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.
(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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