Part One looked at Sir Alex’s nascent managerial career, and how he achieved incredible things with Aberdeen. Read on for the denouement at Pittodrie and his subsequent era-defining move to Manchester United…
Alex Ferguson had just overseen the greatest season in Aberdeen’s history, with three trophies collected and two semi-final appearances as well to boot. However, the loss of key players Gordon Strachan, Mark McGhee and Doug Rougvie was expected to make their stay at the summit of Scottish football a brief one.
Ferguson had other ideas though; anticipating Strachan’s departure, he had brought in Billy Stark from St Mirren at the beginning of the previous season, while Stuart Kennedy’s career-ending injury in the 1982-83 season had forced him to try a number of players at right-back, Rougvie being one of them. His capture of Stewart McKimmie from Dundee in December 1983 would turn out to be genius, as he would go on to spend 14 years at the club. Finally, Mark McGhee was replaced by Frank McDougall, a £100,000 signing from St Mirren.
Ferguson’s well-known instinct for building on success was displayed for the first time through these moves, as he made sure that the loss of key players did not disrupt the squad; rather, he ended up strengthening the club.
Aberdeen would retain the title in the 1984-85 season, with McDougall going a long way towards repaying his transfer fee by scoring 22 goals in the league. Billy Stark also chipped in with 15 league goals, as the Dons won it in some style too, amassing a record 59 points (out of a possible 72); however, they failed in the other competitions, reaching the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup, the second round of the Scottish League Cup, and perhaps most disappointingly, were knocked out in the first round of the European Cup in a heartbreaking penalty shoot-out defeat to Dynamo Berlin.
The following campaign would be the beginning of the end of Fergie at Aberdeen. The Dons finished fourth in the league, some way off champions Celtic, but did manage to win both domestic cups, and reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup as well, once again going out by a whisker, this time on the away-goals rule against IFK Gothenburg. Ferguson had been appointed to the board of directors at Pittodrie in 1986, but his own realization that he had taken this squad as far as he could, coupled with events with the Scotland national side, would lead to his decision to leave.
Scottish legend Jock Stein had appointed Ferguson on the coaching staff for the Scotland national team during qualification for the 1986 World Cup. Scotland would qualify for the tournament in tragic circumstances – a draw with Wales in their final game secured a playoff spot against Australia, but their celebrations were rudely interrupted when Stein collapsed on the bench just before the final whistle, and sadly passed away in the treatment room of Ninian Park.
This rude shock led to Ferguson accepting the role of caretaker manager for the playoff, and subsequently the World Cup as Scotland beat Australia 2-0 on aggregate to qualify. He brought back Archie Knox back to Aberdeen; Knox had left in 1983 to take the managerial reins at Dundee, but Ferguson asked him to be co-manager at Aberdeen to allow him to be able to focus on Scotland. The Scots had a terrible World Cup campaign, failing to make it out of their group, after which Fergie stepped down as national team manager. The man from Govan was linked to a number of jobs in England throughout the summer, most notably Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United, and he eventually wound up replacing the sacked Ron Atkinson at Old Trafford in November 1986.
Initial struggles and ‘Ta-ra Fergie’
Ferguson arrived at a club that was languishing in 21st place, after having begun the season with a ten-game winning streak. He immediately grasped the fact that this was a ‘big’ club that had fallen on hard times in recent years, with the last league title having been won almost 20 years ago, in 1967. There was also an entrenched drinking culture at the club, part of a wider problem in English football, and Ferguson immediately set about stamping it out. He managed to drag the club up to an 11th place finish that season with the help of Knox, whom he had appointed as his assistant. Everton and Liverpool finished in the top two places in the league, reflecting the Merseyside dominance that had lasted across English football for two decades.
Ferguson made his first signings in the summer of 1987, bringing in Brian McClair and Viv Anderson, but failed in a public pursuit of Peter Beardsley, who went to Newcastle instead. United finished second in the league that season, nine points behind Liverpool, which raised hopes ahead of the 1988-89 season. Another reason was the return of Mark Hughes from Barcelona for a club record fee of £1.8 million; the Welshman ended up as United’s joint-top scorer with 16 goals and won the PFA Player of the Year award. However, United, who had risen as high as third during the season, again finished in 11th place after a late-season slump.
Ferguson brought in Gary Pallister for a new club record fee of £2.3 million that summer, along with Paul Ince, Mike Phelan and Neil Webb to strengthen the squad, which had seen two stalwarts of the Atkinson era leave the club: Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside. United started off well, defeating defending champions Arsenal 4-1 on the opening day of the season, but by the time the new year came around, were stuck in 17th place, just one place above the relegation zone. This period saw calls for Ferguson to be sacked, with a particularly limp performance in a 2-1 defeat against Crystal Palace in December 1989 prompting the now-infamous banner – “Three years of excuses and it’s still c***…ta ra Fergie”.
Robin(s) to the rescue
There was no real threat to Ferguson’s job at Old Trafford – the board recognized that the absence of several key players through injury was a major contributor to United’s poor form in the league, and they were extremely supportive of the changes he had brought to the club’s scouting and coaching structures. Nevertheless, Ferguson has himself stated that December 1989 was “the darkest period [he had] ever suffered in the game”, as pressure from fans and the media built up around the underperforming manager.
