Sir Alex at 80: A life in landmarks
Sir Alex Ferguson reaches a landmark birthday by turning 80 today - 31 December. In celebration, we chart the great man’s long and storied career in football by recalling milestones at decade intervals.
20 - MAKING HIS WAY IN THE GAME
Player, St Johnstone – 31 December 1961
Seduced by the carrot of first-team football, the switch from Queen’s Park to First Division club St Johnstone is proving problematic for the combative young striker, not least the punishing journey to Perth for training. Leaving his apprentice tool-maker’s job at Remington Rand’s Glasgow factory at 4pm, he returns at 1am, rising again for work at 6am. By his 20th birthday in 1961, Alex is getting more games after just a handful of minutes in his first campaign (1960/61) and the struggling Saints see out the year beaten 2-1 at home by Third Lanark. The final day of the 1961/62 season brings bitter disappointment as, freakishly, all four relegation rivals – Falkirk, Raith, Airdrie and St Mirren – win to send them down. (Ferguson’s late disallowed goal in a 3-0 defeat to title-chasing Dundee, whose victory handed them the crown ahead of Rangers, would have kept Saints alive on goal average.) Though nine goals and a swift return to the top flight follow, it’s not a period – aside from being the first man to score a hat-trick at Ibrox against Rangers – that he remembers with huge fondness: “I failed to see where loyalty ended, and stupidity took over,” Alex said of his move.
Player, Falkirk – 31 December 1971
His 30th birthday (by which point he now has well over 150 senior goals to his name in Scottish football, via five clubs) finds Ferguson at Falkirk, whom he’d joined from Rangers in November of 1969/70 and helped to instant promotion – and a Scottish Cup quarter-final berth – as top scorer. Having turned down Nottingham Forest’s overtures, he’s reunited with his old Dunfermline boss Willie Cunningham, with whom he’d spent four seasons before signing for boyhood idols the Gers in 1967. That dream move soured during a tough time for both player and club. By the end of his Ibrox tenure, Alex's stock had fallen so low, he turned out for the third team. Now married to Cathy, with their first son Mark just turned three, twins Jason and Darren arrive in February 1972. Ferguson is on the verge of a move to Hibernian a few months later, only to be offered an improved contract. His shop-steward nature remains intact when – with some reluctance – as club PFA rep he leads a players’ strike after Cunningham’s insistence on extra training following a heavy defeat. As Falkirk’s first-team coach, he helps the Bairns avoid the drop in 1972/73, but is soon on his way: to his final playing stop as a part-timer with Ayr United. He combines that with publican duties at Burns Cottage, soon renamed Fergie’s.
40 - MAKING MANAGERIAL WAVES
Manager, Aberdeen – 31 December 1981
It was a memorable 40th birthday on New Years’ Eve 1981 in Aberdeen. Though the Dons would finish bridesmaids to Celtic for a second consecutive season, Ferguson had already done the unthinkable – or at least the first part of the unthinkable. Arriving in summer 1978 (leaving St Mirren after a falling-out) he’d taken the Dons all the way to the 1979/80 Scottish title. It was the first time in 15 years that neither Old Firm side had won it – and only the 15th time that century. “I wanted sustained achievement. I wanted trophies,” he reflected in Managing My Life. Across eight Aberdeen seasons he was as good as his word – three league titles, four Scottish Cups and a League Cup. Two years later his side shocked Real Madrid to win 1983’s European Cup Winners’ Cup final. Madrid were managed by the mighty Alfredo Di Stefano, the player an awestruck teenage Ferguson watched net a hat-trick in 1960’s European Cup final at Hampden Park. The one-time tool-making apprentice from Govan had completed his graduation to master craftsman. By late 1986, Manchester United had secured his talents and he set to work building an empire.
