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Bobby McMahon

Bobby McMahon

You can see me on Soccer Central most Mondays and Thursdays on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada. I write a regular column for and and frequently guest on various podcasts and radio shows.


Sliding Doors – What If Fergie Had Retired in 2002?

Written by on November 2, 2011 | 12 Comments »
Posted in Manchester United

On Sunday Sir Alex Ferguson will mark 25 years in charge of Manchester United.

During his time at United has won 37 trophies and they are arguably the most famous football club in the world – at the very least a member of the top two.

However, Ferguson originally called time on his United career almost ten years ago and was supposed to retire at the end of the 2001/2002 season.

He reneged and in the nine years since United has won 16 trophies.

But what might have happened if he had walked out of Old Trafford in June 2002 and never returned.

How different would Manchester United of today be?

(Dateline Manchester November 6, 2011)

A quarter of a century ago Sir Alex Ferguson walked into Old Trafford as manager of Manchester United for the first time.

Despite a less than successful first few years in charge, over the next 15+ years Ferguson recaptured the sort of success that United fans not experienced since the days of Sir Matt Busby.

But just like that of Busby, Ferguson’s retirement from the game at the end of the 2002 became the precursor to an extended period of decline for the Old Trafford club.

With Ferguson at the helm Manchester United won an incredible twenty-one trophies to add to the eleven he had picked while in charge of St. Mirren and Aberdeen north of the border.

The first arrived in 1990 by way of an FA Cup win but it was United’s first league championship in 1993 that opened the floodgates.

Seven league titles and three more wins in the FA Cup came over the next few seasons but  the treble (Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup) in 1999 was the crowning achievement of Ferguson’s 28 years as a football manager.

Now nearly a decade after he left Old Trafford for the final time Ferguson admits to some regret that he walked away from football just five months after his 60th birthday.

He knew the side was in need of retooling in 2002 having surrendered the Premier League title to Arsenal. But retooling was something he had successfully undertaken before and he feels he could have built another winner in short-order if he had chosen to stick around.

But once the decision was made Ferguson was never likely to back-track and he quickly points out that his six years as a Labour Member of Parliament as one of the great experiences of his life.

Not necessarily European Cup winning-like but life-experiences very different than that of a football manager.

In replacing Ferguson, United again looked north and convinced Martin O’Neill to leave Celtic to take the reins at United. (Thirty years before Sir Matt Busby had tried to convince Jock Stein to do the same thing but Big Jock declined at the last moment.)

But O’Neill’s style was markedly different than that of Ferguson. The emphasis was placed on defensive organization, battling midfielders and grinding out wins.

The arrival of Henrik Larsson from Celtic proved to be a false-dawn for United fans excited by the move. The Swede and Ruud van Nistelrooy failed to establish an effective strike partnership.

Within two seasons Larsson was off to play for Barcelona in Spain and Van Nistelrooy joined a Chelsea side buoyed by an injection of money from Russian Roman Abramovich.

Roy Keane was another who lost faith and he left to play in Italy in 2004 after allowing his contract to expire. During his time at Milan Keane helped the side to two Champions League wins to go with their 2003 title.

O’Neil’s success was limited to a Carling Cup win in his first season but it was his dour tactics that were his real undoing. The fans simply would not put up with it and voted with their feet.

The club then looked overseas with first Ottmar Hitzfeld and then 2006 World Cup winning coach Marcelo Lippi taking charge.

But both were hampered by a lack of funds needed to strengthen the side and by the failure to sign a couple of key players in the two years after Ferguson left.

Leeds United had made Rio Ferdinand available to United but O’Neill hesitated and Liverpool moved in.

A teenage Cristiano Ronaldo was close to signing and at one point he had even been shown around Old Trafford. But just before a contract was concluded Arsenal nipped in and signed the player.

Many of the players who formed the nucleus of the treble-winning side stuck with the club through the lean years before retiring or in the cases of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham moving to Manchester City where they enjoyed a swan-song with a City team that is now the dominant force in Manchester.

But the post-Ferguson years cannot be discussed without dealing with the ill-advised takeover of the club by the Glazer family in 2005.

The fans were seduced by promises of new investment from the prospective American owners and although initially new money was provided it was never enough to allow United to match the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and a revived Liverpool.

As trophies failed to materialize the money tap was not only turned off but it turned into a suction pump. More money was taken out of the club to pay for the Glazers’ takeover and that required a reduction in costs.

Operating expenses were cut and cut again and the inability to attract very good players morphed into an inability to attract better than average players.

The lack of on-field success severely impacted revenue generation and by the fall of 2008 the club was in financial free-fall. Administration became inevitable and it came in 2010.

