How Sir Alex Ferguson Helped Sow the Seeds for United’s Decline
If this pandemic has done anything to our lives, it’s given us more free time than we know what to do with. Recently, I used that newfound free time to embark on a journey of watching as much documentaries I could find on the greatest manager the beautiful game has ever seen: Sir Alex Ferguson. At the end of the trip, it had me asking questions that I had not previously considered.
With the impact that he had on Aberdeen (under the Scot, they were the last league winners that wasn’t one of Celtic or Rangers) and Manchester United, Ferguson led a dynasty that spanned three decades. In November 1986, after resigning as Scotland’s national team manager, Ferguson took charge of a United side in danger of relegation, taking the reins from Ron Atkinson and guiding the team to an 11th placed finish.
It would take Ferguson three more seasons before the trophies started to flood in, and after spending large sums on players like Mike Phelan (United’s current first team coach), Paul Ince and Gary Pallister, Ferguson won the 1989/90 FA Cup.
It would be the first of 38 trophies that the Scot went on to win in his 26 years at Old Trafford. From promoting the “Class of 92” to knocking the almighty Liverpool off their perch, he turned United into a global brand, the likes of which had never been reached in English football.
Since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United have gone from serial winners to mere deceivers on the grand stage. Far from the days in which they were the best team on the planet, the club is still trying to find a seat at the dinner table of Europe’s elite, a seat that was stolen from them seven years ago. But despite his lofty achievements, there is the feeling that Ferguson himself may have played a part in United’s fall from grace.
In 2003, United majority shareholders, John Magnier and JP Magnus (nicknamed the “Coolmore Mafia”) and Ferguson had reached a falling-out. Ferguson and Magnier, formerly close friends, were battling each other for control of the world’s most successful racehorse, ‘Rock of Gibraltar.’ According to Nils Pratley of The Guardian, “This was a row where ego, money and reputation were on the line.”
Photo: Alan Walter
Ferguson thought that Magnier, the most powerful man in the world of horse racing, should give half of the ownership stakes of the highly-touted racehorse to him. At the time, Rock of Gibraltar was a world record holder and was worth an estimated £200 million. He sued the Irishman, and Magnier retaliated by hiring a Wall Street-based investigative firm to look into the Scotman’s supposed ‘dodgy dealings’, which exposed Ferguson and his son Jason, who worked as an agent.
Magnier and his attorneys put forward the famous ’99 Questions’ to the United board which included thirteen transfers that Jason had overseen at the club. The transfers of Jaap Stam to Lazio and Cristiano Ronaldo from Sporting were high on the agenda. A documentary on the subject was aired by the BBC, and it would not be until the 2011/12 season that Ferguson finally spoke to the BBC again, ending a seven-year boycott of the corporation.
Intervention from the Premier League resolved the dispute between the two in 2005, but the damage was already done. Magnier and Magnus would go on to sell their stake at the club, which was bought by Malcom Glazer, who became the outright owner of the club.
Just as Glazer built the Raymond James Stadium (home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) with public funds, he did the same by taking over the remaining shares owned by United fans, which resulted in debts of nearly €400 million, a sum that still hasn’t been cleared in this day.
To be fair, Ferguson was said to have been repulsed by the news of the takeover, but you cannot help but wonder what would have been had he not put his ego and reputation on the line.
The “No Value in the Market” Era
Apart from United, Manchester City and Chelsea were the only clubs to win the Premier League in the Ferguson years under Glazer ownership, (2005 — 2013). Coincidentally, City outspent and outsmarted United in the transfer market following the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, which marked the beginning of their Etihad era.
In the summer of 2009, Ronaldo joined Real Madrid for €94 million, while Carlos Tevez joined City for €29 million. United replaced the two players who contributed 40 goals in all competitions the previous year with Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia.
Owen, 29 at the time, was coming off a controversy-filled, injury-laden spell at Newcastle, who had been relegated to the Championship the season prior. Valencia, on the other hand, was signed for €19 million after the Ecuadorian scored three goals for Steve Bruce’s Wigan Athletic in the 2008/09 season. The cherry on the top came with 20-year-old Gabriel Obertan, who, just six months prior, had left Bordeaux to join Lorient on loan in a bid for more playing time.
