The common consensus is that the peerless Scot took a long time to make the Red Devils formidable again, but was his effect really so gradual?
By Liam Twomey
When Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest Manchester United achievements are recounted – and it is always an astonishingly long list – nothing from the 1980s ranks particularly highly.
It is perfectly understandable, given the first three years of his reign pre-date all of the 13 league titles and 38 trophies which have granted him reverence beyond equal at Old Trafford. For many of a certain age they simply bring back bad memories of a time before the golden era of relentless domination, when the man who now boasts a statue and named stand almost lost his job.
The common consensus is that Ferguson took three turbulent years to truly find his feet at Old Trafford and prove himself worthy of a club which expects trophies. David Moyes surely hopes the first seven months of his troubled reign will one day be remembered in similarly benign terms.
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The Scot oversaw 11 victories in the final 29 fixtures of the old 42-game season to lead the club out of the relegation zone and into the safety of 11th place. While the Red Devils were always better than their form over the first three months of the season suggested, there can be no doubt that the departure of Ron Atkinson and the arrival of Ferguson galvanised the squad.
This momentum was maintained in spectacular fashion when, with the Old First Division reduced to 40 matches in the 1987-88 season, United won 23 matches and lost just five to finish second.
Winners Liverpool were unstoppable and would not countenance a title race – Ferguson’s men topped the table for just one week in August and finished nine points back – but the manager’s new signings Viv Anderson, Steve Bruce and Brian McClair all played key roles, with the latter becoming the first United striker to break the 20-goal league barrier since George Best, scoring 24 times.
The jump from relegation fodder to second place in his first full season is often glossed over because of what transpired in the following campaign, but the achievement cannot be overstated. With the scouting system yet to be completely overhauled and with a number of players inherited from the previous regime still in the pub as much as on the training field, a 25-point increase on the season's previous tally - from two fewer games - is incredible progress.
With expectations sufficiently raised, however, the 1988-89 campaign was a bitter disappointment. United struggled for consistency throughout and although a 2-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday put them third in the league on February 11, a run of just three wins from their final 14 matches resulted in a slide back to 11th. "The season did not just slip away, it collapsed," Ferguson admitted.
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Meanwhile, the chronic drinking culture Ferguson had fought since arriving at Old Trafford had a debilitating effect with key men Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, two of the worst offenders, struggling for form and fitness. “No club can be expected to fulfil its potential without so many of its players for so long,” the boss insisted. Both troublemakers were sold at the end of the season.
Ferguson then splashed out, aiming for a genuine title challenge in his third full season, 1989-90. Paul Ince, Neil Webb, Danny Wallace, Mike Phelan and Gary Pallister were added for a combined total of £7.5 million, but once again injuries proved a problem. Webb ruptured his Achilles tendon on England duty after only a handful of United appareances and missed most of the season, while of the defenders, only Pallister, Bruce and Lee Martin managed over 20 appearances.
United’s indifferent form was punctuated by a 5-1 humbling by bitter rivals Manchester City - after which Ferguson went home and put his head under a pillow for hours - and by December the Scot was under severe pressure. Yet neither he nor his team buckled, and Robins’ headed winner against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round on January 7 proved a seminal moment. United finished 13th in the league – their lowest position since being relegated 15 years earlier – but triumphed over Crystal Palace, after a replay, to win the cup.
Ferguson survived, his position secured by claiming the club's first trophy in five years. "That final did not effect transformation in Manchester United but it did sow the seeds of one," Ferguson wrote in his 2000 autobiography, Managing My Life. "I could see in the new players like Pallister and Ince a sharpening of the appetite for winning that promised to carry them, and the club, on to a higher level of achievement."
The following year United won the Cup Winners’ Cup with victory over Barcelona, and despite falling apart at the end of the 1991-92 season, they recovered from that bitter blow to claim the elusive league title in the first season of the Premier League. But were it not for injuries and clashes with the likes of Whiteside and McGrath, it is less than outrageous to suggest the journey may not have been quite so long or tortuous.
With Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic succumbing to the ravages of time, a sidelined Robin van Persie in dispute over training methods and Wayne Rooney still refusing to discuss a new contract, the beleaguered Moyes would certainly sympathise. He can only hope he receives the same backing and patience afforded to the man whose shadow still stalks him.
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