If the sport of soccer is defined by the impossible thrills and romantic tragedies that a bouncing ball can provide on the pitch and the spirit to keep moving despite tragedies off it and pioneer groundbreaking movements, then Manchester United is the alpha club of that sport.
Followed worldwide more than any other club thanks in no small part to an international interest of the Munich air disaster in 1958, this interest snowballed as the son of a shipbuilder from Govan lifted United out of the wilderness to fittingly complete the vision of the coach of the side from the 50’s.
The origins of Manchester United can be traced back to the working mans team of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway at the Newton Heath Depot that was founded in 1878. Their initial “base” was on North Road and they remained there for 15 years, at which point they relocated to Bank Street in Clayton.
It was the last of those years at North Road when the club began to establish itself as more of a project in its own kind rather than a railway WMC. The club had entered the Football League and had dropped the Railway links from their name. Ironically the “re-birth” of the club almost ended quicker than it’s first run, as in 1902 the club was close to bankruptcy. Bank Street was closed and the writing was on the wall – until a transaction that would have not-so-outlandish similarities with one 90 years later changed the face of the club forever.
Club captain Harry Stafford was at a fundraiser for the club and local businessman John Henry Davies was in attendance – Stafford had a St. Bernard that he was showing off and Davies wanted to buy it. Stafford declined but managed to persuade Davies to invest in the club and so save it from closing.
Davies had an active input into the regeneration of the club and after deciding to change the strip colours from green and gold halves to red and white, arranged a meeting on 26th April 1902 with the clubs directors, fans and other parties to agree on a new name for the club. It was Louis Rocca, who had been a teaboy for the club at Bank Street (and had even played for the reserves!) who suggested the name “Manchester United” in favour of “Manchester Celtic” and “Manchester Central”.
The Birth of Manchester United
James West was the first manager of the new Manchester United but he resigned on 28 September 1902 – replaced by “club secretary” Ernest Magnall. United were in the Second Division but had designs on promotion – a feat achieved in 1906. An 8th place finish in 1907 was followed by the first ever league championship win a year later.
The feat had much to do with neighbours Manchester City – they were found to have paid an amount not allowed by FA regulations to their players, and 18 of those players were banned from ever playing for the club again. United were quick to act and signed, amongst others, a future club legend in Billy Meredith. The 1908 title was won in some style, with a nine point gap over second placed Aston Villa.
The championship sparked an early spell of “glory years” for the new club who went on to win the first ever Charity Shield later in 1908 with a 4-0 win over QPR. In 1909 the club won their first ever FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Bristol City at Crystal Palace. Sandy Turnbull, signed from Manchester City at the same time as Meredith, scored the winner and was seen as largely instrumental during the run.
The following season saw United’s first “brush” with authority when the League threatened to not only suspend players who were members of the Professional Footballers Union but do it without pay, too. Most of the league were incensed but Manchester United players refused flat out to give up membership. Most clubs affected were able to get enough amateurs to replace those players who wouldn’t give up membership but the FA Cup holders couldn’t – and it was this fact that lead to the infamous “Outcasts FC” photograph being taken.
The league eventually caved and removed all suspensions, recognising the Union on the eve of the 09-10 season.
By the time United next saw silverware they had found a new home – Old Trafford. John Henry Davies was again the financial fairy gadfather lending £60,000 (a staggering amount, in those times) to the club so it could secure the move. The first game at the new abode was ruined by visitors Liverpool, who overturned a 3-0 lead to take the points on 19th February 1910. The first full season at Old Trafford had better memories, however, as the team won their second league title.
Ernest Magnall left the club after the 1912 season and joined Manchester City and this marked a spell of over 40 years without a league championship and almost the same length of time without a major trophy of any kind.
During the 1914-15 campaign Manchester United and Liverpool were involved in what is now known as the “1915 British football betting scandal” – United were battling relegation when Liverpool visited Old Trafford in the Good Friday fixture on 2nd April. Players from both sides made substantial bets on the game finishing 2-0 – though there were players on either side who refused to take part (ironically, one of those was George Anderson who scored both goals for United in that 2-0 win). There were 3 players from United (including Turnbull) and 4 from Liverpool who were found guilty of match fixing and they were banned for life – neither club was punished as it was recognised that both clubs’ officials were unaware of the ruse.
The lifetime bans were in the main essentially meaningless – by the time the bans were handed out the League had been suspended due to the First World War and almost all the players were re-instated in recognition of their national service. The two notable absentees were Sandy Turnbull who was sadly killed in war (but was re-instated posthumously) and Enoch West of United. His ban was finally lifted at the grand old age of 59, in 1945.