Manager, Manchester United – 31 December 1991
Mel Sterland’s 80th-minute spot-kick equaliser for title rivals Leeds at Elland Road 48 hours earlier dampened Ferguson’s 50th birthday celebrations – and we won’t dwell on New Year’s Day’s infamous 4-1 Old Trafford reverse against QPR. Yet, as the boss reached his half-century, things were undeniably taking shape: a remodelled, fast-evolving side, the width, flair and youth of Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe harking back to the halcyon days of Sir Matt Busby. In late November ‘91, Brian McClair’s goal against an excellent Partizan Belgrade had added a hard-fought Super Cup triumph to the European Cup Winners’ Cup hoisted in Rotterdam that May, following 1990’s FA Cup victory. A fourth trophy, the League Cup – and another winner from the season’s top scorer McClair, against Nottingham Forest – came in April ‘92. Though losing 1991/92’s title so dramatically to Leeds having led the way for so long – “a lunatic congestion of fixtures” opined the boss of the seven-day four-game horror – it would be swiftly righted with 1992/93’s inaugural Premier League crown. “I thanked the players and assured them that the next season’s challenge would be successful,” he recalled after defeat at Anfield made Leeds champions. The floodgates would soon be open: Fergie time was very nearly upon us.
Manager, Manchester United – 31 December 2001
You’d struggle to find ‘retiring’ in any character analysis of Alex Ferguson – or Sir Alex as he was by his 60th birthday, the knighthood bestowed after 1999’s unprecedented Treble-winning campaign, a season to cap them all. Yet his plans to call it a day at the end of the 2001/02 season – his 16th at Old Trafford – were shelved after a family pow-wow that Christmas, during which he was encouraged to continue. “Once I had decided I would be standing down, I stopped planning. The minute I reversed that policy, I started plotting again,” the rejuvenated Ferguson recalled. “I told myself: ‘We need a new team.’ The energy came back.” If the realisation that life could begin again at 60 was music to our ears, February 2002’s revelation was the news every opposing manager feared. The stuttering juggernaut revved back into gear. Though United, looking for a fourth title on the spin, would finish third in 2001/02, the following season brought Ferguson an eighth Premier League crown – five points ahead of the Gunners. “It felt like day one in a whole new job,” he said.
70 - STILL COLLECTING TITLES
Manager, Manchester United – 31 December 2011
Three score and ten – the old biblical allocation for our allotted time on earth. As he turned 70, Sir Alex and his troops were halfway through a fresh assault on the Premier League, having secured his 12th and the club’s 19th title the previous season. That had seen United surpass the jointly held league title record with Liverpool, whose long shadow he famously avowed to escape when he pitched up early in November 1986, with championship no.20 firmly in the Reds’ sights. The 2011/12 vintage would also mark Sir Alex’s 25th anniversary in United’s hotseat, which had been marked the month before his 70th birthday by the renaming of the gargantuan North Stand as the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand before a Premier League match with Sunderland. “I felt really honoured and emotional when I saw my name on that stand, he admitted. “My assistant didn’t tell me – so he’s sacked!” The season – David De Gea’s first between the sticks – ended with United second behind Man City and their new-found riches. “That was the worst day of my life,” Sir Alex wrote in My Autobiography. That body blow was all the incentive the old warrior required to pull off a successful switcheroo 12 months later: 2012/13 duly brought the 13th and last of his 37 trophies, sweeter yet for being pinched from the neighbours.
Retired – 31 December 2021
So here we are. Impossible as it seems – not least given the tremendous scare of May 2018’s brain haemorrhage, which left him wondering “how many sunny days I would see again” – Sir Alex turns 80 today. Life is rather more sedate these days, the relentless touchline tapping of the watch replaced by a seat high up in the stands, but he’s still here, feeling every beat and pulse. The domestic game’s most-successful manager by a country mile, Ferguson is one of the last links between the grainy fuzz of football in post-War Britain and the multi-cam, modern-day: the man who covered it all, from every angle. Chronicling his association with the game as player and manager, from his first (scoring) start on the cusp of his 17th birthday for Queen’s Park at Stranraer in November 1958, to that final whistle 56 years later – the departing champion overseeing a coruscating 5-5 draw at West Brom in May 2013 – is to embark on a voyage as eventful as any made by the tall ships that sailed from the Glasgow of his youth.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Inside United, currently on sale and available to order from manutd.com/magazine.