Photo: Getty / AFP / Neil Jones
Owen would spend an injury-packed three seasons in Manchester before leaving on a free to Stoke, where he would play for one season before retiring. Obertan made six starts for United before leaving two years later to join Alan Pardew’s French revolution at Newcastle United. Valencia, the most successful out of United’s aforementioned trio, would have to move from winger to right back to become a key player for the club, and remained until joining hometown club LDU Quito on a free in 2019.
While Ferguson did pursue Lyon’s Karim Benzema in 2009, the Frenchman joined Real Madrid instead. Sky Sports correspondent Elliot Ball wrote in his weekly column in January 2010 — Ferguson spoke out on the Glazer’s behalf, sticking to his stance that the reason the cash has not been spent was because he did not believe there was any ‘Value in the market.’
“We have got the money, there’s no question about that. I don’t just see the player who can make a difference for us in terms of value or ability,”-Ferguson.
Question marks arose from United fans: the January transfer window was open and that was the manager’s opinion? He was renowned for buying big in January with the likes of Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Louis Saha, and Andy Cole all arriving for vast amounts at the turn of the year, but not this time.
In the blue half of Manchester, it was a different story. After Tevez’s arrival marked the dawn of a new era for the Sky Blues, Edin Džeko, Yaya Touré, Jérôme Boateng, Mario Balotelli, David Silva and Aleksander Kolarov joined City in the following summer for a whopping €149 million.
United’s reply was the €24 million outlay on the trio of Mexico’s World Cup star Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, Bébé (who Ferguson himself claimed he’d never watched) and Chris Smalling. The trend continued 12 months later; City landed Sergio Agüero and Samir Nasri, whilst United brought in Phil Jones, David de Gea and Ashley Young.
With Txiki Birgiristain handling City’s transfer policy, they always aimed high and almost always got the targets they wanted, that is, until the 2012 summer window. United beat City to the signing of Robin van Persie, who joined from Arsenal for an initial fee of £22.5 million, plus an additional £1.5 million if United won the league within the next four years. City’s new signings — Javi García, Jack Rodwell, Matija Nastasić, among others — were not enough to deny Ferguson his 13th league title.
Fast forward two years from that transfer window. United had just announced the signing of Ángel Di María for a then-British record fee of €75 million when MK Dons trashed Louis van Gaal’s men 4-0 in the Carabao Cup. After the game, former United winger Keith Gillespie tweeted: “Man Utd squad players have to be viewed as being able to play at Premiership level, if they can’t, they shouldn’t be there. No excuses.”
That was the start of the second season in the post-Fergie era, when United fans still had hope and optimism that they malaise they had found themselves ensconced in under David Moyes was a brief storm, rather than a permanent rain cloud hanging over them. The club was playing catch-up to their rivals, paying over the odds for players who ‘might’ have what it takes to bring them back into the top four.
After two decades of domestic dominance, United no longer had a squad capable of competing with the best teams in England. In football, every decision always has a ripple effect in the grand scheme of things, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that the ‘value in the market’ policy had failed.
When Sheikh Mansour bought City, Ferguson labeled their neighbours as ‘Kamikaze spenders’. This time however, it was United who embarked on the Kamikaze spending, not City.
The Return of Paul Scholes
In United’s last two title-winning seasons in 2010/11 and 2012/13, there was an odd reliance on experience over youth. Between 2009 to 2013, Ferguson’s biggest signings were a 28-year-old Van Persie, a 24-year-old Valencia and two 20-year-olds in Bébé and De Gea. Yet it was veterans like Darren Fletcher, Dimitar Berbatov, and Ryan Giggs who often carried the load, with Ferguson preferring a win-now approach than a patient, long-term plan that may reap results, but may also have some teething pains on the way.
In the first leg of their 2009/10 Champions League Round of 16 tie, United defeated Milan 3-2 at the San Siro (they went on to win the tie 7-2 on aggregate). Ronaldinho opened the scoring early, but Paul Scholes leveled the score before half-time, breaking the record for the most goals scored (25) by a central midfielder in Champions League history.