The club declined into eventual relative obscurity with two top flight relegations in 1922 (perhaps due in part to the sale of Meredith back to City the year before) and 1931 punctuated by a promotion in 1925. Their short return to the top flight was marred with controversy, too, when in the 1926/27 campaign manager John Chapman was suspended by the FA (for reasons that never became public knowledge), and wing half Clarence Hilditch took over as player manager. One of the stars of the side, Hilditch was modest and would not pick himself – the consolidation process that had been working suddenly was undermined and the club began to struggle again, their demotion in ’31 was an inevitability.
That period of uncertainty was underlined by United?s lowest ever league position in 1933/1934, second bottom in the Second Division. Thankfully, worse still was avoided and the club won at Millwall – their relegation rivals – on the final day of the season to stay up by a single point. Resurgence and promotion followed in 1936 following a long unbeaten run ? the joy and relief inspired a memorable pitch invasion in the title clinching victory at Bury, but that joy was short lived. In keeping with the yo-yo style United had adopted, they were relegated straight away, and promoted once more as runners up the season after. This promotion was for keeps (an infamous relegation generations later was to be the clubs last to date) and featured a side packed with players destined to achieve things. The season after the promotion, however, World War II broke, with a 6 year suspension of ‘first class’ football. During the war, on 11th March 1941, Old Trafford was bombed, leading to an eight year ground share at Maine Road while restoration took place.
The Busby Years
1945 was a historic year, of course for the end of the war, but also for Manchester United as Matt Busby – a former Manchester City and Liverpool player – was appointed manager at the club. Busby’s experience serving as a coach for the PTC during the war was enough to impress Liverpool’s board to offer him the managers role at Anfield, but not for the last time (!) Liverpool were stuck in the past and couldn’t comprehend Busby’s forward, innovative thinking. They decided not to appoint the Scot.
United’s approach was encouraged after the club had tried to sign him from Manchester City 15 years prior; Rocca had become close friends with him and the pair were members of the Catholic Sports Club in Manchester. Rocca acted upon hearing of Liverpool’s interest and immediately contacted Busby, though had to write a vague letter incase it was intercepted by Liverpool officials. Busby’s demands were revolutionary for the time, demanding almost full control over the running of the club. The board responded by offering a 3 year deal, by the end of the meeting Busby had convinced them that he would need 5 years for them to see the true benefit of his methods. Busby’s first full season at the club was the 1946-1947 season and he took them to runners up, ironically behind Liverpool. United were runners up in 1948, 1949 and 1951 too, with an FA Cup in 1948.
The side were aging; perfectly exampled by Johnny Carey, the captain, who had been at the club since before the war. It was now that Busby’s unprecedented methods really began to bear fruit, the expected spending spree to replace the elder members of the squad never happened, instead, teenagers – some as young as 16 and 17 – were thrown into the first team picture. Busby didn’t ruthlessly dismiss those long serving players and in scenes reminiscent of those in recent years, it was Carey who captained the club to their first championship under their new manager, sealing it with a thumping 6-1 victory over nearest rivals Arsenal on the final day.
Carey retired the following season which saw the debuts of the likes of Duncan Edwards, Bill Foulkes and Dennis Violett. Busby couldn’t take all of the credit for the emergence of these stars; his right hand man, Joe Armstrong, and a strong scouting network that included the likes of Bob Bishop (later to feature promimently) were constantly on the lookout for young emerging talent. An 8th place finish in 1954 was followed by a 5th place in ’55, with the board still backing Busby – to spectacular benefit the next year, with the club winning the title by 11 points in 1956 with a team that had an average age of 22.
It wasn’t just in terms of the set-up of the club that Busby led the way; with that 1956 championship winning team, Manchester United became the first team to represent England in a new continental competition called the European Cup – designed to pitch the league winners in Europe against each other, a competition dominated by the great Real Madrid side. Busby was certain his team of ‘Babes’ (as they were affectionately known by the media, back in the days when they weren’t determined to see the club fail) could not only compete but be the best. The Football League didn’t want United to compete; they did anyway – taking the first baby steps and leading the way. Their first European game was a 2-0 win in Anderlecht, and their first European tie at Old Trafford was marked with a 10-0 landslide in the return – a result yet to bettered, let alone matched. Their run was ended by Real Madrid in the semi’s but for first time competititors it was a remarkable achievement.
That season Manchester United retained the title, and almost became the first team that century to win a league and FA Cup double, but lost in the FA Cup Final to Aston Villa after goalkeeper Ray Wood was injured early in the game and United were without a stopper for most of the game.
