|Take a bow: Ferguson is the longest-serving of England’s 92 league managers [GALLO/GETTY]|
Alex Ferguson reaches 25 years in charge of Manchester United on Sunday, embarking upon his second quarter century with the same vigour that he began the first.
Ferguson’s 27 major titles with United make him the most successful manager in British football history but it is his ability to adapt and willingness to change his approach to the game that make him truly remarkable.
The 69-year-old Ferguson’s seemingly contradictory combination of iron will and tactical flexibility has led United great Bobby Charlton to call him “a genius.”
Already the longest serving manager in United history, Ferguson reaches the landmark the day after his side hosts Sunderland in the English Premier League in his 1,409th match in charge.
Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986 with the grand ambition of unseating Liverpool as the dominant force in English football – knocking them off their perch, as Ferguson called it.
It was a huge task: Liverpool had just become the first side to win the league and cup double since 1971 and counted 16 league titles to United’s meagre seven.
But the Scottish manager has brought United an unmatched list of modern honours including 12 Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies, five FA Cups and a FIFA Club World Cup.
Last season’s Premier League title took United to 19 English championships, finally inching past Liverpool’s record 18.
“He’s a genius,” Charlton said.
“There are a lot of good young coaches in the game now. But he (Ferguson) has a longevity. He was born into it. He was patient, and he was very talented. “
– Bobby Charlton
“There are a lot of good young coaches in the game now. But he has a longevity. He was born into it. He was patient, and he was very talented.”
It is almost impossible to imagine any other coach with the ability to harness talents – and temperaments – as varied as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Bryan Robson, Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Maybe the mercurial Jose Mourinho could have managed it, but the Real Madrid coach has never stayed longer than 35 months with a club and his history of bust-ups and fall-outs seems to preclude him ever staying put for too long.
While Mourinho has no problem walking away from an unhappy situation, Ferguson has made sure it is always the other party in the argument who has to make way. Beckham, Van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane have all learned that lesson the hard way.
Only once did Ferguson waver, declaring his intention to retire at the end of the 2001-02 season. United’s form plummeted and Ferguson swiftly rescinded his decision, ending United’s attempt to hire then England coach Sven-Goran Erikkson and heralding a period of renewed success.
Ferguson has shown no further signs of retiring but if he ever does decide to step down – as he surely must at some point – it is a safe bet that the public announcement will be sudden.
Lengthy managerial tenures were more common prior to the inception of the high-pressure, big money Premier League in 1992.
United’s own Matt Busby served 24 years from 1945, while West Ham had only five managers between 1901 and 1989 – one of them doing the job for 31 years with only an FA Cup final appearance to show for it.
But Ferguson’s adaptability, ruthlessness and seemingly unquenchable desire for glory have made him the longest serving of England’s 92 league managers during a period of unprecedented change.
When Ferguson took charge at Old Trafford on November 6, 1986, there was no Champions League.
The Premier League and its influx of television cash were six years away, fans stood rather than sat at games, goalkeepers were still allowed to pick up back passes and the age of player power ushered in by the Bosman ruling had not even been conceived.
No manager in British football history has survived through so many major changes, let alone flourished amid such upheaval.
Of the 21 other managers in the topflight at the time of Ferguson’s appointment, only Kenny Dalglish is still operating at the highest level. And even Dalglish – nine years Ferguson’s junior – had an 11-year break from elite management before embarking on his second spell at Liverpool this year.
Manchester United were next-to-last in England’s topflight when Ferguson was persuaded to leave Aberdeen, the provincial club with which he broke Celtic and Rangers’ domination of Scottish football and won the 1983 European Cup Winners Cup.
But Ferguson, the son of a shipbuilding worker in Glasgow, did not enjoy instant success as he got rid of several senior players and overhauled a youth system that would eventually produce all-time United greats Giggs, Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.
United had not finished outside the top 10 since returning to the topflight in 1975, but failed to make it that high in three of Ferguson’s first four seasons.
“Obviously I had to build a team when I came to the club,” Ferguson said.
“A lot of big, big decisions were made at the time and we cleared the decks.
“There was no structure of winning anything. It was a baseless team in the sense there were no trophies to tell players about and nothing to defend – so that was very hard work. “
– Ferguson on United’s early years
“There was no structure of winning anything. It was a baseless team in the sense there were no trophies to tell players about and nothing to defend – so that was hard work.”
Victory in the replayed 1990 FA Cup final bought Ferguson his first trophy and time to continue rebuilding.
United beat Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup final the following season, but it took a huge slice of fortune – or was it inspiration? – in 1992 for Ferguson to locate the player who would kick start United’s domestic domination.
The chairman of English champion Leeds called United to inquire about the availability of fullback Denis Irwin. Ferguson turned down the approach and instead made a speculative inquiry about Leeds’ French striker Cantona.
With Cantona in the side, United won their first league title since 1967 and have never since gone longer than three years without hoisting the trophy.
The United squad set to take on Sunderland the day before Ferguson reaches the landmark illustrates perfectly how he has adapted to the changing demands of modern football.
Big money signings Rooney and Nani stand alongside youth team products Darren Fletcher and Danny Welbeck, while the long-serving Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra blend seamlessly with shrewd purchases Javier Hernandez and Park Ji-sung.
As for his shifting tactics, Ferguson largely discarded his default 4-4-2 lineup after European Champions League elimination by Real Madrid in 2000, subsequently experimented with 4-5-1 and seems mostly to now use variations on a 4-2-3-1 system.
Notably, though, he is still willing to experiment or even revert to an old approach if the situation demands it.
British football will never see another manager like him.