Ode to the second Sir of Manchester United

Posted: May 24, 2013 in Opinion piece
Tags: , , , ,

I didn’t grow up in a football family. I remember flicking through an 80s football annual and being drawn to an action shot of Mark Hughes, looking like a Spartan warrior as he fought off an incoming challenge, and immediately choosing Manchester United as my team. The Busby Babes and Munich Air Disaster heritage only served to reinforce my choice, as did the fact my best childhood friend was a fan.

As a young boy, football becomes an obsession. In secondary school I knew every squad name and number from every Premier League team. Saturdays were watching the local football and listening for the Premier League results on the radio, nights were Match of the Day. Discussions with friends consisted mainly of dissecting the weekend’s results.

I have vague memories of United’s Cup Winners’ Cup victory in 1991; Mark Hughes’ audacious goal from an outrageous angle sealing a swashbuckling victory. Although not quite old enough to be completely aware of the significance, I remember the joy and pride after United claimed the first Premier League crown, with Alex Ferguson reclaiming the pinnacle of success, 26 years after Sir Matt Busby had last tasted it. The classic ‘lace-up’ collar patterned red home shirts and the patterned blue away shirts also leading the way in terms of style. The next season, we were treated to the glorious black and gold away kit, with an eye-catching Newton Heath-esque green and yellow halved third strip. I always longed for the Manchester United kit ‘shiny’ in my pack of Panini Premier League stickers. Eric Cantona became the folk hero of a stunted young boy with little in the way of natural ability. When he launched into the kung-fu attack on a now-convicted football hooligan, I was in tears at the prospect of losing my icon, but Fergie worked his magic, and he returned for another crack at conducting the Manchester United orchestra.

I remember my first trip to Old Trafford in 1995, watching Andrei Kanchelskis and Lee Sharpe put Everton to the sword; my breath stolen by the sheer number of fans and the inspiring atmosphere inside the Theatre of Dreams. I remember my motley band of friends gathering round my tiny bedroom television to watch the rout of Chelsea in the 1994 FA Cup final, the unadulterated glee at hearing the score coming through from the 1995 game against Ipswich Town, singing “we want ten” in the dying moments, and moping around the house after being destroyed in consecutive away games by Southampton and Newcastle in 1996, not to mention the funereal state of mind following the gut-wrenching double-whammy title and FA cup failures to Blackburn and Everton.

I remember being on a family holiday in Portugal, and reading about United signing Teddy Sheringham, being filled with optimism about United’s post-Cantona future. Despite having to watch Arsenal rub our noses in it in his first season, we all know what followed. I was in my front room with the family, watching the final leg of the treble, a nerve-grinding and frankly dire European final which we had trailed for most of it, only to see a late corner, and believing, as we had most of the campaign, that we would find a way to come back. I remember the swing of Teddy’s boot that staved off defeat, the flick of his head and sharp stab of Ole’s boot followed by the explosion of disbelieving joy that we had witnessed United become Kings of Europe for the first time in 31 years.

After feasting on so much glory, there followed the ‘Djemba-Djemba’ years, where many amongst us floated the prospect of Fergie ‘doing a Clough’ and continuing past his peak. Arsenal had claimed the 2002 title, though a remarkable collapse from them led to United inexplicably winning it back in 2003. Despite this show of resilience, many felt the cracks were papered over, and the next three seasons saw the invincible Arsenal team steal the show, before Mourinho’s machine claimed a brace of league titles. It wasn’t just the loss of United’s league dominance, it was the feeling that Fergie had lost his transfer nous, with Laurent Blanc, Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba, and Juan Sebastien Veron proving mainly woeful. Roy Keane was jettisoned after one outburst too many, followed by the prolific Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who had fallen foul of Sir Alex. Fans had even begun discussing whether Fergie was prioritising vendettas over success, but these doubters soon saw the strength of character and adaptable genius that has seen Fergie never relinquish winning for too long. Having floated the prospect of his retirement, perhaps he had merely taken his eye off the ball, but this was soon corrected on changing his mind.

After these transitional years saw Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Carrick, Edwin Van Der Sar, Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic arrive, the team was beginning to gel into a mighty unit. Carlos Queiroz was also to prove an excellent assistant. They had gone three years without a league title, but 2006-7 saw a resurgence, as they held off Mourinho’s Chelsea for much of the season. This was the season perhaps more than any other where Fergie proved his nous was still very much intact, when he pulled off a coup in signing the gifted Henrik Larsson on a short term deal in January to make the difference in tight matches, and push them over the line. The 2007 season also saw the remarkable 7-1 defeat of AS Roma in the Champions’ League, still possibly the most breathtaking display I have ever witnessed from a United team.

2008 saw Fergie finally claim his long-awaited second Champions’ League crown, on penalties from a now Mourinho-less Chelsea, on an epic night in Moscow. Needless to say, the celebrations went on well into the night! This followed a superb title-winning season driven on by the exploits of one Cristiano Ronaldo. Another title followed, the second league hat-trick of Fergie’s reign, before Carlo Ancelotti’s swashbuckling Chelsea team won the double in 2010. Once again, Fergie dispatched another rival, as Ancelotti was sacked following United’s reclaiming of the title in 2011, spurred on by the mercurial Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov, as United shook off accusations that the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo would adversely affect them and seized their 19th league crown, finally knocking Liverpool ‘off their fucking perch’ as Fergie had succinctly articulated his ambitions on joining United.

With his legacy guaranteed, with numerous thrilling comebacks, trophies, and swashbuckling attacking displays to remember, Sir Alex was surely imagining capturing the 20th league crown to end his glorious tenure, but the ‘noisy neighbours’ with their oil billions beat United at the last in a cracking conclusion to the 2011-12 season, driving Fergie on to once more see off an upstart rival. 2013 was the year that he claimed it, Mancini was sacked, and Fergie rode off into the night a Mancunian hero for the ages.

We should also not forget Ferguson’s unparalleled accomplishments with Aberdeen, with whom he won four SPL titles, 4 Scottish Cups, a Scottish League Cup, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and Super Cup. The Old Firm were glad to see the back of him.

So, for all those thrilling nights, a happy childhood, a million stories and much more, thanks, Sir Alex. You join the pantheon of the very greatest British managers. My number one.

Jock Stein, Herbert Chapman, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Bill Nicholson, Alf Ramsey, Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson.

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