How Sir Alex reflected on his first 1000 United games
On 23 November 2004 – 15 years ago today – Sir Alex Ferguson took charge of Manchester United for his 1,000th game, against Lyon at Old Trafford in the Champions League group stage.
One thousand games in charge at Manchester United – can you believe it's been this long?
“It's funny, there was a strange thing a couple of years ago. I thought I must have been approaching my 1,000th game then and we looked into it, but someone told me I was well short of it at that point. It seemed to take me ages to get to 1,000! But 1,000 games is a long time. It's quite easy to calculate – 18 years, multiplied by 38 or 40 league games, then you include all the European matches, all the different cup ties... it all adds up.”
When you arrived at Old Trafford, United were second-bottom of the First Division and two days later lost 2-0 away at Oxford United. You must have been under no illusions about the size of the task ahead…
“Well, when we lost the first game, I realised it was a tough job. But we had a lot of injuries at that time. When we went down to the Manor Ground I was missing Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Gordon Strachan, John Sivebaek and some others too. Despite all that, it was an exciting time for me because everyone at Manchester United realised they needed to build a football club, not a football team. So Archie Knox and myself set about changing the structure of how the club was run.”
What was first on your list of priorities?
“Straight away it was what I'd always done in the early days at St Mirren and Aberdeen: restructuring the foundation of the club in terms of scouting and young players. I remember every night Archie and I would go to the old gymnasium at the Cliff and look at the schoolboys we had at our school of excellence at the time, or we'd be looking at trialists under the floodlights on the astroturf at Albert Park in Salford. We tried to get all the staff involved in the scouting and assessment of players together and told them what we wanted. We only had four local scouts at the time and started to involve people from all over the country, and made them all aware of the standards we were looking for. Les Kershaw was looking after that at first, and then Brian Kidd joined us and got involved with the local scouting after the second year. Les played a fantastic role in organising the dynamics of the trials all over the place with United scouts in every part of the country.”
Was it difficult to get your vision across at first?
“I think everyone realised the job we wanted them to do, and bit-by-bit we started to get a better quality of young player having trials with us. I said to Les at the time, ”I don't want the best boy in your street, I want the best boy in your town or your area. That's what we're after.
“ Then the next stage was convincing them that they should come to United. I think most of them could see that coming to us would hold a great challenge for them, and they could see we were genuine in trying to give young players a chance. We got to a level where we were having to turn really talented boys down, some of whom have gone on to have good careers in the game.”
“I want the best boy in your town,”and now, 18 years on, you're saying,
“I want the best boy on your continent.”
“Exactly. There's a different structure of developing players. We have a more worldly assessment – we have players from Barcelona, Parma, Ghana, China, the young Americans, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, so it's a different perspective altogether these days.”
“Sometimes when you're building something and trying to get somewhere, you don't know where you're going! That made it an exciting period. You're doing a lot of things by instinct, a lot of things by hard work, a lot of things by perseverance. We created a momentum and that kept us going... but we didn't really know where we were heading. When we started achieving success, we got in a position where we had to think, where are these young boys going to go, how are we going to get them in the first team?”
Was it a difficult decision, wondering when to integrate the young talents like Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, the Neville brothers and Butt?
“By that time the first team was doing quite well, we had won the FA Cup for the first time and we had a decent enough team. The next year we won the Cup Winners' Cup, and by that time we had Peter Schmeichel coming into the side, Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Parker. Then in the 1992/93 season we brought in Eric Cantona, and after that Roy Keane. But all the time these young players were champing at the bit to get their chance. As it turned out, it unfolded quite easily for us because once a young player turns a corner, he never goes back. And a lot of them turned a corner right into the first team and stayed there. It created a great spirit among the fans, and among themselves, and it created a benchmark for the standard and quality of the play needed at the club.”
When did you first notice the potential of the ‘Class of ’92’?
