Manchester United’s Transformation of 2005/06: When Success Came in Spite of New Ownership, Not Because of It

As Manchester United gear up for a hopefully more prosperous era under the minority ownership (for now) but likely near-full stewardship of Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS, memories of the early years of the Glazers have come flooding back, when success came not because of the new men in charge, but in spite of them. 


It is not an understatement in any way to state that 2005 was a truly hellish year for the club and for Sir Alex Ferguson, with it undoubtedly being the lowest point of his tenure post-first trophy success in 1990. The backend of a rather miserable 2004/05 campaign saw a repeat of the season prior in three competitions: third place in the Premier League, a last 16 exit from the Champions League and an FA Cup final appearance.


Unlike the year before, though, when they dispatched Millwall with ease in the final, United faced Arsenal at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and came up short on penalties despite largely dominating the Gunners for the 120 minutes prior. A photo from that shootout has regularly been plastered across social media in the last decade, highlighting the club’s fall from grace, but it is completely out of context given the actual events of the time.


It shows Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand arm in arm on the halfway line. Six of the club’s all-time greats? Yes. A snapshot of happy times? No. Scholes, who missed the only penalty of 10, and Giggs were considered to be in decline. Keane was closing down and soon to be on his way out in dramatic fashion. 


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Ferdinand was dallying over a new contract and had been pictured out for dinner with Peter Kenyon, formerly of United but now of Chelsea, and his agent in the months prior. Ronaldo was still to develop into the player we remember, often frustrating United fans despite his obvious talent. Rooney was the only real shining light at the time, fresh off a brilliant debut campaign following his move from Everton. 


So much would change in the year to come, much of it good, but it felt as if United were on their way down, which was only amplified by the soon-to-be-confirmed takeover of the club by the reviled Americans. There were numerous protests in the months prior and at the final itself, with fanbase and club so deeply divided that some supporters left and formed FC United of Manchester. 


There were calls for Ferguson to resign, first to stand with the fans against the leveraged buyout that sunk the club into hundreds of millions of debt, and then due to his backing of the new owners. In truth, his role in the whole process started a few years prior after a fall-out with shareholders John Magnier and JP McManus over the stud rights to champion racehorse, Rock of Gibraltar. 


The horse’s name has become infamous in United circles, given the legal battles between Ferguson and the businessmen pair eventually led to them selling their share to the Glazers and the full takeover. He likely could not have predicted what would have happened, in what was a series of very unfortunate events. It also fed into the belief that the legendary manager had taken his eye of the ball and been usurped by Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez.



Mourinho had just stormed to his first Premier League title and had the backing of Roman Abramovich’s Rubles, which had changed the entire landscape of English football following his own takeover of Chelsea in 2003. Wenger had beaten him in the cup final and still had the bulk of the Invincibles side from a year before, albeit Vieira departed after slotting home the winning penalty in Cardiff.


To add to the misery in Manchester, Liverpool lifted their fifth European Cup in Istanbul four days after and appeared to be on the rise under Benitez despite their fifth-placed league finish. So, how did United respond after going two seasons without winning the league and being fully knocked off their perch, and under new owners, who one would assume wanted to turn the tide and get fans slightly onside?


They spent £6m on just two players, Edwin van der Sar and Ji-Sung Park. Both turned out be inspired signings, but so much more was needed to compete with Chelsea, who in contrast signed Michael Essien, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Asier Del Horno to the tune of £60m, as well as bringing back Hernan Crespo from his loan at AC Milan. The austerity era at Old Trafford had begun, and things only got worse in the first half of the season. 


To the backdrop of anti-Glazer and “Attack, attack, attack” chants in response to United’s lack of goals – they had scored a then-low of 58 goals in the season before – they were quickly off the pace as Chelsea near-wrapped up the title by the time the clocks went forward. 


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A winter of severe discontent saw Keane’s infamous MUTV interview, in which he tore apart several teammates after a 4-1 loss at Middlesbrough, get scrapped before he and Fergie spectacularly fell out in late-November. It led to his acrimonious and regrettably handled exit from the club, and many fans siding with their fallen captain as the manager and club appeared to be at a cliff edge. 


Similar to this season, United “bowed out” of the Champions League at the group stage for the first time since the format change in 1996, finishing bottom with just one win and three goals. As 2005 ended, it seemed as if Ferguson’s reign might not last 20 years but, instead, a rapid-fire transformation took place, which saw the team back on top just 12 months later, but not before more drama. 


Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra arrived in January, again for low fees, but like van der Sar and Park, they would go onto become integral figures in both the revival and arguably the club’s best period of success. Both endured a rocky start though – Evra was subbed off at half-time in a debut derby day loss at Manchester City, while Vidic seemed unable for the pace of the Premier League in his early months. 


