Following a playing career as a forward for Scottish clubs Queens Park, St Johnstone, Dunfermline Athletic, Rangers, Falkirk and Ayr United, in which he averaged 0.54 goals a game, Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of East Stirlingshire at the age of 32 in June 1974. He accepted a part-time, £40-a-week ($65 USD, 70 EUR) contract with just eight players in the squad – and no goalkeeper. Despite being at the club for just 117 days, Ferguson quickly made his presence felt.
“The first thing that struck me was the look he had in his eye,” said former East Stirlingshire midfielder Bobby McCulley. “Just one look from those eyes put the fear of death into you. He terrified us. Nobody could have guessed back then that he would go on and achieve what he has, but he oozed a steely determination to succeed.”
It was another great Scottish manager, Jock Stein, who advised Ferguson to leave East Stirlingshire after just four months to move to St Mirren, then ranked below East Stirlingshire in the league but considered a bigger club. While at Love Street, Ferguson took the Buddies from the lower half of the Second Division to the top flight, with the average age of his team just 19. However, he was sacked from the position with the club’s chairman Willie Todd claiming that he had “no managerial ability.” An industrial tribunal later ruled that Ferguson’s “impatient energy and single-mindedness which contributed to his success as a team manager ultimately led to his dismissal.”
Years later, it was revealed that Todd’s decision was motivated by the knowledge that his manager had agreed to join Aberdeen, a major club in Scotland but one which had won the league title only once. After initially struggling to win over the dressing room, within two years Ferguson had led his new club to the Scottish title, breaking a 15-year stranglehold by Celtic and Rangers. The Scottish Cup followed in 1982 and ‘83, and victories in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final and the European Super Cup over Real Madrid and Hamburg respectively further enhanced his reputation.
At Pittodrie, Ferguson was gaining a reputation as ‘Furious Fergie’. He fined forward John Hewitt for overtaking him on a public road and also kicked a tea urn at his players during a European match. When the Dons retained the Scottish Cup in 1984 with a win over Rangers, he criticised his players on television, saying that they had put in “a disgraceful performance”, a comment he later retracted.
Ferguson was asked to be part of the Scotland coaching set-up by his mentor Stein as they plotted a course to the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. But tragedy struck. When Scotland met Wales in a qualifying match in September 1985, Stein suffered a heart attack and died. Ferguson agreed to take charge and subsequently led the team to the finals which they exited at the group stage.
The move to Manchester
Before long offers began to come in from England. He had rejected Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1982, and now turned down Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. But when Ron Atkinson was sacked in November 1986, Manchester United came calling and a new dynasty of British footballing history began. He immediately vowed to knock the all-conquering Liverpool side “off their perch”.
Ferguson inherited a dispirited team of underachievers who had consistently failed to break Liverpool’s domination in the English game. Stuck in the bottom four of the league table, Ferguson set about attempting to stave off the very real threat of relegation. Without resorting to the transfer market, he guided United up the table to an 11th-place finish.
In his second season the Reds fared better, finishing runners-up behind Liverpool, but the position painted a false picture. United finished 11th the following year and the pressure on the Scot was beginning to grow. The turning point came in the 1989/90 season. Despite making five major signings, United ended the decade just outside the relegation zone. A banner at Old Trafford declared: “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta-ra Fergie.” Journalists and supporters alike were calling for the Scot to be sacked.
Yet United’s board of directors stood firm. They were impressed with the way Ferguson had reorganised the club’s coaching and scouting system and pointed to the absence of several key players through injury. A new year gave United a new opportunity to win their first piece of silverware under Ferguson, which they duly took. Despite being drawn away in every round, Lee Martin’s goal in a replay against Crystal Palace gave Manchester United their first piece of silverware for five years. The floodgates were opened. They captured the European Cup Winners’ Cup the following season in Rotterdam, beating Barcelona 2-1 thanks to a brace from Mark Hughes. Then, in 1991/92, the League Cup was added to United’s list of honours.
In 1992/93 the 26-year wait for the league title came to an end with the Red Devils, inspired by £1m signing Eric Cantona, pipping Aston Villa in the final weeks of the season. A league and FA Cup double followed in 1993/94, a feat repeated in 1995/96 before another top-flight title was added in 1997. Ferguson had achieved what he had set out to on his appointment 11 years earlier: Liverpool had indeed been knocked off their perch.
United did so with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, and of course David Beckham – all products of the youth system which Ferguson had championed a decade earlier. "It was a great squad of young players, a wonderful period,” he recalled. “Those homegrown players carried the spirit of Manchester United inside them. That’s what they gave the club. They were solid human beings. They would march with you, defend the principles on which we operate.”
Crowned in Europe, knighted by the Queen
Arguably, Ferguson’s greatest achievement came in 1998/99. No side before or since has won the Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup in the same season. On an unforgettable night in Barcelona, his decision to throw on substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer ensured that history was made. The pair scored injury-time goals to win the UEFA Champions League and complete the treble. His post-match verdict? “Football! Bloody hell!”
Ferguson was knighted following that success and his players kept on winning with a hat-trick of league titles between 1999 and 2001. At that point the great man considered retiring but eventually changed his mind and the United bandwagon kept rolling: his eighth Premier League title arrived in 2002/03, his fifth FA Cup a year later.
New signings such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney helped the club to a League Cup success in 2005/06 and a ninth Premier League trophy in 2006/07. The title was defended the following season when they also landed the Champions League for the second time in an all-English final encounter against Chelsea. United followed up that European success by winning the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December 2008. The Red Devils then claimed the League Cup in March 2009 by beating Tottenham Hotspur on penalties. Two months later, they achieved what had seemed an impossible mission when Ferguson arrived in 1986, equalling Liverpool's long-standing record of 18 league championships.
After being pipped to the title by a point by double winners Chelsea in 2009/10, United had to settle for the League Cup as their only trophy of the season. They wrestled the Premier League title back immediately in 2011, surpassing Liverpool as the most successful club in the English domestic game. "It's not so much passing Liverpool,” he declared afterwards. “It's more important that United are the best team in the country in terms of winning titles."
There was final-day heartbreak for Ferguson in 2011/12 as Manchester City denied the Reds the league title with just seconds of the season remaining. Yet, that disappointment made the man doubly determined to reclaim the Premier League trophy in 2012/13 – his final season in charge – and his side delivered a fitting send-off to by clinching the club's 20th league title with four games to spare.
Upon his retirement, the public, players, politicians and captains of industry queued up to pay tribute to Ferguson, but perhaps the most telling was from fellow Scot and Manchester United legend Denis Law.
"Alex could eventually be the greatest manager ever,” he said. “He is in that category of great managers for not only what he has achieved at Manchester United but what he started up at Aberdeen, where he went on to win and break that monopoly of Celtic and Rangers for a little spell. After he won the Cup Winners' Cup and came down to Manchester United.
“What he did then was create what Busby had created many years before with the Busby Babes – young players coming into the team, from schoolboys right through to the national teams as well. Like Busby, he created three or four great teams in his spell as manager of Manchester United.”
Sir Alex continues to be involved at United following his retirement, taking up a position on the club's board and acting as an ambassador. He also sits on committees at both FIFA and UEFA to share some of his philosophies on the game.
“The work of a team should always embrace a great player, but the great player must always work,” he once said. “Well, football is a hard game; there's no denying it. It's a game that can bring out the worst in you at times.”
His successors must now drive down a road named in his honour, pass a statue bearing his likeness and sit in a dugout opposite the stand which carries his name when they take charge of the Red Devils at Old Trafford. His legacy looms large, as it should at a club which constantly strives for success.