Munich Air Disaster
There’s only one story of the 1957/1958 season and that is the one of the terrible events of 6th February, 1958. United had just progressed to the European Cup semi finals again by defeating Red Star Belgrade in the quarters – their plane back had to stop over in Munich to refuel. Due to boost surging, the takeoff had to be stopped twice – the boost surging problem was compounded by snow on the runway; though the pilots controlled the surge on the third attempt but the airspeed dropped, and with the plane in the air, it crashed through a fence and into a house – one of the fueltanks exploded, killing Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan on impact – Duncan Edwards passed away three weeks later.
Of those that survived, Matt Busby and Johnny Berry were critically injured – Berry to the extent he never played again. Nor did Jackie Blanchflower – club secretary Walter Crickmer died, as did coaches Tom Curry and Bert Whalley. Frank Swift, the former Manchester City and England goalkeeper who was a sportswriter covering the game, was among the 8 journalists who lost their lives. It was a tremendously devastating day for Manchester and for all of English football. The loss of Duncan Edwards was particularly devastating – he was the youngest ever England player and it is often said he would have been the best of all time.
No talk of Munich and our subsequent triumph in 1968 would be complete without mentioning the work of Jimmy Murphy. The first thing Busby did as manager was hire Jimmy as assistant manager, and it was his responsibility to scout, and then coach, the players who became the “Babes”.
Murphy is widely credited for nurturing the potential of United’s youngsters and helping them fulfil it; yet it was his determination and tireless hard work in the wake of the Munich disaster that makes him one of Manchester United’s – and footballs – true heroes. He wasn’t on the tragic flight, having been required to manage Wales in a World Cup qualifier. During Sir Matt’s absence, Murphy was able to remarkably galvanise the team into an FA Cup run – losing the final in the infamous “Nat Lofthouse” game.
Post-season, with Wolverhampton Wanderers the new champions, UEFA incredibly offered the English FA the opportunity to submit United to the European Cup as a tribute to the men who died on duty for the club. The FA staggeringly declined.
Post-Munich, referring to United as ‘Busby’s Babes’ felt like an inappropriate term addressing those still at the club. The reference became more for those that had lost; and Busby liked the nickname ‘The Red Devils’ that local rugby club Salford had picked up touring France in a red shirt, as it represented something of an antithesis of the Babes, representing a fightback from the club against the injustice of the disaster. Incidentally, this is the derivation of the club crest, which changed in 1970 from the original ship (representing Manchester’s canal related industries) to include a devil and pitchfork.
The rebuilding process from Munich took time; Busby however, after fully recovering, was unshaken in his philosophy. It was an achievement to just keep the club in the top flight, but just 5 years after Munich, United were celebrating a FA Cup win at Wembley against Leicester City. That year saw the debut of a certain George Best, recruited by Bishop who famously said to Busby of the Belfast Boy ‘I think I’ve found you a genius’. 1963-64 concluded with a second place finish and in 1965, just 7 years after Munich had ripped his team apart, Matt Busby took United back to the summit of domestic football with a league title won by goal average over Yorkshire rivals Leeds United. Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes were the only survivors from Munich but even if they rightly saw this League triumph as an end, the Holy Grail, they were yet to hit the true peak of their revival.
Charlton and fellow United player Nobby Stiles were in the England team that won the 1966 World Cup at Wembley against West Germany with their club glory the following year including another League trophy, running the season out on 20 games unbeaten. In 1967-68, Matt Busby and Manchester United finally achieved the impossible, when they won the European Cup at Wembley against one of the best teams at the time, Benfica. To get there they had to overcome Real Madrid – after a narrow 1-0 win at Old Trafford, Madrid stormed ahead on aggregate at the Bernabeu, going 3-1 up on the night. After the break, perhaps inspired by the spirit of those that perished, United’s players gave it their all – the aggregate score was given parity by David Sadler before Bill Foulkes was possessed enough to charge upfield and bury a George Best assist to score his only ever European goal. At a club where pivotal moments are made more poignant by the battle it took to get there, Bill Foulkes set the benchmark that Roy Keane in Turin and Ole Gunnar on Sir Matt’s birthday 31 years later would follow.
United were through to an emotional final – the completion of a journey that Sir Matt Busby led the entire country on was finally here some 13 years on. Though the rebuilding process had been long and arduous, and the journey had been long, Manchester United’s line up against the Portuguese side included only two players that had been ‘bought’. The 4-1 win that followed was emphatic – with the game entering extra time, United once again found new reserve from nowhere to score three thrilling goals. Bobby Charlton scored twice with George Best netting the winner and local lad Brian Kidd scoring the other on his 19th birthday. It should also be mentioned that Manchester City won the league in 1968; all rivalry aside, it was a wonderful year for the city that was able to celebrate 10 years after the tragedy. Best’s winner was the peak of a career which had seem him nicknamed the Fifth Beatle and in 1968 at the tender age of 21 won the European Footballer of the Year among other accolades.
