Sports

Throwback Thursday: Alex Ferguson Arrives at Manchester United

With 13 league titles Alex Ferguson is statistically the greatest manager in the history of English football. His Manchester United reign began 29 years ago this week.

by Jim Weeks
Nov 5 2015, 4:50pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

I don't remember Alex Ferguson getting the Manchester United job, because I was six weeks old at the time and more concerned with my newfound existence outside a womb than the fortunes of a fallen giant of English football and their new manager.

But I was very much aware of his departing the club, because by the time Ferguson relinquished control at United I was 26 years old (and pretty well adjusted to post-womb living). I think that nicely encapsulates the span of Ferguson's tenure – from birth to an age at which people start asking when you're going to settle down and have kids of your own, and might even have a point. In other words, the best years of my life.

For a whole generation of football fans, he was the only boss who had ever been at United. The only man who could possibly stand in the Old Trafford dugout was a ruddy-faced Glaswegian who had an almost supernatural ability to win silverware. That reign began 29 years ago this week.

Though not a United fan, I have huge respect for what Ferguson achieved at the club. How could I not? To do otherwise you'd need to have your head buried deep in the sands of football fandom. You are more than welcome to hate the man for whatever reason you can throw around in pub closing-time arguments (and some are pretty legit), but 13 league titles, two Champions Leagues and another dozen major trophies is, frankly, astounding. If you can write that off as anything other than an incredible sporting achievement, then football has sent you fully insane.

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Ferguson had already achieved plenty in the management game pre-United. As Aberdeen boss he had won the Scottish Premier League three times, the Scottish Cup on four occasions, and the Scottish League Cup once. He had also turned heads by leading the Dons to the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, which involved beating Bayern Munich in the quarters and Real Madrid in the final. He subsequently added the European Super Cup in 1983, making him responsible for the club's only European silverware – and very much in demand south of the border.

It's sometimes forgotten that Fergie also had international coaching experience in his pre-United days. When national team boss Jock Stein died suddenly in September 1985, Ferguson took up the reigns for Scotland's World Cup qualifying play-off against Australia. They won and progressed to the finals in Mexico, but a poor showing saw them eliminated in the group stages. Ferguson stepped down and returned his full focus to Aberdeen.

But that did not last long. On 6 November Ron Atkinson was sacked as manager of Manchester United with the club second from bottom in the old First Division (here we must pause for a moment to take in the fact that Ron Atkinson managed Manchester United for more than five years, and was well liked by many fans for his big personality and attacking football).

Ferguson inherited a team with undeniable quality, though he was immediately worried by the drinking culture within the club. His first task was to start winning matches and drag United from the relegation zone, with his debut game coming against Oxford United (again, time for reflection: Oxford United in the top flight, ahead of a relegation-threatened Man United).

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That match took place on 8 November 1986, away at the Manor Ground, and it did not begin the Ferguson years with a bang.

Led by Maurice Evans, Oxford had avoided relegation on the final day of the 1985-86 campaign while also winning the League Cup. But for a club of United's size they should have been dispatched without too much trouble.

But a John Aldridge penalty and a late second strike from Neil Slatter ensured Oxford a fairly comfortable win (though just how comfortable the players were wearing shirts sponsored by Wang Computers is another matter). In the cramped dugout, Ferguson looked uncomfortable. There was good reason for that: sat alongside him was the bus driver who had delivered United to the Manor Ground that day, with the hosts having run out of tickets to allow him to sit in the stands. More than 13,000 fans had turned up to see the game; none could have known what they were witnessing the start of.

There is no need to go over what happened during the next 26 years in great detail. After a barren start Ferguson finally won his first trophy (the FA Cup) at United in 1990 and then went title-mad, notching up every honour available. Most people consider him to be among the greatest football managers in the game's history; some rate him as the all-time number one.

What's so remarkable is that Ferguson's tenure spanned such different eras of English football. In 1986 the game was far from the ubiquitously popular juggernaut it is today. It was still reeling from Heysel and the Bradford City fire, with the Hillsborough disaster yet to come, events that almost brought the sport to its knees in this country. Ferguson was around at a time when the bus driver squeezed in next to the manager for a top-flight game.

And he was still around when the Premier League transformed the domestic game into a glitzy global brand, effectively a World League played on English soil. Transfer fees ballooned, wages exploded, and the names on his team sheet changed from old world football classics like Frank Stapleton and Arthur Albiston at his first game, to a global roll-call that included Chicharito, Shinji Kagawa, and Antonio Valenicia at the last.

Ferguson's greatest achievement is hard to pin down, but it might just be that he succeeded across eras in a way that other managers did not. We can't know if a Shankly or Busby would have thrived in the Premier League of 2013, or a Wenger or Mourinho in the English football landscape of the dangerous eighties, so it's impossible to judge fairly. What we do know is that Ferguson did the business in two different worlds.

Whether he is the greatest of all time or not is hardly worth arguing – he was extremely successful, and where he slots into an arbitrary list is largely irrelevant. But it is worth remembering where it all began to give context to what he eventually achieved.