Any hopes of a third FA Cup final in a row ended at Anfield in the fifth round, a game which saw Alan Smith suffer a terrible leg break from which his United career never truly recovered. Solace was found in the League Cup, with United making a first final in 12 long years. It was also a competition that saw Louis Saha hit form, which would have major repercussions for another club legend.



Ruud van Nistelrooy had been the club’s main marksman since his 2001 arrival and remains the club’s greatest pure goal scorer since Denis Law, but he unfortunately found himself at Old Trafford in a transitional period. He had returned to being a top-level marksman after an injury-hit 2004/05 campaign, only finishing second to Thierry Henry in the league charts with 21 goals, but his game was quickly becoming unsuited to those of Rooney and Ronaldo. 


The cup was almost used as a testing ground for a new front three, and it proved far more fluid, allowing the two young stars to take centre stage with Saha being both a facilitator and a finisher. The Frenchman, in what was his only period of fitness in a four-and-a-half year stint at the club, was selected ahead of van Nistelrooy for the 4-0 final win over Wigan.


To make matters worse, the Dutchman did not make it off the bench, Fergie instead deciding to give Vidic and Evra a first taste of success with the club, as well as academy graduate Kieran Richardson. It would the beginning of the end for van Nistelrooy, who soon became a regular fixture on the bench and subsequently fell out with both Ronaldo and Ferguson, the latter after refusing to sit on the bench for the final league game of the season against Charlton. 


Success in the League Cup and an improved second-place finish came but it still felt as if United were miles behind Chelsea, which was only amplified by both clubs’ activity in the 2006 summer window. Andriy Shevchenko, Michael Ballack and Ashley Cole (in a part-swap deal with William Gallas) arrived at Stamford Bridge, while United signed an injured Michael Carrick and Tomasz Kuszczak, the latter originally on loan. 


Shevchenko would act as a lightning rod for the first Mourinho-Abramovich split to come in September 2007, but at the time, few thought anything but success would come from the 2004 Ballon d’Or’s landing in English football.  United’s own world-class striker, Van Nistelrooy, was not actively replaced, with Saha being entrusted to lead the line despite his patchy injury history, which would rear its head again after Christmas, thankfully part-managed by Henrik Larsson’s loan spell. 


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The summer also saw Ronaldo and Rooney “fall-out” after wink-gate at the 2006 World Cup, with it marking the start of the Portuguese legend’s flirting with Real Madrid. Scholes, now pushing 32, had been out for most of the second half of the season before with an eye injury, adding to the feeling that United were being left in the dust. 


The obituaries were being written up on Fergie’s career, but instead the last act of his unparalleled career began. Unlike with Erik ten Hag last season, the League Cup acted a springboard for greater success, with Rooney, Ronaldo, Vidic, Evra and co. stepping up as new leaders of a new team. 


Carrick, who inherited Keane’s famous no.16 shirt but was a completely different player, re-energised Scholes and Giggs, who both enjoyed an Indian summer in their careers, particularly in the 2006/07 campaign, as did Gary Neville, who had taken on the captain’s armband. 


The green shoots of recovery were evident in the first league game of the season, as they sprinted into a 4-0 lead after 20 minutes against Fulham, eventually winning 5-1. Rooney and Ronaldo were central to it all, quickly dismissing any ideas of a feud between the pair. 


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After the two seasons before, Ferguson adapted his old methods of peaking in the second half of a campaign, instead following Mourinho’s template of starting quickly and blowing away the competition. The two battled out all season, with United eventually winning their first league title in four years but losing the FA Cup Final to Chelsea. Both fell at the semi-final stage in Europe, with United’s injuries catching up on them against Milan. 


Still, it was a far cry from the group stage exit a season prior and led to a run of three semis in a row, two consecutive finals, three finals in four years and a third crown in 2008. From apparent ruin 12 months prior, United retook their position atop of English football, which they would not relinquish until Fergie’s retirement in 2013. 


A similarly quick transformation in 2024 is highly unlikely given the depths from which United must rise this time, but there are some similarities, but also a key difference. In the misery of most of this campaign, hope has been found in young talents like it did in 2005, with Kobbie Mainoo, Alejandro Garnacho and Rasmus Hojlund set to form the basis of the next attempt at a great United team. 



Unlike then, though, there is a feeling of positivity at what is taking place off the pitch, with appointments of alleged “best in class” football people in football positions taking place, which should ensure the fanbase are not fully reliant on managerial genius in the years to come. 


What happens in this supposed next era of Manchester United is difficult to predict but one thing seems certain: success will come because of ownership, not in spite of it as it did nearly two decades ago. 


By: Peter Fitzpatrick / @pfitzpatrick23

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Ashton – AMA / Getty Images