From Falkirk to Manchester: Sir Alex Ferguson’s 39 years of managerial success

Famed for getting the very best out of his players, it was always going to be a difficult job for whoever took the reigns following his exit. David Moyes, Ferguson’s hand-picked replacement, soon found that out!

The struggles of his successors only serves to prove just how special Ferguson was. Despite many criticising the lack of star quality in his squad, particularly in his later years, he managed to clinch league title after league title, making him one of the best managers, if not the best, of all time.

Early days

Prior to management, Ferguson began his journey into football when he joined Queen’s Park FC, a Glasgow based club then playing in the Scottish A Division, in 1957. Aged just 16, he began finding the net regularly, scoring 20 times in just 31 games before moving on to St. Johnstone. Despite continuing to tally up an impressive goals-to-game ratio, scoring 19 in 37, Ferguson was unable to break into the starting line-up, and once again found himself on the move, this time to Dunfermline Athletic.

In his first season at the club, they came agonisingly close to clinching both the Scottish League and the Scottish Cup, losing out in both to one point and one goal respectively. However, despite the lack of trophies, Ferguson’s personal records continued to improve. His second season at the Fife club saw him find the back of the net an impressive 45 times in 51 games.

His goalscoring feats caught the eye of Scottish bigwigs Rangers, who proceeded to sign him for £65,000 – the highest fee that had ever been paid between two Scottish clubs back in the 1960s. However, a costly error in a cup final soon brought an end to his Rangers stint.

Ferguson’s playing career slowly petered out, having never quite reached the lofty heights that he would go on to dominate as a manager. While he was more than capable of hitting the target as a player, like so many of the world’s best managers, Ferguson would go on to prove that his mind was much better than his feet.

First steps

Ferguson decided against taking a break after hanging up his boots and moved straight into management, taking up the top role at East Stirlingshire aged just 32, a matter of days after the expiration of his playing contract in June 1974. It took just four months for the stern manager to be poached by a bigger club, as he opted to move to St. Mirren in October.

Ferguson celebrates his move into management with his East Sterlingshire squad.
Ferguson celebrates his move into management with his East Stirlingshire squad.

It was here that Ferguson would really begin to make a name for himself by doing the seemingly impossible. When he took the reigns in 1977, St. Mirren were struggling in the Scottish Second Division, but within just three years he took them to the summit of the First Division, picking up the first of many trophies he would go on to win. While at a significantly lower level when compared to winning the Champions League with United, his victory with St. Mirren was particularly special, considering the squad’s average age was just 19, and the average pay just £15 a week.

However, a year later things began to go sour at the Scottish club. As it is well known, as manager, Ferguson enjoyed having complete control over all aspects of the club. This trait wasn’t something that developed with success, but one that was with him from the very beginning. This often caused friction between the inexperienced boss and various members of his staff, which was said to be the reason for his dismissal at the end of the season. Although, it was later claimed by the club’s chairman that the dismissal was due to the fact that Ferguson, who had already agreed in principal to take over at Aberdeen, was attempting to lure some of the club’s players along with him.

Unsurprisingly, Ferguson did take the job at Aberdeen, which was a big step up from the second tier. Prior to his Aberdeen switch, Ferguson had also been managing two pubs on the side, in order to make enough money to survive, but he put that aside to focus on pursuing a career in top level management. The job would be harder than it seemed, as, aged just 36, he struggled to assert his authority over the club’s veteran players.

It took some time, but Ferguson proved his worth by turning Aberdeen into a trophy-winning club. The first came in 1990, when he guided them to their first title in 25 years, in a league usually dominated by Celtic and Rangers. Although, the club’s finest moment came in the following season, as they embarked on a phenomenal European Cup Winners’ Cup run that saw them defeat the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to clinch the trophy.

After three league titles, four Scottish Cups a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and a UEFA Super Cup, it was finally time for Ferguson to move on to bigger and better things. After turning down offers from Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur, he eventually accepted an offer from Manchester United following the sacking of Ron Atkinson.

Taking the Old Trafford hot-seat

Ferguson took the reigns at a United side that were sitting in 21st place in the league table entering the midway point of the campaign. Things didn’t look bright for the club, but they firmly believed their new man could turn it all around. Many of the club’s players suffered with drinking problems and failing to take their careers seriously, but Ferguson was quick to whip them into shape.