The European Cup success was the fitting conclusion to the incredible management career of Matt Busby who had not only brought unprecedented success but also stamped an identity on the club, making it more than a club, and in staying true to his inherent beliefs in the youth philosophy even after the team was ripped apart, won the club millions of fans worldwide. 1968/9 turned sour and marked a fast downturn in fortunes at Old Trafford – Wilf McGuinness took over as first team manager when Matt Busby ‘moved upstairs’ in January 1969 but by that time the wheels were in motion – United finished 11th and were knocked out of the European Cup at the semi final stage against Milan. Denis Law ‘scored’ but the officials disallowed the goal, thus eliminating them from defending the trophy they won a year previous.
Embarrassing cup capitulations and McGuinness’s inability to control some of the big egos in the side saw the club spiral to the extent the manager was demoted to reserve team coach and Busby was re-instated to attempt to bring back stability to the club. In 1970-71, Busby managed to steer the club away from a freefall towards relegation – the close season saw the appointment of Frank O’Farrell, who, despite initially starting the season well, finished badly to see the club finish 8th for the third year in a row. O’Farrell was unable to control George Best whose behaviour was unpredictable – including, for example, deciding to retire and then changing his mind days later – but the Northern Irishman’s unmatched talent worldwide meant he really demanded his place in the line-up when available, obviously at the cost of unsettling his teammates.
The 72-73 season started terribly and in December the club lost O’Farrell and Best in a matter of days, with Tommy Docherty employed as manager. Docherty did well enough to again save the club from relegation but in the close season let Denis Law leave the club on a free transfer to sign for Manchester City. George Best decided to come out of retirement (again) but that wasn’t enough to save the club from yet another miserable season and this time there was no miracle appointment or surge away from the wrong end of the table – with two games to go, United played the Manchester derby needing a win and Birmingham to lose to have any chance of survival in the last game. Birmingham won anyway, but City – and Law – rubbed salt in the wounds by winning through a backheeled goal from the ex-United legend.
Relegation – and the departure of Best for good – followed as did a clear out, without only goalkeeper Stepney surviving from the European Cup winning side. Perhaps in a show of unity against the inner turmoil, a declaration to the outside world, attendances at Old Trafford remained the strongest in the land and the team responded in kind. In an infamous season in 1974/75, United were reborn under Docherty, playing with a style and flair in a new formation that focused heavily on wingers.
Promotion at the first time of asking was followed by an impressive 3rd place finish the season after although they lost against Southampton in the FA Cup Final.
A relatively disappointing 8th place in 1977 was appeased by an FA Cup win over Liverpool (enough to ruin their treble hopes), and hopes for the future were high, but then scandal hit United once again. Tommy Docherty’s affair with the wife of the team’s physio became public and his position became untenable; the club couldn’t legally sack him for this, and so their public reason was a flimsy excuse about selling tickets for profit.
Dave Sexton was appointed manager and was able to continue the good work started by Docherty for a while; another FA Cup Final appearance followed in 1979 though the game was memorable for the wrong reasons, United throwing away the game after recovering from two goals down in the last few minutes. Finishing runners up in 1980 was followed up by a poor 7th place finish in 1981 – raised expectations and a perceived dip in quality of football though meant Sexton was sacked at the end of that season and replaced by Ron Atkinson, the West Brom manager who was identified as the man who was most likely to bring the league championship back to Old Trafford.
Atkinson made his presence clearly felt, smashing the transfer record to sign Bryan Robson from his old club, raiding the Hawthorns for Remi Moses too. Under ‘Big Ron’ the football improved, with a first season finishing in 3rd. Another FA Cup followed in 1983 with a comprehensive 4-0 win over Brighton in a replay, though the fortunes in the same competition the next year were in stark contrast – being knocked out with an embarrassing defeat at Bournemouth.
Though he never did manage to bring the League title to the club he did win another FA Cup in 1985 against the Champions, Everton, and did at least follow through on a promise to bring back the glory European nights to Old Trafford with a memorable encounter with Barcelona. The balance between the promise and the disappointment was ultimately Atkinson’s downfall at the club; the 1985-86 season started with a thrilling 10 game winning sequence but an injury to Robson coincided with a dreadful slump in form, and ultimately, a fourth place finish. Rumblings of internal discontent were abound when Mark Hughes was sold to Barcelona and the pre-season was filled with rumours that Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson was set to replace Atkinson. Big Ron did however start the season but started it unconvincingly and a year after looking like steamrollering towards the league title was sacked with United second bottom after being battered out of the League Cup by Southampton.
