1990 began with all and sundry speculating over who would become the new manager of Manchester United. The coffin on actual incumbent Alex Ferguson’s three-year-plus reign had already been ordered. The final nail in it would arrive through the apparent formality of defeat away to Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup.
A season which had begun with major expenditure on the likes of Gary Pallister, Paul Ince and Neil Webb, and the promise of a first league title in 27 years, had now degenerated into a relegation battle, the consequence of results such as humiliating home defeats by Norwich City and Crystal Palace, and a 5-1 thrashing at bitter rivals Manchester City. Furthermore, a 3-0 League Cup loss to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford meant the FA Cup remained their last hope of ending 1989/90 with silverware.
A vast majority expected that hope - and Ferguson’s employment - to end on that 7 January, given that United were chasing a first win in nine attempts and Forest were challenging for the First Division title and boasting home advantage. Yet Mark Robins’ unanswered goal gave the visitors a 1-0 win and, though the Red Devils finished the campaign a lowly 13th in the league, the cup run kept Ferguson in a job and took them all the way to Wembley. Again, the match against Palace was billed as a do-or-die affair for Ferguson, whose charges duly edged 210 minutes of pulsating football to win the sport’s oldest worldwide competition.
Ferguson had again survived the sack. Manchester United had survived missing out on what would become the most successful period in their history. Indeed, the 1990/91 campaign concluded with the Red Devils upsetting Barcelona in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final, before beating Crvena Zvezda in the consequent UEFA Super Cup, while the following season United ended their long wait for a top-flight title by becoming the inaugural Premier League champions. It was the first of 12 Ferguson has masterminded, with the Glaswegian’s trophy haul augmented by five FA Cups, two UEFA Champions Leagues and as many world crowns. It has been a truly regal reign, and one that implausibly reached 25 years yesterday.
Naturally, United toasted it with victory the previous day, and while a 1-0 reverse of Sunderland may have been a limp one for a team that has become accustomed to the spectacular, the occasion lacked no ounce of thrill. The club, indeed, presented Ferguson with a plaque and revealed at statue of him will be erected at Old Trafford, while the North Stand was renamed the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – much to the surprise of the man of the moments (its secrecy was indebted to only eight of United’s 660 full-time employees being aware, and a six-man team of workmen doing the renovations overnight so as not to be rumbled).
“I didn't know anything about it," Ferguson said, grinning. "I have to thank the club because it's a proud moment." It was one the longest-serving manager in British football fully deserved.
“He has been so successful that he must certainly go down as the greatest manager that there has ever been,” said Sir Bobby Charlton. “I know I played under Sir Matt Busby, but that is a fact. You only have to look at his incredible record to see that is the case because he has won a phenomenal amount of trophies at the club.”
“I am very pleased because he has made life a lot easier for everyone concerned with Manchester United and his 25th anniversary in charge at Old Trafford deserves to be celebrated, because I think it will prove to be unique, especially with most managers only lasting on average just a few years nowadays.
“He is brave with his decision–making, he has the right work ethic and everything else that a successful manager should have. He is a good motivator, tactically astute and as well as having an eye for a player he is adept at developing players. His teams play lovely, attacking football and he is never afraid to make big decisions. He is completely in charge and that is the way you want your managers to be.”
“As for how long he should stay in charge at Old Trafford that is a question that others should put to him. But as far as I am concerned, he should carry on in the job for as long as he wants.”
Charlton need not worry. Ferguson said: “Football is the thing that makes the most sense of his life. Twenty-five years at Manchester United? It's a fairytale. Retirement? All I can say is that I'm looking forward to the next 25 years."