The History of Manchester United - Part VI
by Andrew Embling
PART 6 - The Ferguson Years
When Alex Ferguson took charge at United in 1986, nobody envisaged that 16 years later he would have become the greatest manager in British football history.
The new manager had a fierce reputation and a proud track record under his belt. He had taken Aberdeen to domestic and European success, and in doing so had broken the Old Firm dominance in his native Scotland. United, though, was his toughest challenge, and before thinking of silverware he had to find a way to move the team up from near the bottom of the table.
In his first full season in charge the manager, buoyed by the signings of Brian McClair, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes, took the team to runners up in the League. Things looked hopeful for the future. Injuries forced his hand the following season, and having rejuvenated the ailing Youth Policy, the 'Fergie Fledglings' were born. Lee Sharpe, a £100,000 buy from Torquay, along with home products like Russell Beardsmore, featured heavily in a difficult season. That summer Alex Ferguson signed Paul Ince from West Ham, Neil Webb from Nottingham Forest and Gary Pallister for a then record fee of £2.3 million from Middlesborough to strengthen the squad.
Meanwhile, events were taking place behind the scenes where Michael Knighton attempted to buy the club from Martin Edwards. The events in the boardroom seemed to affect the players and United struggled to a finish half way up the League table. There were even calls for the manager's head. The team needed something to kick-start their season and keep the wolves at bay. The FA Cup became the saving grace. United already had a proud tradition in the Cup. Having beaten Nottingham Forest in the third round with a goal from young striker Mark Robbins, United progressed to the semi-final where they faced Second Division Oldham Athlectic. After two epic contests the Red Devils triumphed and took their place in the Cup Final against surprise finalists Crystal Palace. Surely this would be Ferguson's first trophy in charge of United. However, Palace had not read the script. The team from South London had already caused the biggest upset that season by defeating Liverpool in the semi-final. Now they set their sights on defeating United.
After a gripping 3-3 draw, Ferguson caused a surprise by replacing Jim Leighton in goal with Les Sealey for the replay four days later. Palace threw everything at United early on, but Sealey was in inspired form and kept them at bay. When Neil Webb picked out the run of Lee Martin, the full back became the unlikiest of heroes and gave United their seventh cup success. But that was just the beginning.
The following season United was floated on the stock market. Denis Irwin joined the club and their League form improved, but they were still short of winning the League. Having been beaten in the Rumbelows Cup Final, United's only chance of silverware was in the European Cup Winners Cup, where they met Barcelona in the final at Rotterdam. It was the first season English clubs had been allowed back into European competition following the Heysel Stadium tragedy in 1985. Mark Hughes had a lot to prove that night, having found it tough in his time at the Nou Camp. He showed what the Barcelona fans had been missing with two goals as United recorded victory.
Despite success in other competitions, United were still searching for their first League championship in over 25 years. The introduction of Peter Schmeichel for £500,000 helped United's push towards the League summit. It looked as if United were going to claim the 1991/92 title, only for them to falter over the critical Easter fixtures and be overtaken by Leeds, who took the final First Division title. United had to make do that year with their first League Cup Final win - a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, who included in their team a young Roy Keane.
The Premiership began in 1992 following a breakaway by the top-flight clubs from the Football League and United started the season poorly, loosing their first two games away to Sheffield United and 3-0 at Home to Everton. When Leeds approached United about taking Denis Irwin to Elland Road, the United manager turned the offer down but used the chance to bring in a new and controversial signing, Frenchman Eric Cantona. The new 'King' of Old Trafford was to prove the catalyst as United moved to the top of the table. Towards the Easter period it looked as if lightening would strike twice when United began to drop points. With the team 1-0 down to Sheffield Wednesday with only seconds left it looked as if they would loose the title again with Aston Villa so close behind. But Steve Bruce scored two dramatic late goals to the delight of Ferguson and his assistant Brian Kidd, not to mention a capacity stadium, and United never looked back, taking the inaugural Premiership, and ending the twenty-six year wait for title glory.
The following season was to be an historic one for United. Roy Keane had joined for a British record fee in the close season, and the League was retained. Chelsea stood in the way of United completing their first Double. Two penalties from Eric Cantona helped United to a 4-0 win. It could have been even better but the domestic treble was ripped from their grasp when they lost they League Cup Final to Aston Villa. That season also saw the death of Matt Busby.
In the 1994/95 season United finished second in the League and were runners-up in the FA Cup Final. The season was clouded, however, when on 25 January 2020 Eric Cantona jumped into the crowd at Crystal Palace and kicked an abusive fan. He was banned until 30 September. The season will also be remembered for the £7 million signing of Andy Cole, who helped himself to 5 goals in a record 9-0 win over Ipswich.
King Eric returned with a goal on October 1st in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Old Trafford. Alex Ferguson had sold Andre Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince in the summer and a new breed of youngsters were added to the squad, amongst them Paul Scholes and David Beckham. United, without Cantona for the first seven matches of the season, had made a decent start despite an opening day defeat away to Villa. After that match Alan Hansen had commented "you can't win anything with kids". He was to be proved wrong as United's youthful team took the League title, overhauling a 13 point Newcastle lead, and made it to Wembley for the third year running where Liverpool stood in their way of becoming the first team to complete the Double twice. A dour match looked to be heading for extra time when United scored a late goal to win the Cup - the goal scorer had again let his boots do the scoring, this time in the right way - it was Eric Cantona.
