We’ve got two parts of Sir Alex’s managerial journey so far – Part One looked at the beginning and his incredible achievements with Aberdeen in Scotland, while Part Two charted his arrival at Manchester United and the path to the European Cup Winners’ Cup win in 1991. This one is going to describe just how he set about getting United back in the business of winning titles…
Manchester United, having won the Cup Winners’ Cup after defeating Barcelona in the final, were finally being moulded into title challengers under Ferguson. The manager brought in Peter Schmeichel from Brondby to replace Les Sealey, while Paul Parker was signed to make the right-back spot his own, which allowed Denis Irwin to switch over to left-back. Ferguson had now built a squad that was the envy of the First Division – established players like Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes formed a solid spine, with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe providing the touch of youth that Ferguson’s teams always had. There had been a significant change to Ferguson’s backroom staff as well, as long-time assistant Archie Knox left towards the end of the previous campaign to become the Rangers manager, and was replaced by Brian Kidd; an association that would bring a lot of success to Old Trafford in subsequent years.
The First Assault
The start of the 1991/92 season saw United start in blistering fashion, as they opened up a four-point lead at the top of the table over Leeds United by the first week of September. The club also progressed in cup competitions, winning their opening ties in the Cup Winners’ Cup and the League Cup, but by the time November came around, they had been dumped out of Europe by Atletico Madrid. However, there was some consolation gleaned from the win over Red Star Belgrade in the European Super Cup, with Mark Robins scoring the only goal in the final. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s expert management of Ryan Giggs led to the winger becoming Wales’ youngest-ever player and gaining a lot of column inches as he established himself as United’s first-choice left-winger. December was a tough month, with a 1-1 draw with title rivals Leeds followed by a shock 4-1 loss at home to Queen’s Park Rangers. The FA Cup also drew the two rivals against each other, where United prevailed through a Mark Hughes goal to end Leeds’ hopes of a possible Double. The two sides continued to push each other at the top of the table, and while April saw United win the League Cup for the first time in their history, a 2-1 loss to Nottingham Forest eight days later handed the initiative to the team from Yorkshire. Further successive losses to West Ham and Liverpool confirmed the destination of the title to be Elland Road, and while Ferguson was left massively disappointed, there would be major changes afoot at the club which would play a big role in propelling the club towards the dominance of the English game.
United are crowned, with King Eric in the house
United had suffered due to chronic lack of goals, with the recruitment of a striker now a priority for Ferguson. Southampton’s 21-year old Alan Shearer had been heavily linked with a switch to Old Trafford throughout the previous season, but he eventually opted to sign for Blackburn Rovers for a British-record £3.6 million in a sliding-doors moment. Ferguson ended up signing Dion Dublin from Cambridge United for £1 million just before the season started, and he was the only signing of the close season. The 1992/93 season would be a pivotal one in English football history, as the top 22 clubs broke away from the Football League to form the Premier League. United had the honour of playing in the very first game of the competition, but this ended in disappointment as they lost 2-1 to Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. Their next game would see them lose 3-0 at home to Everton, and they would only manage to pick up their first point of the season on the third attempt with a 1-1 draw against Ipswich. This was an extremely underwhelming start to the season after a promising previous campaign, and while United won their next four games to climb to third in the table by September, it would be tempered by Dublin breaking a leg during this run which would rule him out for six months.
This sparked a woeful run of form, where United went seven matches without a win in the league, during which time they were also knocked out of the UEFA Cup and League Cup. Ferguson realized that something had to be done to snap his team out of this rut, and made a £3 million bid for Sheffield Wednesday striker David Hirst, but the bid was rejected. However, Ferguson’s willingness to take risks and trust his instincts would provide him with the catalyst for his entire reign at Old Trafford.
Eric Cantona had fallen out with his Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson and was desperate to play football. Ferguson had been given a positive report by Gerard Houllier, the France national team manager, about the mercurial striker, and the story of his signing is uncanny for the sheer timing of it. Just when Ferguson was looking for a striker and lamenting the fact that United did not go for Cantona when he moved to Leeds in the first place, United chairman Martin Edwards’ phone rang with an inquiry from Leeds about Denis Irwin. It was dismissed, but then, with Ferguson in the room, Edwards made an inquiry of his own about Cantona. Bill Fotherby, the Leeds managing director who was on the other end, got back within the hour to confirm that a deal could be done. While there have been multiple versions of this story, the major facts remain clear – Ferguson needed a striker desperately, and sensing an opportunity to nab Cantona, managed to pull off what would become probably the most important transfer of his entire managerial career.
