The short answer to that inevitably provocative statement is no. There is a long line of candidates far more deserving of that dubious honour. How about Pep “pass it to Messi” Guardiola or Harry “Won one trophy by almost bankrupting Pompey” Redknapp? Even more weight is applied to the contrary with the benefit of hindsight. Two managers have come and gone since Sir Alex Ferguson departed Manchester United with merely a solitary FA Cup and a big posh plate to show for it. A third is yet to convince after Monday night’s drab stalemate that Sky Sports had enthusiastically billed as ‘Red Monday’ with startling unawareness that it actually sounds like a horrible 19th century massacre.
I don’t mean to downplay the achievement of winning an FA Cup, nor do I wish to devalue the competition – The FA have managed to do that themselves by prefixing its title with the name of a Middle Eastern airline. However, Sir Alex had three to eat each of his daily meals from and still have two left from which to sip wine and act as an external metal womb for his Great Grandchildren (there is no evidence this has actually taken place.) Add to that, thirteen Premier League trophies, four League Cups, two Champions League winners medals, ten big posh plates and suddenly this article seems as redundant as Sky Sports dubbing Portsmouth vs. Hartlepool ‘Nautical Wednesday.’
In the case for crowning Fergie as the greatest football manager of all time, the evidence stacks high, but what about the case against? In his first season at the helm, United finished 11th, he then lost out on the title to arch rivals Liverpool before another 11th place finish. Unlucky 13th in 1989 preceded 6th at the turn of the decade, which was followed by another title near miss to another old enemy, this time in the form of Leeds United. Two runners-up spots aside, it makes for pretty beige reading thus far. It is widely speculated that a cup defeat to Nottingham Forest in 1990 would have spelled the end then and there, but would he have even been around to see Mark Robins salvage their season if his time in charge up until that point had taken place under the Glazers?
Then of course, came the invention of football by Sky in 1992 by and the Murdoch millions were regurgitated into the orifice of our once-humble game. United won the title that season with Aston Villa and Norwich as their nearest challengers and that breaking of a 26-year domestic league hoodoo enabled the club to marry a significantly increased prize fund with what we’ve come to refer to as “TV money”.
The inaugural Premier League table was arguably the most important to top when one considers the new worldwide audience that was now in attendance. Global brand appeal only added to their newfound financial clout that went unrivalled for so long. Who knows, if things had played out a little differently, perhaps we’d be seeing Norwich City megastores in central Beijing today. Either way, a financial head-start in a pre-Sheik era helped to stabilse their footing at the peak of English football and go on to win four titles out of five, bucking the trend of fans witnessing a different champion each season for the previous nine years.
Without a doubt, the most important ingredient in the banquet of success to follow was the sudden emergence of a certain Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and a pair of Neville brothers. The man responsible for bringing them to the club was not Ferguson but youth coach Eric Harrison – appointed by Ron Atkinson in the 80s – and it was he who developed them into first-team prospects. It was certainly a bold move on Ferguson’s part to transition the young superstars-to-be into his favoured eleven but equally, a tremendous slice of fortune to have access to the most talented crop of young Red Devils since The Busby Babes. Along with a young Ryan Giggs, those players formed the spine of Sir Alex’s Manchester United for over a decade and their importance is even more significant when examining Ferguson’s transfer policy across his 26-year reign.
In 1991 he snapped up goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel from Brondby for the bargain price of £500,000, a masterstroke. However, until the acquisition of Edwin Van der Sar from Fulham in 2005 – over a decade after the Great Dane’s introduction – United fans had to endure the likes of Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi and Fabien Barthez between the sticks, much to the amusement of their rivals. In 1993, he was able to prize Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest, one of the most influential players in the years to follow. The much-heralded Scot certainly deserves credit for managing a temperament such as Keane’s and it could be argued that were they the responsibility of a more gentile manager, both he and Eric Cantona would have seen their careers go in very different directions.
However, for every Keano and King Eric there’s an Eric Djemba-Djemba and a David Bellion. For every Ole Gunner Soskjaer and Cristiano Ronaldo, there’s a Bebe and a William Prunier. In fact, Sir Alex signed 99 players for United, 63 of which were undeniable flops – I won’t list them all here but feel free to meet with me to discuss the merits of Kleberson over a coffee. Furthermore, it’s hard to ignore that the majority of academy players to graduate during his reign read as a ‘who’s who’ of adequate Sunderland and West Brom players at best.
A lot is made of the 29-strong ‘production line’ of managers made up of his former players. Statistically, the cream of the crop is Laurent Blanc followed by Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes – that’s the top three! Ferguson’s son Darren is fifth and he’s currently managing Doncaster whilst he waits for Peterborough to un-sack him again. I won’t list them all here but, again, feel free to meet with me to discuss the merits of Michael Appleton over a smoothie.
Curiously, one final factor to consider is The Hillsborough Disaster. With the club’s darkest hour too much for Kenny Dalglish to shoulder, he left behind a dominant Liverpool side and years of feuding with Sir Alex; a battle won by Dalglish on and off the pitch from their maiden clash as youth players back in 1969 to the Dalmarnockman’s remark in 1988’ about his newborn baby exerting more sense than the United boss. Suddenly, a Kenny shaped void allowed Ferguson to become the most outspoken manager in the Division whilst he watched Liverpool fall from grace under the misguidance of a Pringles mascot. Suddenly, he ruled the roost. He was King.
As with any football debate, we can only really judge a dynasty with cold hard facts and the reality is, the facts in Fergie’s case make for handsome reading. There is no doubt that Ferguson was a good manager, even brilliant at times, but without a certain set of circumstances, would he have had the tools to carve himself a legacy such as the one lauded by so many today? Consider this: had Sky not plied the English game with untold fortunes, had Eric Harrison not met Ron Atkinson in a 1981 match for the Royal Airforce and had Graeme Souness kept his garish moustache out of the Anfield boot room, what would have become of Sir Alex Ferguson? Or should I say, Alex Ferguson.