Sir Alex Ferguson: The Serial Winner Whose Trophy Haul Rewrote Football History

Sir Alex Ferguson is number 1 in 90min’s Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series.

Sir Alex Ferguson has always denied that a Mark Robins goal against Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup in January 1990 directly saved him from being sacked by Manchester United. But it cannot be ignored that had the club not gone on to lift that trophy at the end of the season, there would have been serious questions asked of the former Aberdeen boss.

Robins later scored again in the semi final against Oldham, netting in the 114th minute of an extra-time replay. United needed another replay in the final against Crystal Palace, with Lee Martin eventually scoring the only goal after an initial 3-3 draw. These were the fine margins.

“…grave doubts would have been raised about my suitability for the job,” Ferguson wrote in his 2013 autobiography as he contemplated what might have happened without that FA Cup.

Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson

“We will never know how close I was to being sacked, because the decision was never forced on the United board. But without that triumph at Wembley, the crowds would have shrivelled. Disaffection might have swept the club,” he added.

Certainly, had United dispensed with Ferguson at the end of or even during the 1989/90 season – a campaign in which the club recorded its lowest league finish (13th) since relegation in 1974 – few might have considered it noteworthy. He would, after all, have been simply the latest in a growing list of managers to have fallen short of replicating the achievements of Sir Matt Busby.

By the time Ferguson was appointed in November 1986, United had failed to win a league title in 19 years, not since the days of Busby, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best.

United had enjoyed some highs since returning from the Second Division in 1975. Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson delivered FA Cup successes in 1977, 1983 and 1985, while the club had finished second in the First Division table in 1979/80 under Dave Sexton. Atkinson would then oversee third, third, fourth, fourth and fourth place finishes prior to his exit in 1986.

Sir Alex Ferguson

But United were badly struggling when Ferguson moved south of the border from Scotland, 19th out of 22 in the First Division and flirting with relegation after taking 13 points from 13 games.

After a modest playing career that peaked during two seasons with Rangers in the 1960s, Ferguson began his managerial journey at East Stirlingshire and then St. Mirren, before landing the Aberdeen job in 1978. It was his record at Pittodrie that would bring him to United’s attention after remarkably winning three Scottish titles, four Scottish Cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid in a famous final in 1983.

Career Honours
​Scottish Premier Division (1979/80, 1983/84, 1984/85)
Scottish Cup (1981/82, 1982/83, 1983/84, 1985/86)​
Scottish League Cup (1985/86)​
​UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (1982/83, 1990/91)
​UEFA Super Cup (1983, 1991)
​Premier League (1992/93, 1993/94, 1995/96, 1996/97, 1998/99, 1999/00, 2000/01, 2002/03, 2006/07, 2007/08, 2008/09, 2010/11, 2012/13
FA Cup (1989/90, 1993/94, 1995/96, 1998/99, 2003/04)​
League Cup (1991/92, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2009/10)​
UEFA Champions League (1998/99, 2007/08)​
Intercontinent​al Cup (1999)
​FIFA Club World Cup (2008)
LMA Manager of the Year (1998/99, 2007/08, 2010/11, 2012/13)​
​English Football Hall of Fame (2002)

To highlight the scale of his success, no Scottish club other than Celtic or Rangers were champions of Scotland in the 15 years prior to Ferguson, or have been in the 34 years since.

Ferguson did have an immediate impact at Old Trafford. In that first season his United side recovered enough to finish 11th in the final table. The following year, Brian McClair, one of his first signings, starred as the club finished second behind only champions Liverpool.

He wanted to make changes at Old Trafford by eradicating the infamous drinking culture and improving fitness and discipline. That included the departures of Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath in 1989 following a setback 11th place finish. The year after, the FA Cup bought Ferguson some much needed time because his true impact was about to be felt.

Ryan Giggs

United had turned to youth football at the club’s lowest ebb in the 1930s, scouting and developing young talents. It had given Busby the basis of his first great United team between 1947 and 1952 and was the system that later produced the ‘Busby Babes’ and the club’s 1968 European Cup winners.

