Sir Alex Ferguson: 26 years, 1500 games, 38 trophies. A lot has been written about this great man, considered by many to be the greatest manager the English game has ever seen. But of the 13 Premier League titles he won, where did it all begin?
What’s the story of the victory that kept him in the job that enabled him to lay down a force field of influence and power which is still being felt today, five years after his retirement.
It seems hard to believe but in the early 1990s, Alex Ferguson (the Sir came in 1999) came perilously close to losing his job. United had not won a league title in 26 years and in the four seasons before their inaugural victory they had finished 2nd, 6th, 13th and 11th.
After beating Barcelona in the European Cup Winner’s Cup final in 1991 Ferguson vowed that his Manchester United side would win the title the next season. This was not to come to pass, however. A number of results against poor to mid-table teams meant that they finished in 6th position. Ferguson came out and said, “many in the media that felt that [his] mistakes had contributed to the misery.” There was growing unrest around the United supporters and many were starting to question whether Ferguson was the right man for the job.
The season in question, 1992-93, started poorly for United. They won only five games from the start of the season to the beginning of November. Peculiarly, these games all came in one consecutive run from late August to mid-September. The first two games of the season gifted them no points as they lost to Sheffield United away and then were on the wrong end of a 3-0 result when Everton came to Old Trafford. After drawing with Ipswich, they went on to beat Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Crystal Palace and then Everton in a run which saw them score nine, concede none and move from 11th to 3rd in the table.
After this impressive run they then went on to draw their next five games. This lack of consistency saw United drop back down the table to 7th and resulting losses to Wimbledon and title-challengers Aston Villa fell them another three places to 10th.
At this point it looked like United had once again let the pressure get to them and that they would throw away the early momentum they had built up. They managed to galvanise themselves however, aided by one January signing in particular, and lost only two games in the second half of the season as they went on to claim the first Premier League title.
The catalyst for their success in the second half of the season was undoubtedly the signing of Eric Cantona from Leeds United. The Frenchman signed for a fee of £1.2 million in the January transfer window. United’s only major signing in the Summer had been the acquisition of Dion Dublin from Cambridge United and whilst Dublin started the season well enough he suffered a nasty leg break in September which put him out of action for six months. Whilst Cantona did not boast an outrageous scoring record that term, the nine goals he did score for the Red Devils that season, combined with the playmaking role he adopted (despite being considered a ‘traditional no. 9’) were vital in their bid for the title.
Whilst the Premier League was still in its infancy, the effects of the vast amounts of wealth attached to the League were already being felt and United had to work hard to keep up in financial terms with the big-spending Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa.
Cantona did not win this team the title single-handedly however. Mark Hughes finished the season as United’s top scorer with 15 goals to his name. There was also a young Welshman by the name of Ryan Giggs. After making his breakthrough the season prior, he dispatched Lee Sharpe to become United’s first-choice left winger at the age of just 19. He racked up nine goals and five assists over the course of the season as he went on to win the PFA Young Player of the Year award for the second season running.
United’s main title challengers over the season were undoubtedly Aston Villa. The Midlands club, managed by ex-United coach Ron Atkinson were top of the table with six games left to play. They ultimately gifted United the title after losing 1-0 at home to Oldham Athletic – a team in the midst of a shock relegation escape. Ironically, Atkinson had questioned whether United had the ‘bottle’ to challenge for the title. Atkinson was the first but certainly not the last to learn not to play mind games with Fergie. Villa lost their last three games of the season and Untied won the title without even kicking a ball.
The other main contender for the title that season was surprisingly Norwich City. The Canaries had been widely tipped for relegation at the start of the season, yet found themselves eight points clear just before Christmas. However, they faltered in the last few weeks of the season and eventually finished third. Norwich were helped by the signing of striker Mark Robins from Manchester United. The Englishman scored 14 goals in Norwich’s unlikely title bid.
As well as being the first title which Ferguson won, this season also saw the first instance of ‘Fergie time’. The now infamous phrase, used to describe what some perceive to be an unfair amount of additional time at the end of a match with United needing a goal, was seen in the club’s 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday on 10th April. United were trailing 1-0 with four minutes to go and it looked as if they might hand the title to Aston Villa. This was not to be, however, as Steve Bruce scored two headers in the 86th and 96th minute to thrust United to the top of the table – a position they maintained for the rest of the season.
This title win laid down the gauntlet to the rest of Premier League. United entered a period of domestic domination which saw them win six of the next nine titles. This was coupled with the emergence of teenage stars such as David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, who all made their senior debuts in the 1992-93 season and would go on to be a part of the illustrious ‘Class of 92’.
There have been more convincing and more exciting title-winning campaigns, yet there is something special about this one. Looking back at it now, with the knowledge of all that Fergie went on to achieve, it is hard to justify just how big an occasion this was. Old Trafford had not experienced this sort of elation since the Busby years when the likes of Bobby Charlton and George Best were plying their trade in front of the United faithful.
Manchester United fans may wish that they could go back to the 1990s when they were undeniably the dominant force in English football. Times have not been so easy in recent years for the Red Devils with a slump in performances in the post-Ferguson era and the resurgence of neighbours Manchester City into one of the global footballing powerhouses.
Whatever is happening this season, or in the next, it does not change what happened in the past. Manchester United were at one point the greatest Premier League dynasty ever, led by the greatest manager ever. And it all came about thanks to a bit of mind-games and a 96th minute winner.
Some things never change.