“That season, they went undefeated right through to the last two games of the Lancashire A League, which was a tough league, and that's when they were involved in the FA Youth Cup. When we got to the final stages of that, we started to change the youth team around to get others involved, but up until then the A team was mostly made up of Scholes, Butt, Beckham, the two Nevilles, Ben Thornley, Robbie Savage, Mark Rawlinson, John O'Kane. They were battering teams in that league every week – and they were a lot younger than the players they were coming up against. The Lancashire A League was used by a lot of clubs for players coming back from injury – we used players like Bryan Robson, Clayton Blackmore and Viv Anderson in the A League at times – and I remember one time Liverpool played Gary Gillespie and Alan Hansen against our lads and they got beaten 5-1!”
“Aye, he should have known better! But there was no doubt the quality was there, the next step was to turn those qualities into a realisation of their true abilities. Butty came through first, because he played in the FA Cup semi-final against Oldham at Wembley in 1994. I think we had Scholes and Gary Neville on the bench that day, but that was really when they started to break through.”
A landmark moment was the Port Vale match in the League Cup in 1994, a match in which many people think those kids showed their true potential. What are your memories of that night?
“We had Brian McClair, David May, Roy Keane – Roy played at centre-half that night – but the rest were made up of the youth team. We actually got off to a bad start in the game and were 1-0 down after about 15 minutes, but they just kept playing their football and it came good. I always remember the local MP for Stoke complaining in the Houses of Parliament about us playing a weakened team! They were all complaining about us having short-changed the fans and the fact that we won the game didn't go down too well with them!”
“The year before the first Premiership win, we were really unlucky against Leeds. A combination of things stopped us that year, but the momentum didn't stop and we maintained a consistent team. In 1992/93 we didn't get off to a great start but we never really do – then in November I signed Eric Cantona. That month we went down to Arsenal and won 1-0. Eric watched that game from the stands, but the next week he was a substitute against Manchester City, came on at half-time and turned United around. You could see the effect he had. Cantona was one of those players who would stick his chest out and he was telling every fan in the ground, 'I'm here. You can relax now. I belong here’. And that's exactly what it was. Manchester United was absolutely tailor-made for Eric Cantona, and he was tailor-made for us.”
Cantona's signing seemed like the final piece of the jigsaw...
“We had built up a great squad at the time, although we still didn't know where we were going with it. That team was getting stronger all the time. Mark Hughes was getting stronger and stronger, the back four was playing consistently well – Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin – all that season and the next. Schmeichel in goal was important to us; we had great strength in midfield with Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, then Roy Keane the following season. Our Darren [Ferguson] played his part in that first season too, I think he played the first 15 games. We had a lot of pace on the flanks with Kanchelskis, Giggs and Sharpe, and then Choccy and Sparky up front with Eric, so the combinations were good.”
“Leagues are always won in April and May and that's when we started to play really well; we won all the major games. The one that I thought was the decider was away at Crystal Palace. Aston Villa [our main title rivals] went to Blackburn and lost 3-1, and we were playing the later kick-off against Crystal Palace. At that time they were a dogged, rugged side, a very tough old team, and it took until the middle of the second half to break them down. Mark Hughes hit a volley, then the second goal was set up by a great pass from Cantona to Ince, who went on and knocked it in the net. At 2-0 we were never going to lose. There was a fantastic atmosphere too, I'll always remember that. It was electric. The crowd that night was 30-odd thousand, and it was full of United fans.”
United weren't playing when we finally secured the title. Aston Villa lost to confirm us as champions while you were on the golf course – was that the most exciting game of golf in your life?
“The most nerve-wracking, anyway! Me and my son Mark were playing Mottram Hall, and I was one hole up over him. I'd just hit the green, just below the bunker at Mottram's 17th, when I heard a car screeching to a halt. This lad, who was the son of our former catering manager at Old Trafford, ran over and said, ‘Mr Ferguson, United have won the league’. We didn't bother playing the 18th, we carried on right into the clubhouse. All the phones were ringing all the time, mobiles going off all the time. So we went home and the butcher was in the house, the milkman, everybody!”
The celebrations started in earnest all over Manchester…
“Well, I had a few friends coming over to celebrate and then my phone rings, and it's Brucey. He says, ”Is it okay if a couple of lads come over? It'll only be for an hour or so,
“ because we still had a game against Blackburn to play the next day. An hour! I think they must have different clocks in the North-East. But it was a great moment.”
