One of world soccer’s most legendary managerial careers came to a close Sunday when Sir Alex Ferguson toed the touch line for the final time as Manchester United closed its 2012-13 season. Ferguson’s final match was an away draw with West Bromwich Albion 5-5. It came on a Survival Sunday where nearly everything has been decided, including the Red Devils clinching yet another Premiership title weeks ago.
With 13 league championships, five FA Cup titles, four League Cup wins, and two Champions League crowns, how does Sir Alex’s career compare to American coaching icons such as Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, John Wooden, Pat Summitt, or Bob Knight?
For one, staying 26 years with one club speaks volumes. Yes, managing a team with one of the world’s largest war chests probably made things easier. But having a talented squad on paper comes with enormous expectations. Chelsea is one of Man U’s fellow heavyweights in the English Premier League, they are currently looking for their ninth manager in six years.
Roberto Mancini helped lead Man U’s arch-rival Manchester City to the EPL title on the final day of the 2011-12 season. Just 12 months later, he has been pushed out the door after a season where City placed second to United, but stumbled badly in the Champions League and the FA Cup Final to underdog Wigan Athletic.
Before taking the Manchester United job in 1986, Ferguson had fairly ordinary career as a player and manager.
As a player, Ferguson suited up for a number of clubs in his native Scotland from 1957-74. The height of his career came in three years spent with Glasgow Rangers in the late 1960s. He found himself on the outs with that club after being blamed for his part in allowing the decisive goal in a Cup Final against rival Celtic in 1969. Some have also speculated that Alex’s wife being Catholic played a role in him eventually leaving. Rangers has historically had a Protestant fanbase while most of Celtic’s supporters are Catholic.
Ferguson began his managerial career in 1974, mostly coaching Scottish sides St. Mirren and Aberdeen. His tenures with those two clubs can be compared to Bill Belichick’s days with the Cleveland Browns. At the time many pundits wondered if he was too much of a disciplinarian for his own good.
Ferguson won his first trophies in 1980 and 1982, winning Scottish League championships in rare occasions where the title was not won by Celtic or Rangers.
Those titles came with automatic berths for the European Cup, and in 1983 Aberdeen won that crown, defeating Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid along the way. By the mid 1980s Ferguson’s name was being connected top some of the top gigs in Britain, with Rangers, Spurs and Arsenal all reportedly courting him.
In 1985 Ferguson was tapped by his mentor Jock Stein as an assistant on the staff of Scotland’s national team. It was at this point that fate intervened. In its final qualifying match Scotland needed to secure at least a tie to earn a date for a World Cup play-in game with Australia. Scotland indeed got the needed draw, but at the end of the game the 62-year old Stein slumped over, the victim of a massive heart attack.
In the aftermath of Stein’s passing, Ferguson was appointed as the interim national manager, Scotland would beat the Aussies in the play-in and participate in the 1986 World Cup.
After the World Cup, Ferguson finally got the offer he could simply not refuse when Manchester United called.
Before Ferguson’s arrival, Man U. was already an elite football operation, winning seven domestic championships and six FA Cups in its history up to that point. Since World War II, the Red Devils had been relegated only once, in 1974, and won promotion back in the top tier the following season.
It took seven years for United to win a domestic title under Fergie, but after that first taste of silverware the club became unstoppable. Man U. would win league championships in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and were runaway winners in 2013.
That’s 13 titles in 21 years, an entire generation’s worth of a true dynasty.
Ferguson achieved knighthood (at the time only the eighth person associated with soccer to earn the honor) soon after claiming his greatest achievement in 1999 when Man-U achieved the treble, winning the domestic championship, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season.
The 1999 Champions League Final remains arguably the most dramatic finish in football history. The ribbons of Bayern Munich were being affixed to the trophy as they held a 1-0 lead into stoppage time. Then, with United’s goalkeeper being pulled forward as an 11th attacker, the Red Devils scored on a corner kick. They then scored at the stroke of full-time on another set piece for a 2-1 win.
There have been no shortage of legends to play for Ferguson in recent years: David Beckham, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Chicharito, Wayne Rooney, and Robin Van Persie are just a few.
In Ferguson’s quarter-century at the helm, Manchester United has elevated itself into the top global brand in all of sports, even above the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, and Los Angeles Lakers. And with a total of 38 trophies earned, Fergie is in the argument as possibly the greatest manager/coach in any sport.
Upon the recent announcement of Ferguson’s retirement, Man U. acted swiftly to hire his replacement, tabbing long-time Everton head man David Moyes. Many experts over the past decade have been as impressed with Moyes’ record with a limited budget at Everton as Alex Ferguson’s collection of All-Stars.
In 11 years at Everton, Moyes became one of four managers in Premier League history (since 1992) to win 150 games. However the Blues never won a trophy under Moyes, and he will not last long at Old Trafford without earning silverware on an annual basis.
Despite operating in the red during recent years, expect Manchester United to keep rolling, as the entire organization and reserve squads (soccer’s version of baseball’s farm system) remain fully stocked. United also continues to fill Old Trafford with 80,000 fans each game, its capacity dwarfing all of its EPL competitors.
Wayne Rooney is reportedly asking for his release from the club, but the club would easily fill his shoes during the summer transfer window (soccer’s silly season) with either the likes of Gareth Bale, a Cristiano Ronaldo return, or any number of other marquee players who would be banging down the door go get to Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson has set the bar incredibly high for those who will follow in his path.