And then there was Fergie
Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford the day after Atkinson was sacked but didn’t exactly get off to a flying start; introducing himself with a 2-0 defeat to Oxford. Ferguson’s mandate for that season was seemingly consolidation though United fans could console themselves with their lone away win that season, a Boxing Day victory at Anfield, ultimately the costly result in Liverpool’s title challenge. Like Atkinson, Ferguson took United to runners up in his first full season, though they were never really strong challengers – the club were however unable to compete in Europe after the ban imposed on English clubs due to the behaviour of Liverpool fans. Ferguson made signings, bringing Mark Hughes back to the club and paying Norwich £850,000 for Steve Bruce, as well as recruiting Viv Anderson and Brian McClair.
Those early years were just as notable for the players Ferguson failed to sign; Stuart Pearce, John Barnes, Terry Butcher, Paul Gascoigne and Peter Beardsley were just a few names, and the theme of Fergie opting for another player after being knocked back on his original target was to provide a compelling side story to his fortunes as United manager. But again, despite that early promise, second season woes hit, with injuries and bad form severely hindering United’s chances.
In 1989 United finished 11th, prompting Ferguson to make wholesale changes. Out went Gordon Strachan, Norman Whiteside, and Paul McGrath, all club favourites, and in came record signing Gary Pallister, as well as Mike Phelan and Danny Wallace. It didn’t have instant benefits – at the turn of the year the club were balanced precariously, just two points above the relegation zone. An FA Cup run – culminating in success with a replay victory over Crystal Palace – was enough to (temporarily at least) appease the board and fans who had witnessed in the 13th place final finish their lowest position since promotion back to the top flight.
Despite the turbulent season, Ferguson was trusting in the players he had at his disposal, adding only Denis Irwin and Les Sealey in the summer. An improved league finish of 6th was accompanied by the disappointment of a League Cup Final loss to Second Division Sheffield Wednesday but both of these competitions were overshadowed by a Cup Winners Cup run that ended in glory. In the first season since English clubs were re-instated into European competitions Ferguson took United all the way, defeating a strong Barcelona team in Rotterdam in May 1991, with the goals coming from Mark Hughes.
It wasn’t the league title but in winning a European competition Ferguson had returned true glory to the club; nonetheless, the man who had broken the Old Firm’s stranglehold on the Scottish Premier League and won a European trophy had a burning desire to ‘knock Liverpool off their perch’ and return the league trophy to Old Trafford. The summer of 1991 saw the club floated on the stock exchange and the arrivals of Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and QPR fullback Paul Parker. The season that followed saw a real push for the league but defeats at Upton Park and Anfield in the space of a week in April put paid to it, and Leeds won the league.
United did win the League Cup after reaching the final for the second successive year (defeating Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest) – but it was another of those nearly signings that set the wheels in motion for Alex Ferguson’s dream to finally come true.
In the summer of 1992, a bid for Alan Shearer was rejected and the player himself decided to move to Blackburn Rovers in preference. With a £2m+ offer for Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst rejected, Ferguson signed Dion Dublin from Cambridge but the tall frontman sustained a long term injury in the opening games of his United career. That year saw the inception of the ‘Premier League’, a remodelling of the First Division – and saw the rebirth of Manchester United. This was in no small part thanks to the opportune signing of Eric Cantona for £1m, acquired in a short phone call actually made from the Leeds chairman to enquire about the availability of Denis Irwin. Cantona arrived and immediately identified himself as the missing piece of the puzzle, providing the magical invention to the sheer power of Robson, Bruce and Hughes and the blistering pace of Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs.
Cantona arrived with a reputation as enfant terrible but in Ferguson found a mentor that trusted solely in his ability, with incredible consequences. Once he had found his feet United found an almost instantaneous groove – the title was contested between Aston Villa, United and Norwich. With United smashing Norwich at Carrow Road with a sensational display, the title was in sight, and a remarkable injury time comeback against Sheffield Wednesday made the Old Trafford faithful believe for the first time that the league was on its way. Villa’s defeat to Oldham meant United won the title without kicking a ball and they celebrated by beating Blackburn at Old Trafford in front of the watching Matt Busby – or Sir Matt as he was now known.