That had been somewhat lost and neglected in the years after Busby, but Ferguson resurrected the culture of youth at United in a big way. He remarked in his 2013 autobiography that had the board been preparing to sack him in 1990, then Bobby Charlton would have opposed it, for the United legend was well aware of the work going on behind the scenes to restore the youth setup to its former glory, and the ‘graft’ Ferguson was putting in ‘reforming the football operation’.

Ferguson was not revered as a great coach, but he was a manager in the truest sense of the word. That meant delegating tasks to those who could perform them and overseeing everything. He relied on trusted world class coaches to lead training – Archie Knox, Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen – and experienced scouts to find him players – his own brother Martin included. Where youth was concerned, he gave Eric Harrison the reins.

Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson and coach Brian Kidd

Ferguson took an active role in recruiting talents like Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville, the ‘Class of ‘92’. But it was Harrison who schooled them in the United way daily and ultimately moulded them into professional players who would win it all. In later years the system yielded first teamers Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher, a trio of invaluable servants who made a combined 1,097 appearances for the club.

He also played the transfer market masterfully. Denis Irwin and Peter Schmeichel joined for a total of £1.1m in 1990 and 1991 respectively, playing 927 games for the club. He wasn’t afraid to spend big when it was warranted either, paying British record fees for Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andrew Cole, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Rio Ferdinand over the years.

Where Keane was concerned, Ferguson stole the £3.75m signing from under the nose of Blackburn in 1993 after opposite number Kenny Dalglish opted to leave the final paperwork until Monday after agreeing the deal on a Friday. The United boss got wind of this and signed Keane on the Saturday. His personal touch in such matters, whether it be signing the most expensive player in British football history or recruiting a 15-year-old on a YTS contract, was always key.

Alex Ferguson

When Ferguson landed Eric Cantona from Leeds in 1992 he had skilfully turned an enquiry about Denis Irwin into arguably the single most important buy of his managerial career. Cantona was the catalyst that brought United the inaugural Premier League title in 1992/93, as well as the two domestic doubles that followed. But his role as a mentor to the young talents emerging beneath him was just as crucial and helped secure ongoing success for another 15 years.

Arguably Ferguson’s greatest quality as a manager was knowing how to manage individuals in order to the best out of them. With Cantona, it wasn’t tough love or strict rules that did the trick, but free rein for the mercurial forward to do as he pleased. His man management saw so many players thrive and reach heights they simply never would have under anyone else.

Teams Managed​ Years​
​East Stirlingshire ​1974
​St Mirren 1974 – 1978​
Aberdeen​ 1978 – 1986​
Scotland​ 1985 – 1986​
Manchester United​ 1986 – 2013​

Above all, Ferguson knew when the time was right to move players on, and when to rip things up and start again. When individuals began to get troublesome he cut the cord – no player is bigger than the club, and no player is bigger than the manager. David Beckham paid that price.

The Scot was always in control and it was ability to rebuild that gave him his unrivalled longevity. He built three greats teams at United – the dominant mid 90’s side, the treble winners and the 2008 European champions, as well as several other good title winning ones in between, crucially always able and hungry enough to start again with a new project at the end of each cycle.

So much has already been said and written about his sheer number of trophies. But from the moment United captain Bryan Robson lifted the FA Cup in May 1990, the 23 years that followed rewrote football history. There is no other way to adequately describe such achievements.


The elusive first league title, ending a 26-year drought, came in 1992/93, the first of 13. At that time, Liverpool were far and away the most successful club in English football with 18 league titles. But Ferguson’s United’s claimed a record breaking 19th in 2010/11 after close to two decades of extraordinary dominance, pushing the tally to 20 in the legendary manager’s final season before retirement in 2012/13. Five FA Cups in total, four League Cups, two Champions League titles, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and FIFA Club World Cup made for an astonishing 27 trophies in 23 years from 1990 onward.

Sir Alex Ferguson, a serial winner, the like of whom will never be seen again.

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