new incarnation of the Red Devils. Winning 3-0 at the Stadio delle Alpi was simply not done back then, but that is precisely what United did, with two goals from an ebullient Ryan Giggs.
In the quarter-finals, however, United came up against the Galacticos of Real Madrid. Bamboozled in the Bernabeu, a 3-1 loss was in truth merely damage control. The outcome of the tie was to be decided at Old Trafford.
Ferguson – and a benched David Beckham – could only watch on in disbelief as a hat-trick from the Brazilian Ronaldo sent United on their way out. Enter: Beckham. With less than half an hour remaining, he came on for the by-then typically ineffectual Juan Sebastian Veron to grab the game by the neck and make it his own.
Two goals, one an amazing free-kick right of centre 25 yards out, sparked United back into life. But though United went on to win 4-3 on the night, a 6-5 loss on aggregate saw them go out in what many neutrals declared the greatest game of the modern era.
The match was influential in another way that nobody could have foreseen watching that night. For observing the spectacle from afar was a certain Russian billionaire called Roman Abramovich, who fell in love with football and, more specifically, the idea of owning such a team as one of the European giants titanically duking it out that night.
Ultimately, the heroic defeat at the Galacticos proved to be the downfall of a cycle of United players. While Beckham was sold on to Madrid in the summer for £24m – a sum described by Real officials at the time as “peanuts” - a number of failures in the transfer market meant that United could not keep up with an unbeaten Arsenal team dubbed ‘The Invincibles’ that peaked under Arsene Wenger in 2003/04, or a Jose Mourinho-led Chelsea in 2004/05 and again in 2005/06, by then already buying up superstar talent, price irrespective.
It is worth pausing to reflect on the following: the strength of Mourinho’s side, in particular, is evidenced in the simple fact that they alone, amongst all the teams Ferguson has faced as title challengers since the early 1990s, managed to retain the league title in back-to-back years.
On all other occasions, Ferguson won back the Premier League trophy from every single one of his competitors – from Howard Wilkinson all the way to Roberto Mancini.
Amidst an uncertain climate, exacerbated by the Glazer purchase of Manchester United in 2005 – incredibly, it turned out using a loan the Americans had secured against the very assets of the club itself – Ferguson once again pressed the reset button on his team. The likes of Keane, Veron, and Van Nistelrooy along with a host of squad players brought in to replace a golden generation but who plainly weren’t up to the job, all made their way to the Old Trafford exits amid little ceremony.
In their place arose a new generation, led by one Cristiano Ronaldo, bought for half the total recouped from the Beckham sale in the summer of 2003. Having by 2006, and at the age of only 21, grown into a true global superstar, the team now impressively featured Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and Edwin van der Sar in its ranks.
Playing a brand of football not seen since the three consecutive titles, a largely young and all hungry squad of players who – apart form Giggs and Scholes – had never tasted European glory set about becoming Champions of Europe.
But first, they needed to reassert their domestic dominance over an astonishingly well-financed Chelsea, and an Arsenal team that had reached a Champions League final against Barcelona. It was a challenge Ferguson and his men would defiantly and inexorably meet to rise.
For when it seemed that they were at their lowest ebb during all of the Ferguson era, Manchester United came storming typically back into the fray. Burdened by unfathomable debt, made up of an emerging core of inexperienced playing staff, and facing the utterly ruthless form of their seemingly supremely strong rivals, Ferguson performed perhaps his greatest miracle during his stewardship of Manchester United when he stole the spotlight again away from London’s two teams.
It was the summer of 2006, and the fortunes of Manchester United would take one more quantum leap forwards that would see Ferguson ride a trail of sustained success and glory until his eventual retirement in May 2013.
Next in Ferguson at Old Trafford: One last hurrah (2006 to 2013).
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