Was there a feeling around the club that this title was for Sir Matt Busby?
“I think there was more of a feeling like that at the 1999 European Cup final. Because it was his birthday, 26 May, a lot of people were genuinely thinking of Sir Matt that day, particularly because the great story of Manchester United really is the 1968 European Cup final. Not just winning it, but resurrecting and building the team from nothing after the Munich air disaster, 10 years after. That's the great story of Sir Matt, and on his birthday, 26 May 1999, we were thinking of him. All his family were there in Barcelona too and it must have been a great moment for them.”
Before United's domination, the Double was still a relatively rare occurrence. Do you think United's first Double in ’93/94 laid down a marker for the rest of English football?
“Well, Arsenal won it in 1970/71, and before that Tottenham Hotspur won it in 1960/61. I think our first Double in 1994 proved not only our ability, but our tremendous strong will, too. We actually lost the League Cup final to Aston Villa that season so it could have been a domestic Treble as well. We've now done three Doubles in total, so it's a fantastic level.”
And then, the defining season of your United career so far is naturally the 1999 Treble season…
“It's difficult to imagine it will be done again by anyone. You need all the little bits of luck going, and the luck we got was that in the run-in to all three competitions we had very few injuries. Roy Keane was injured in a league game against Middlesbrough and he missed one game against Blackburn Rovers. Obviously he wasn't available for the European Cup final, and eight minutes into the FA Cup final against Newcastle he got injured again, after a tackle by Gary Speed, so he had to come off. But other than Henning Berg, who picked up an injury before the final, we were relatively lucky.
And the squad was strong enough and confident enough that there were always players who could come in and do a job anyway...
“Well, what a lot of people forget is for the FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal we left out four players – we left out Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. Scholes and Yorke were on the bench, but we had that luxury. When teams are strong, confident and winning regularly you can make changes like that. It was a fantastic achievement and I think winning that semi-final replay, given all the circumstances, galvanised us. We should have won the first game. We had a goal chopped off in that match which was absolutely unbelievable and we should have had the replay wrapped up; we should have been three or four-nil up at half-time. We were by far the better team, but when go you down to 10 men you're never sure.”
Do you think winning the replay against Arsenal in such an exciting way gave everyone the confidence to go all the way?
“Winning that game galvanised everyone. It got us to the first final, because we still had to play Juventus in the European semi-final, but there was something there, and we knew the opportunities were there. Then when we had the run-in with three games in 10 days, the last game in the league was against Tottenham, and that was a really nervous day. Although Tottenham fans wanted us to win and beat Arsenal, the Tottenham players wanted to beat us, and that's good, that's only fair. The game would be in a bad way if teams were lying down, they'd only be disgracing themselves.”
“Yes, I knew Liverpool would be aiming to do their best that day because I know as well as anyone that you've got to earn the right to win the league. And it didn't matter that it was Kenny Dalglish returning to Anfield as manager of Blackburn, I knew Liverpool weren't going to lie down because you can never get rid of that sort of stigma – people will always remember what you did. Liverpool went on to win the game, although Blackburn had still done enough to take the championship.”
There are so many stand-out moments in that Treble season, but what is your one defining memory?
“Without question, our performance in Turin against Juventus was the best we've ever had away from home. Everyone did their bit, there were no failures on that night. It was a phenomenal performance.”
The 2002/03 season was another fantastic campaign but for very different reasons. Was that comeback one of your most pleasing successes as a manager?
“Yes, because Arsenal had won the championship the season before when we'd been going for four in a row. That had never been done, so it was a big disappointment. But the one thing you have to do in football is handle the adversity of losing, and bounce back, and that season we bounced back very well.”
And what does the future hold for you and for United?
“Well, we've got a great structure at the club. We've got a lot of good young players coming through, that's never changed. There's always that challenge, and what's happening at the moment is a challenge, but with a bit of luck – and a bit of perseverance – we'll sort it out.“
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