But adversity also brought hope. Gary Neville took over as player-manager and despite a points deduction the club miraculously avoided relegation on the last day of the season.

New owners, ironically named the White Knights, settled the clubs debts at a rate of 15p on the pound and the club is again on a more solid financial footing.

Crowds are increasing again for the first time in six seasons and United has reverted to the tried and true model of developing their own players.

But almost a decade after Sir Alex Ferguson left one cannot help but wonder what might have happened had Fergie stayed around for just a few more years.

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12 responses to “Sliding Doors – What If Fergie Had Retired in 2002?”

  1. Roberto Manita says:


    Quick answer to your headline question, the world would have been a kinder, gentler place. Many people in the English media would have rejoiced. And personally speaking, I would have celebrated the momentous occasion.

  2. John Bladen says:


    Losing CR to Arsenal! That’s bound to generate high blood pressure in certain quarters…

    I fear that the paragraph or two pertaining to the Glazers may partly come true anyway. I’m a little surprised at the rate at which they’ve been able to retire some of the higher cost debt, but they still have lots to pay down… and while turnover is still strong, they are losing money every year – and not small money either.

    I recall Bobby Charlton (Man U Years) talking about the planned Ferguson departure. He met him in an elevator and SAF said “I’ve had a talk with Kath. I’ve decided to stay on”.

    Quoth Charlton, “Imagine my surprise” and off they went.

    It’s fun to reinvent the past, but I wonder if Man U would have been a Glazer target (or, indeed, if any EPL club would have attracted the interest they have in our time) absent the success of the Ferguson years?

    We tend to think of MUFC as having always been what it is today. Even 15 years ago, things were dramatically different.

  3. Ed Gomes says:

    The Glasers can’t help but get nicked no matter what they do. Let’s see the club’s revenue is through the roof, and its exposure world wide has never been bigger. Yes results on the pitch have a lot to do with that, but you need strong management in order to turn that into cash flow.

    JB, I agree that Man United wouldn’t have been anyone’s target if they had fallen to the depths described.
    Then again, maybe Abram would have thought of Man United as a better investment and bought them instead of Chelsea.
    “The Special One” could have been at Man United earlier than its presumed. By the way, I don’t think that Mourinho will go anywhere near Man United. He will use them to drive his price up.

  4. CR to Arsenal came closer than many know. From a credible 2008 article.
    “Five years ago Ronaldo met Arsène Wenger at the Club’s Hertfordshire training ground, had a tour around the facilities and, just before he left, was presented with an Arsenal shirt with his own name on the back.”

  5. If Mourinho had joined United after a Fergie-retirement it would have most likely to have been 2 years later and under this scenario United would have been a slumping side.

    In 2002 Jose was on nobody’s radar outside of Portugal with a UEFA Cup win a year away and his first Champions League trophy a year after that.

  6. Michael says:

    Either i read your sentence wrong, or you made a mistake. Van Nistelrooy never played for Chelsea

  7. Mark Gillespie says:

    To ed gomes, yes revenue is up, they’ve generated an extra £192m while they’ve been here over and above the levels achieved by the PLC. 2 problems with that, however. 1, that’s in part due to ticket price increases far above those overseen by the PLC. And most importantly 2, during that same period they’ve cost the club more than £500m in interest and fees solely associated with their takeover. As a comparison, the same length of time pre-Glazers cost around £60m in dividends.

  8. Mark Gillespie says:

    Interesting why the writer picked O’Neill as the successor. Negotiations were already at an advanced stage with Sven when Fergie did his U-Turn.

  9. Chris Dahl says:

    In this (football) world of instability, this is not an unlikely scenario.

    Fergie has definitely been THE stabilizing factor and steered the club away from rough seas on numerous occasions since his premature retirement announcement.

    These “what if” pieces are typically narrow-minded and focus on a desired turn of events, but this was good reading. I’m sure Bobby’s dreams are not as objective: “Cronaldo becoming the worlds No1 player for Arsenal and being the difference in the Gunners picking up 3 Champions League titles (beating AC Milan, Barcelona and Bayern in the finals). Abramovich interested in Cricket not football… ManU being put under administration instead of Leeds. change from reality..

  10. Michael – there is more than that sentence wrong. All of it is. It is all made up.

  11. John Bladen says:


    Was CRonaldo’s visit to Herts anything more than the standard wooing most great young players enjoy from all the big clubs?

    I understood that his deal with Man U was more or less finished even while he was talking to a few other clubs?

  12. My understanding was that the teams could not agree a price. The article quoted Wenger as Arsenal offering about a third of what United paid.
    My recollection of the United deal was that it happened very quickly after a pre-season friendly with Sporting Lisbon.

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