One of the most truly sad reflections of Ferguson’s reign will undoubtedly be the ‘foreigner rule’ that severely restricted United’s chances when they returned to the European Cup (now the re-formatted Champions League). The club exited in controversial circumstances in a violent pit against Galatasarary in Istanbul; nonetheless, success was relentless on the home front as United won their first ever League and FA Cup double, almost completing a domestic treble but for a League Cup Final loss to Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa. The end of the season was marred by two consecutive red cards for Cantona but he returned to a hero’s welcome with two goals in the Manchester derby and scored two penalties in the Cup Final against Chelsea to underline why he deserved his PFA Player of the Year award. The year did have sadness; as Sir Matt passed away in January 1994, at least having seen his club return to their former glories.
Cantona’s indiscipline was to cost United the following season when he was sent off at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace and as he was leaving the pitch, kung fu kicked a Palace fan who was hurling racist abuse. Those incredible scenes led to United instantly banning Cantona for the rest of the season on the advice of the FA – who then lengthened the suspension to October.
United reached the FA Cup Final and took the league title to the last day but without Cantona really lacked the goals or invention to make the difference – with Everton and Blackburn respectively coming out on top – and when, post-season, Ferguson let Paul Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis leave the club, Manchester Evening News ran a poll on the future of the manager – the majority wanted him gone. No recruitments and a first day mauling at Aston Villa with a bunch of kids in the first team saw the knives out from pundits – with ex-Liverpool player Alan Hansen famously saying ‘you won’t win anything with kids’. The form recovered and when Eric Cantona returned from suspension to rescue a draw against Liverpool he was able to inspire confidence in the youngsters like Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes. The Frenchman himself was the one who made the significant difference in the run in as United recovered from a 12 point deficit on Newcastle United to win the title and also win the FA Cup against Liverpool with a volley from Cantona – who else?
In 1997 United won the league for the fourth time in 5 years – each full season Cantona had been available for – but the Frenchman shocked the club to its foundations by announcing his retirement after becoming increasingly annoyed by his perceived dip in form and inability to adapt to an unfamiliar system change in European football. It was however his performance as chief orchestrator in the 4-0 win over Porto that Spring that gave the young players a new found self belief that they could play their natural game on the European stage and succeed.
The 1997-98 season was ultimately unsuccessful but Ferguson was not helped by a stunning injury list that at times robbed him of more than half of his team – a blistering goal feast of an autumn sent the side into a long lead at the top of the table but the injuries and the fine form of Arsenal were too much of an obstacle to overcome. Pallister’s sciatica had become too much of a problem and when Ryan Giggs’ hamstring problem led to Phil Neville (a natural defender) having to play the left wing in a Champions League quarter final, it was clear re-inforcement was needed. It came in the shape of colossal defender Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist, but Ferguson’s pursuit of a marquee frontman was frustrated. Patrick Kluivert snubbed United, leading Ferguson to switch his attentions to Villa’s Dwight Yorke. At £12.6m he was hardly a steal but finally provided a foil to another record signing of United’s, Andy Cole, and the two linked upto devastating effect.
Manchester United’s achievements in the 1998-99 season were the most remarkable of any club in English history; winning the English league, FA Cup and Champions League and doing so the hardest way possible, with an incredible unbeaten run and putting themselves on the brink of failure on numerous occasions. The season alone needs an entire section; but each player had a true moment of contribution that was valuable to the cause.
Peter Schmeichel’s penalty save against Dennis Bergkamp in the FA Cup semi final and star save against Zamorano in Europe, Jaap Stam being.. Jaap Stam, Denis Irwin’s penalty against Aston Villa, David Beckham’s countless free kicks, Roy Keane in Turin, Ryan Giggs scoring a last minute equaliser against Juventus then scoring the best goal of all time, Teddy Sheringham going from bit part to club legend in the space of 5 days, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer time and again coming from the bench to score.. games against the biggest teams in Europe, a 30 odd match unbeaten run.
The league title was won on the last day, and the FA Cup was something of a procession, before the Champions League Final, played against Bayern Munich in Barcelona on what would have been Sir Matt Busby’s 90th birthday. A goal down after 6 minutes and rarely looking like threatening, more freezing on the big stage against efficient opponents, United were in trouble. Ferguson introduced Sheringham and Solskjaer and with the game entering injury time, United won a corner. Beckham crossed it in, it was headed out, and Sheringham converted Ryan Giggs’ shot into the goal. 1 minute later, and with the crowd still stunned, United won another corner. Sheringham connected with it to head it across goal and Solskjaer stuck out a leg to convert it – thus completing the most thrilling fightback in European football history and the most incredible season of more or less any club worldwide.