Eventually finishing in a modest 11th place, Ferguson began working on his attempts to dethrone Liverpool, who dominated the top division throughout the 1980s. It would take another five years, but by 1992/93, the inaugural Premier League campaign, he had led the Red Devils to their first title in 26 years, largely thanks to the signing of French superstar Eric Cantona.

United appeared set to embark on a period of dominance as they retained their title the following season, but 1994/95 proved much more challenging for the club. United trailed behind table-toppers Blackburn Rovers throughout the season, and Cantona, who had quickly become the club’s main source of goals, didn’t make things easier by kung-fu kicking a Crystal Palace fan, which saw him slapped with an eight month ban. Unsurprisingly, Blackburn were crowned the champions at the end of the season.

The Class of 92 became a key part of Ferguson's United squad.
The Class of 92 became a key part of Ferguson’s United squad.

The United crowd expected another disappointing season in 1995/96, as the club failed to land any big-name targets throughout the summer, despite a number of other top clubs strengthening their squads. However, a group of youngsters, now known as the Class of ’92, would turn up to save the season.

Talented youngsters David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt had all made the odd appearance for the first-team, but Ferguson believed that it was finally time to throw them into the mix. The blend of energy and experience provided the perfect balance in a season that saw Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side push United all the way for the title, while the Red Devils seemingly pushed Keegan to the brink of a mental breakdown.

Ferguson’s United side continued to dominate, winning the league again in 1996/97. However, his best ever season would come in 1998/99. The club had ended the previous campaign without any silverware, but they certainly made up for it 12 months later. The club piped holders Arsenal to the title by a single point, while they also claimed the FA Cup trophy after beating the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal on the way to the final.

The club rounded up the trophy haul with Ferguson’s first ever Champions League win, as they dispatched Barcelona from the group stages before navigating past Inter Milan and Juventus to set up a final clash against Bayern Munich.

The German giants had scored after just six minutes and appeared to have won the game, until two added-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed United not just a late victory, but their first ever treble, making them the first English team to achieve such a feat. It was also the moment that landed Ferguson the ‘Sir’ title, as he was knighted for his footballing achievements later that year.

Manchester United’s dominance

2001 almost saw Ferguson call an end to his managerial career after falling out with the club’s board. He came so close that he even spoke out on his decision to the club’s official TV channel, MUTV. However, after the two parties resolved their differences, Ferguson extended his contract and would embark on another decade of success.

The next decade would see a host of the world’s best join the ranks at Manchester United, with the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy joining from PSV Eindhoven, now-club captain Wayne Rooney making the switch from Everton and Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo joining from Sporting Lisbon.

Although, while there was plenty of world-class talent coming in, there was also plenty moving on too. David Beckham became one of the first in the summer of 2003, as he departed for Real Madrid. The midfielder’s relationship with Ferguson had become untenable after the boss kicked a boot across the changing room, which came marginally close to hitting Beckham’s eye, in a moment of rage. Likewise, former-captain Roy Keane also departed the club after falling out with the manager over the quality of a resort the team had been booked in to for a pre-season training camp – a row which escalated to beyond breaking point.

Beckham required stitches after clashing with the fiery Ferguson.
David Beckham required stitches after clashing with the fiery manager.

Ferguson is both fierce and demanding, but those are the qualities that made him such a phenomenal manager. He demands 100% from his players at all times and he isn’t afraid to throw his stars on the scrapheap if they challenge him, but it is a technique that undeniably worked wonders.

After trumping noisy neighbors Manchester City to the 2012/13 Premier League title, the 20th league victory in the club’s history, Ferguson announced that he would be stepping down after almost 27 years at the Old Trafford helm. Throughout his stay he had won a staggering 26 major trophies, making him the most successful manager in English footballing history.

The genius manager called an end to his reign having won 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League Cups and two Champions League trophies with the Red Devils. He himself claimed 11 Premier League Manager of the Season awards, 27 Manager of the Month awards and three Onze d’Or Coach of the Year awards among much, much more.

Whether it was controlling the prima donnas or developing the kids, Ferguson was the best man for the job. No matter what club you support, it’s hard to deny that Ferguson was truly something special.

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