It seemed as though a crossroads was being reached, as the FA Cup third round draw pit Manchester United against Nottingham Forest; most fans and journalists expected United to lose the game and Ferguson to thereby lose his job when the draw was made. However, 20-year old striker Mark Robins scored the only goal of the game to put United through and ostensibly save Ferguson’s job, although it seemed unlikely that he would have been sacked.
The unlikely victory gave United momentum, but sadly this was confined to the FA Cup – the club continued to flounder in the league, hovering only a point above the relegation zone at the end of January 1990. Nevertheless, they beat Hereford United in the fourth round of the cup, and Newcastle United in the fifth round with narrow wins. United made it to the semi-final for the first time since they won the trophy in 1985 via a 1-0 win over Sheffield United, and there they beat Oldham Athletic via a replay to earn a spot at Wembley against Steve Coppell’s Crystal Palace side.
Palace, appearing in their first-ever final, took the lead through Gary O’Reilly in the 18th minute, only for United captain Bryan Robson to equalize. Mark Hughes put the Red Devils in front, but Ian Wright pegged United back within ten minutes. Normal time ended with the scores level at 2-2, and although Wright thought he had secured the trophy with a goal just two minutes into extra-time, Hughes popped up once again with seven minutes remaining to force a replay.
Ferguson made a bold call for the replay, dropping his Aberdeen stalwart Jim Leighton as goalkeeper and replacing him with Les Sealey, who was on loan from Luton Town and had only two previous appearances to his name. The decision proved to be an inspired one, as Sealey pulled off a string of brilliant saves to keep United in the game. Just on the hour mark, Lee Martin scored the only goal of the game to give Ferguson his first trophy as Manchester United manager and brought United level with Tottenham and Aston Villa for most FA Cup wins, with seven apiece.
Europe does the trick, again
Despite euphoria around the FA Cup win, which ended a five-year trophy drought, it could not be forgotten that United had finished the season in 13th place, only five points clear of relegation. Significant improvement was needed, and Ferguson displayed his knack for transfers by picking up Denis Irwin for £625,000 from Oldham three weeks after the final; Irwin would go on to be a stalwart at the club, excelling at both full-back positions and staying at the club for 12 years. Les Sealey was rewarded for his display in the final with a permanent deal, but apart from these moves, there were no other transfers. Ferguson believed the squad had quality, and with the lifting of the ban on English clubs in Europe following the Heysel disaster, United entered the Cup Winners’ Cup, which Ferguson had famously won with Aberdeen in 1983.
United began their European campaign with a 3-0 aggregate win over Pecsi Munkas of Hungary in the first round and followed it up by beating Wrexham in the second. Meanwhile, their form in the league was infuriatingly inconsistent; there were some brilliant performances, with the highlight being a 6-2 demolition of Arsenal at Highbury, where 19-year old Lee Sharpe scored a hattrick, interspersed with shocking displays, like a 2-1 loss to newly promoted Sunderland and a four-goal hammering by Liverpool at Anfield. There was reason to be excited around Old Trafford though, as Ferguson gave a five-year contract in November 1990 to a 17-year old winger, who was touted to be the finest British prospect since George Best. His name – Ryan Giggs.
Manchester United kept progressing in the cups as their league form faltered – they made it to the final of the League Cup, but surprisingly lost to Sheffield Wednesday, who were managed by former United manager Ron Atkinson. Nevertheless, having beaten Montpellier to reach the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, United beat Legia Warsaw 4-2 on aggregate to make the final in Rotterdam against Barcelona.
Barcelona were on a high, having won La Liga after five years of Real Madrid’s dominance, and in Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman, Albert Ferrer, Julio Salinas and Jose Mari Bakero, boasted some world-class players, even though Hristo Stoichkov would miss the game through injury.
Johan Cruyff’s side would go on to win the European Cup the following season, but Ferguson had done his homework. The United manager had watched Barcelona for weeks, making scouting trips to the Catalan capital, and had come up with a tactical plan to beat them. Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical nous has always been underappreciated when talking about his managerial genius; however, the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup final was a prime example of his ability to suss out the opposing team’s gameplans and set up effectively to counter them. For the Rotterdam final, Ferguson had two key requirements to cope with Barcelona – to not give Laudrup space in midfield, and to watch for Ronald Koeman’s exceptional passing from the back.
United started the game as the better of the two sides, and although they went in level at half-time, the Red Devils were soon celebrating, as Bryan Robson sent in a free-kick that was headed goalwards by Steve Bruce, with the final touch being applied by ex-Barcelona man Hughes. The Welshman got his and United’s second of the game soon after, rounding the keeper and scoring from a tight angle, and although Koeman halved the deficit with ten minutes remaining, United hung on for one of the most famous victories in their history.
The win in Europe finally seemed to have won over the sceptics about Ferguson’s ability, five years after he took the job. It proved to Ferguson that United could mix it with the big boys, and he pledged to end United’s long wait for a league title. To that end, he brought in Peter Schmeichel in goal and Paul Parker at right-back, and with two of the best young prospects in the league in Giggs and Sharpe, United looked primed for a title challenge the next season.
Part three, featuring Cantona, the Class of ’92, ‘Bruuuuce’, and the Treble, drops on Friday