In 1999-2000 United romped to the title as the youngsters Alex Ferguson had introduced (his fledglings to Busbys Babes) were dominating the domestic scene while the club became the first English team in history to win the Intercontinental Cup, defeating Brazilian side Palmeiras. Not for the first time, the club crossed swords with the FA before this season began amid huge controversy, and not for the first time it was down to United acting as trailblazers. This time though the FA acted appallingly, putting pressure on United to accept an invitation to the inaugural World Club Cup competition, devised to pit the best sides of each continent against each other. It wasn’t ideal for Ferguson – Sir Alex Ferguson by now – who had consistently spoken of his preference for a winter break in the domestic game to better prepare English teams against European opponents in the second half of the season. With the team having had to fly to Tokyo a month prior for that Intercontinental Cup, another worldwide jaunt to Brazil for the WCC was far from practical, but with the FA attempting to host the World Cup, United relented and accepted the invitation. The cost’ Disqualification from defending their FA Cup, and leaving the club to take the flak from the press, even though it wasn’t their decision.
The Red Devils were eliminated from the World Club Cup at the group stage, unable to cope with the conditions, but did leave with a win over Melbourne to their name – and by the time they returned to England, with games in hand, their rivals had not capitalised on their absence. United took full advantage and had the league wrapped by Easter with Ryan Giggs in particular in sensational form, though disappointment in the form of a quarter final exit from Europe against Real Madrid soured the end of the season. Ferguson identified the need for a clinical goalscorer and identified that man as Ruud van Nistelrooy, but after agreeing a fee, the player failed his medical with the worst of luck, suffering a serious knee injury. The club returned to sign him in 2001, after winning the Premier League for the third time in a row – signing arguably the best midfielder in the world at the time, Juan Sebastian Veron, for a club record fee of £28.1m.
Despite a flash start, and some exceptional performances in Europe, Veron failed to settle with the clubs midfield pair of Keane and Scholes being impossible to break into, and while van Nistelrooy scored the shedloads of goals he was bought to, United fell foul of injuries again and finished third – their lowest position for over a decade. Worse still, fierce rivals Arsenal recovered from their 6-1 destruction at Old Trafford a year prior to snatch a win against the injury hit Red Devils in Manchester and seal the double. The run in was accompanied by constant speculation regarding Ferguson’s successor, after the manager had announced in the winter that he was to retire at the end of the season. He did a U-turn on the decision but later publicly acknowledged the de-stabilising effect that had on the team.
The season was not helped with the early departure of Jaap Stam who was sold to big spending Lazio and replaced by the slow and aging Laurent Blanc as a short term fix until Rio Ferdinand who arrived after the 2002 World Cup for a new record of £29.1m. Ferdinand was an instant hit and in his first season United regained the title from Arsenal with a series of top performances against their nearest rivals. The triumph marked the end of an era for United, who were completing their ‘third phase’ under Ferguson, with the pre-league title years the first, 1992-1995 the second, and the generation where his fledglings came good, 1995-2003, the third.
The decision to sell one of those fledglings, David Beckham, was long rumoured but still arrived as a bombshell – rebuilding was clearly the key word and the target to replace him was the mercurial Ronaldinho. The Brazilian decided to join Barcelona at the last minute, though, meaning Beckham’s eventual successor was a little known but hugely talented Portuguese teenager by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo, signed for £12.2m on the eve of the 2003-4 season. It was a season that was ultimately disappointing, as Arsenal won the league going undefeated (though they didn’t beat United), although there was success in the FA Cup (beating Arsenal in the semi-final) with Ronaldo scoring in the final.
With United in ‘transition’, 2004-5 was never likely to yield great success, even if the pre-deadline swoop for the sensational teenager Wayne Rooney from Everton set pulses racing. Rooney scored a hat-trick on his debut, in the Champions League no less. And while high intensity battles with Arsenal – where United were accused of first kicking the Gunners off the pitch before playing them off it – were the high points, it had not gone unnoticed what was occurring in West London. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich had purchased Chelsea Football Club and bankrolled £200m worth of signings that proved too strong for any rival in 2005 and again in 2006 as they won back to back league titles.
2005 was a peculiar year for United – after so many years on the stock exchange, they were taken over by the Glazers, an American family, who created controversy with their buyout that immediately plunged the club into debt. Under Ferguson’s astute management though, the year also saw the beginning of a shift. While Chelsea bought the big names, Sir Alex concentrated on the subtle changes alongside the long serving players he had faith in. Most significant was the £2m signing of legendary Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, a player Ferguson later admitted he should have signed far sooner.
In 2006 United won the League Cup and finished second behind Chelsea after an unlikely but strong title chase, and after the World Cup, Ferguson added just one signing, Michael Carrick, while Chelsea continued to splash the cash. The Red Devils hit the road running and inspired in particular by the exuberance of Ronaldo and Rooney won their first league title for four years. There had been talk of Ferguson’s attention being pre-occupied with a consuming desire to win a second European Cup and that destiny was fulfilled a year later – destiny was very much the key word.