Photo: Hamish Blair / Getty
After the game, Ferguson said in a presser — “I’d be happy to give him a new contract, I think it all depends on what Paul thinks himself, but you saw his performance on Tuesday and I thought it was brilliant.” Scholes eventually renewed his contract for another season, instead retiring alongside Edwin van der Sar after losing to Barcelona in the Champions League Final.
The day is October 23, 2011. United are hosting City in what would be the 151st Manchester Derby and the 30th in the Premier League. City went on to inflict United’s worst home defeat since February 1955, trashing the Red Devils 6 – 1, and going five points clear at the top of the table. For the first time since the Abu Dhabi United Group purchased the club in 2008, it seemed that United were no longer the best team in the land.
United would go on to be eliminated from the Champions League group stage for the third time in 17 years, with a Basel side led by a mesmerizing Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka sending Ferguson’s men packing. According to football finance expert Andy Green, this elimination cost the club £20 million in lost TV revenue from UEFA.
At the turn of the new year, injuries had ravaged the squad, and Ferguson turned to Scholes, who was working as a coach in the Reserves team, as a last resort. On January 8, 2012, Scholes made an unexpected 677th United appearance in a 3-2 FA Cup victory at the Etihad Stadium. As Scholes would recall, it was far from a routine game for him.
“We were up 3 – 0 against 10 men, then I came in just after the hour mark and I gave a bad pass for a throw-in which Agüero nipped in to score, then they scored again and I panicked. I said to myself, what have I just done?”
It wasn’t the dream comeback for Scholes, with the season ending in disaster as their crosstown rivals snatched the title out of their hands at the last minute. Scholes would go on to win his 11th title the following season, but rest assured; this was the beginning of the end for the red half of Manchester.
David Moyes: ‘The Chosen One’
On May 8, 2013, Ferguson announced that he would retire from management after 27 years in charge at Old Trafford, while still remaining as a director at the club. A day later, it was announced that his compatriot David Moyes, who had spent the past decade as Everton’s manager, would take over in an attempt to fill his lofty shoes, much to the bewilderment of United fans.
Photo: Simon Stacpoole / Offside
Ferguson outlined the selection process behind Moyes ill-fated appointment in his book, ‘Leading’ in 2015.
“When we started the process of looking for my replacement, we established that several very desirable candidates were available. I asked (Pep) Guardiola to phone me before accepting an offer from another club but he did not and wound up joining Bayern in July 2013.
It became apparent that José Mourinho had given his word to Roman Abramovich, and that Carlo Ancelotti would succeed him at Real Madrid. We also knew that Jürgen Klopp was happy at Dortmund and Louis van Gaal had undertaken to lead the Dutch attempt to win the 2014 World Cup.”
It could be argued that Ferguson was trying to exempt himself from blame here. Guardiola, Mourinho, Ancelotti, Klopp and Van Gaal had all won multiple league titles, so why was Moyes, whose biggest achievement was taking Everton to the Champions League play-offs, the final choice?
Masimmiliano Allegri and Antonio Conte had both won titles with Milan and Juventus, while Laurent Blanc (a former United player himself) had won the league title with Bordeaux. Perhaps the make-up of the squad failed to convince them to join: the spine of United’s title-winning 2012/13 team was composed of players who were past their prime and/or on their last legs: Rio Ferdinand (34), Michael Carrick (31), and Nemanja Vidić (31).
In an interview with BBC’s Nick Robinson in October 2015, Ferguson reiterated that the squad he left Moyes was not sub-standard. “There is one continual thing about ‘we left an old team’ and all that nonsense. It’s unbelievable because we win the league by 11 points in 2013.”
Ferguson’s retirement, compounded with the retirement of former Chief Executive David Gill that same summer, left a power vacuum at Old Trafford. It’s unclear whether he could’ve convinced Gill to continue for another season, but having him in charge would have eased the transition and made for a smoother landing, rather than the car crash of the 2013/14 season that saw United fail to qualify for any European competition.
No matter what, Sir Alex Ferguson will remain the greatest manager in Premier League history and the man who oversaw United’s transformation into a global titan. But while United fans’ last real taste of glory came under his management, it cannot be denied that Ferguson helped sow the seeds for their current malaise.
By: Desmond Ebohon
Featured image: Gabriel Fraga