Cantona arrived for a £1.2 million fee, and in complete secrecy – the deal was done within 24 hours of the phone call and took the country by shock. United players were reportedly bemused by the transfer, due to Cantona’s famously volatile personality, but he would end up elevating the squad to a new level of performance, with Ferguson calling him “the can-opener”. Cantona immediately looked at home at Old Trafford, and his swagger and demeanour were perfect for a club of United’s pretensions. He understood what it meant to play for a club like United, and his drive and work-rate began to rub off on the rest of the team. His impact on the team can easily be demonstrated by the numbers – United played 37 league games before Cantona’s arrival in 1992, winning 54 points and scoring a paltry 38 goals. In the next 37, they took 88 points and scored 77 times.
Cantona’s arrival sparked a resurgence in form, as United won eight of his first 10 games. He was the driving force behind a brilliant comeback from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 against Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day and ripped Tottenham apart in a 4-1 shellacking in January. Ferguson summed it up on New Year’s Day 1993, when he said:
“More than at any time since I was playing, the club is alive. The 3-3 draw at Sheffield Wednesday was magnificent. It’s as if the good old days were back and the major factor, as far as I’m concerned, is the Frenchman. Eric Cantona is so clever it’s untrue and the lovely thing about special players is they’re infectious. The things he tries, the others try, and it’s the way the team are playing that’s got middle-aged fans jumping about like two-year-olds.”
While the FA Cup was lost after a defeat to Sheffield United, it allowed the squad to focus on the league, and they finally went top of the table with a 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield in March. This was followed by the now-famous 2-1 comeback win over Sheffield Wednesday, with Bruce scoring a pair of headers including the 97th-minute winner to spark pandemonium in the stands and on the sidelines – Brian Kidd running on to celebrate on the pitch itself.
It was a crucial win on the same day that Aston Villa drew at Coventry City, meaning that United opened up a two-point lead over them. The shift in momentum that it generated allowed United to go on a seven-game winning run till the end of the season, with Villa’s surprise defeat to Oldham on 2nd May confirming United as champions for the first time in 26 years. They ended up 10 points clear of Villa, who had a disastrous run-in and just could not keep up with United. Ferguson had ended United’s long wait for a league title, and while that alone would have been enough to grant him a lifetime of appreciation from the United faithful, he was never one to rest on his laurels and set about building upon this success. He moved quickly to secure the signing of highly-rated Irish midfielder Roy Keane for a British record fee of £3.75 million from Nottingham Forest, recognizing that 36-year old Bryan Robson was nearing the end of his career and that United’s midfield would need refreshing before long. Keane and Cantona would be the driving force behind United’s success in the coming seasons.
United started the 1993/94 season like the ended the previous one, winning the Charity Shield before going to the top of the table from the fourth game onwards; a position they would not relinquish for the rest of the campaign. This season also saw their first appearance in the European Cup, now rebranded as the UEFA Champions League, for the first time in 25 years. While their European sojourn was ended in the second round after a defeat on away goals to Galatasaray, the domestic campaign was at full steam, with the team opening up a 16-point lead at the top of the table around the halfway mark, and progressing in both cup competitions as well. Cantona, Hughes and Giggs were scoring plenty of goals, while Roy Keane completely justified his transfer fee by bossing the United midfield alongside Paul Ince. There were a few scares along the way, but eventually, United sealed the title for the second year in a row and followed it up with a 4-0 hammering of Chelsea in the FA Cup final to become only the fourth side to do the Double in the 20th century. They missed out on a domestic treble by losing to Aston Villa in the League Cup final, but by now United were firmly established as the dominant club in England. Cantona ended up with 25 goals and the PFA Player of the Year award.
The close season saw the squad being refreshed, as the likes of Les Sealey, Clayton Blackmore and Mike Phelan all departed, and the biggest departure was that of long-serving club captain and legend, Bryan Robson, who left for Middlesbrough. Ferguson had planned this succession perfectly, as there was a ready-made replacement in Keane already present at the club, and he signed David May in a similar move with a view to replacing Bruce eventually.
The next part of the series will feature the Class of ’92 and that night in Barcelona…