Ronaldo fulfilled his potential to become the best player in the world, smashing records all over the place to score 42 goals, but the most romantic story was with Ryan Giggs, who came off the bench to equal Bobby Charlton’s appearance record for the club in the last league game of the season and scored the goal that sealed the title. With the Champions League Final in Moscow – reached the hard way, and on an impressive undefeated run – United faced their biggest domestic rivals Chelsea, and triumphed on penalties, with Ryan Giggs overtaking the appearance record to convert United’s last penalty and van der Sar saving Chelsea’s last to win the trophy.
In 2008/9 United broke their transfer record again, signing Bulgarian captain Dimitar Berbatov, and had another trophy laden season, winning the league – the 18th in the clubs history, drawing them level with Liverpool on all time championships, and making them the first team to ever win three consecutive titles three times on the trot. The club also won the World Club Cup with a goal from Rooney and triumphed in the League Cup via a penalty shootout with Tottenham Hotspur, with the Brazilian midfield player Anderson scoring the winning penalty. Despite this success – the second most successful season in a British clubs history, only bettered by United themselves ten years previous, there was a sense of disappointment afterwards, being knocked out in the FA Cup semi final by penalties and losing in the Champions League Final to an all conquering Barcelona side – a result that could have been so different had United’s crucial midfielder Darren Fletcher not been conned out of a final place by Arsenal’s mischevious Cesc Fabregas.
Cristiano Ronaldo had courted the admiring glances of Real Madrid for over 3 years and finally got his wish to move to the Spanish capital for a mind blowing world record fee of £80m in the summer of 2009. His departure was a huge blow for the club but Wayne Rooney stepped into the goalscoring boots to inspire United towards another trophy push. Rooney scored the winner in the 2010 League Cup, just as he did in 2006, but despite his best efforts, the club fell agonisingly short of a historic fourth successive league title.
In the 2010/11 season Sir Alex Ferguson made history again by leading his United team to a record 19th domestic Championship. With a squad of players considered too weak to challenge on all fronts, the title win was seen as one that underlined just what an exceptional manager Ferguson is.
To leave the summary as that would be doing a disservice to the contributions of many of the squad and would wrongly assume that it should be agreed that it wasn’t a great season. An incredible unbeaten run that until February in the league featured classic games against Liverpool, Aston Villa and Blackpool and big scorelines against Blackburn and Birmingham.
Ferguson had to prove his mettle off the pitch too and handled a transfer saga with Wayne Rooney in the autumn with a brilliant media strategy – Rooney returned after an indifferent early season slump and allegations about his private life to have a fantastic end to the season. It was Rooney who scored the goal that sealed the title – a penalty at Ewood Park against Blackburn the moment of truth, a week after United had killed off Chelsea’s realistic hopes with a thrilling early start to dethrone the then Champions.
But despite the euphoria of this triumph, the season ended in anti-climax as Barcelona defeated the Reds at Wembley in the Champions League Final. A third final in 4 years underlined the clubs status as the second best team in Europe but this was no consolation. There was no time to wallow; Paul Scholes joined Edwin van der Sar and Gary Neville in announcing their retirements, while loyal servants John O’Shea and Wes Brown both moved to Sunderland.
Scholes came out of retirement the following January with United in urgent need of midfield quality; he was unable to inspire his club to retaining the title, as the Reds lost out on a dramatic final day title shoot-out to newly-rich Manchester City.
In the summer of 2013 Ferguson responded to the challenge set by the noisy neighbours by buying Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa; the former was inspirational as United reclaimed the title with a swagger, sealing it with a hat-trick by the Dutchman against Aston Villa.
After 1500 games in charge and 13 league trophies, Sir Alex Ferguson decided to retire at the end of the 2012/2013 season, bringing the curtain down on the most successful managerial era of all time.
Enter David Moyes
Everton manager David Moyes was given the opportunity to succeed Ferguson in the summer of 2013 – in his defence, it could be said that anybody would have struggled to follow the greatest. After heavy defeats to local rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, an embarrassing FA Cup exit to Swansea and the worst performance by a Manchester United team in the Premier League era, no matter what the reasons and who was to blame, Moyes’ position had become untenable at the club.
Ryan Giggs – the club’s most decorated and longest serving player – took temporary charge until the end of the 13/14 season while the club recruited a new permanent manager. At the end of the campaign, the Dutch legend Louis van Gaal was named new manager, and Giggs was appointed his assistant – in taking up the new role, the Welshman announced his retirement from playing, meaning that in the space of 13 months the club had waved goodbye to its most successful manager and player.