The 1996/97 season kicked off with a bang - David Beckham made the headlines by scoring from his own half against Wimbledon on the opening day. The squad was strengthened still further by young Norwegian striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who would later make a name for himself at Old Trafford, as well as Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky. United retained the Championship, and with some exciting performances won through to the semi-final of the European Cup, but two defeats against eventual winners Borussia Dortmund cost United the chance of a place in the Final. Things were made worse when Eric Cantona shocked the club by deciding to hang up his boots.
Teddy Sheringham replaced King Eric at Old Trafford, and Roy Keane was given the captain's armband. But things did not fare well for Keane or the team, the skipper damaging cruciate ligaments against Leeds, which ruled him out for the remainder of the 97/98 season, in which United finished runners-up to winner's Arsenal. The 40th anniversary of Munich was also marked in 1998 with a Memorial Service in Manchester Cathedral.
United began the 1998/99 season desperate to regain the trophies they had lost to Arsenal the previous season. Alex Ferguson had brought in Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven, along with Dwight Yorke, who immediately struck up a telepathic partnership with Andy Cole. The Club's 5th Premiership title in seven seasons was secured on the final day of the League campaign with a 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur. United, though still had two trophies to fight for. The FA Cup Final had been reached with dramatic victories in the third round at home to Liverpool, and an eventful semi-final reply against Arsenal, which included a red card for Roy Keane, a penalty save in the final minute of normal time by Peter Schmeichel and an incredible solo goal to win the match from Ryan Giggs. The final was less eventful, United claiming their third Double in just six seasons with a 2-0 victory over Newcastle.
Four days later Alex Ferguson led his men out again, this time in the final of the European Champions League at Barcelona's Nou Camp Stadium. United's run to the final had included some of the best games in the competition, including two 3-3 draws in the group stage against Barcelona and a 3-2 win in Turin against Juventus in the semi-final, coming from two goals down to win. It was in that semi-final that both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes picked up yellow cards, which meant both were suspended for the final. In Keane's absence Peter Schmeichel, who was playing his last game for the club, took the captain's armband. Their opponents in the final were Bayern Munich, who were also after a treble having like United won their domestic Double. It seemed as if United would fall short at the final hurdle, the Germans leading 1-0 with only a couple of minutes remaining. Alex Ferguson had gambled on a double substitution, bringing on both Sheringham and Solskjaer. It was an inspired decision. With the clock ticking past 90 minutes United won a corner. A goalmouth scramble resulted in a miss-hit shot from Ryan Giggs that was turned in by Sheringham. United had a lifeline. But they were not finished there. The Germans were shell-shocked and were hanging on as United pressed for the winner in injury time. Another corner was flicked on by Sheringham,and Ole Solskjaer prodded home the goal which gave them an unprecedented Treble. The team arrived home to a hero's reception, with the streets of Manchester bedecked in Red as the fans welcomed the victors' home. Having achieved what no manager had achieved before, Alex Ferguson was awarded a Knighthood for his services to football. During that historic season United had been the subject of a takeover bid from Rupert Murdoch's BskyB organisation. The United board came out in favour of the proposed change of leadership, but the fans staged a revolt. Shareholders United lobbied to appeal to every person with an interest in the club to make a stand. Finally, the Government intervened and blocked the move. It proved to be the right decision, United later becoming the first club to be worth more than £1billion.
The turn of the Millennium brought United a second successive Premiership as they cruised to victory in the league. There was controversy when they decided not to take part in the FA Cup in favour of a place in Brazil for the inaugural World Club Championship. United set another precedent that season, becoming the first English team to win the Inter-Continental Cup with a 1-0 victory over South American Champions Boca Juniors.
Trafford Council unveiled a plaque in October 2000 to mark the great debt United owed to James Gibson and his family, almost 70 years on from when he took an almost extinct club and breathed new life into it. Fittingly, it was placed on the railway bridge next to Old Trafford, Mr Gibson having arranged for the station to be used for the supporters to travel to see their idols play. A third successive championship followed, and United looked to make it four titles in a row, strengthening the side with the signings of Juan Sebastian Veron and Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The talk early in 2001 had all been about the manager's decision to retire at the end of that season. Could United give him the perfect send-off by completing a fourth premiership and claiming another European Cup - the final to be held in Ferguson's home city of Glasgow. The start of the season was inconsistent, and the team were lying 9th in the Premiership before Christmas. The surprise sale of Jaap Stam to Lazio seemed to confound the problems, with the team leaking goals at an alarming rate. But a run of 12 wins in 13 matches pushed the team to the top of the table, and a fight with rivals Arsenal, Liverpool and surprising contenders Newcastle for the Premiership crown. The manager's decision to stay at the helm for another three years was greeted with great delight by the club, and United pushed forward to try and claim an 8th title in just 10 seasons but, a damaging home defeat to Middlesborough dented their dreams, and arch-rivals Arsenal won the title.
The team faired no better in the Champions League. The talk was all about David Beckham's broken metatarsal for weeks, particularly with the World Cup so close. Beckham was missing, along with fellow broken foot victim Gary Neville, as United's catalogue of injuries and defensive errors caught up with them, eventually being eliminated at the semi-final stage on the away goals ruling to Bayer Leverkusen. What had started as a season full of hope was ended empty-handed.
The omen's, however, are good for the 2002/03 season. Alex Ferguson remains in the hot seat and he and the players will be anxious to reassert their stranglehold on the domestic competitions. With the Champions League final due to be played at Old Trafford, who would doubt that United will be at the Theatre of Dreams come May 2003, with another chance to hold the European Cup aloft.