Marking Mancunian mastery
Having examined Sir Alex Ferguson's frequently fraught first five years, increasingly successful second five-year spell and domestically dominant third five-year spell, Vithushan Ehantharajah reaches the era of Ruud van Nistelrooy, flying pizza and debonair Portuguese newcomers...
Although Newton Heath LYR Football Club had been formed in 1878, the 2001/02 season was the club's centenary under the Manchester United name – and it started with a question mark. After seven Premier League titles in nine years, Sir Alex Ferguson announced that he would retire at the end of the season – aiming for a fairytale hometown ending in the Champions League final at Hampden Park.
"I didn't see my sons grow up; I hope I can make up for lost time," he explained. "I won't be making any comebacks like singers do. It's a decision me and my family have made: I want to enjoy a lot of other things."
As the club set about drawing up a shortlist for his replacement, Sir Alex went to work on making his Glasgow farewell a reality with some serious spending. He finally signed Ruud van Nistelrooy for £19.5million, sticking by the PSV front-man a year after a knee injury stopped him from moving to Old Trafford.
The Dutchman's arrival spelt the end for Teddy Sheringham. Widely respected, United's top scorer in 2000/01 had scooped both the PFA Players' Player of the Year and Football Writers' Association's Footballer of the Year award, but he was out of contract at the age of 35. Offered a one-year deal by United, he preferred to return to Tottenham under new boss Glenn Hoddle.
A penalty-box predator, Van Nistelrooy was hardly a direct replacement for cerebral linkman Sheringham, but Ferguson had other options and other ideas. His biggest signing that summer was Argentinian maestro Juan Sebastian Veron for a record £28.1million.
A double winner with Lazio in 2000 under Sven-Goran Eriksson, Veron had subsequently endured a difficult time after a scandal surrounding the illegal acquisition of his Italian passport. When the Argentinian and two Lazio executives were accused of forging the official document, the club sided with their executives rather their player. On signing for Ferguson, the playmaker revealed that Manchester United had supported him for afar when the allegations had surfaced.
Sir Alex saw Veron as last piece in his jigsaw, giving him creativity from deep as well as the option to play three in midfield. He had noted how United's free-flowing 4-4-2, so successful in England, was frequently exposed by craftier continental teams, and sought greater formational flexibility long before the rest of the league started experimenting with variants of 4-5-1.
With tactically intelligent and hardworking men like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the team, Ferguson felt Veron could help bring United a wiser approach more suited to conquering the continent. What he didn't know was how the media and public would take to a tactical change which looked like replacing a striker with a midfielder – seen by some as a shocking abdication of his attacking beliefs.
Before that drama could be played out, however, Ferguson found he had an issue in defence. In the summer, Jaap Stam's autobiography had upset the Old Trafford hierarchy with its abrasive assessments of colleagues – most notably describing the Neville brothers as whingers and "busy c**ts" – but most notably its claim that United had made an approach to sign him without PSV's permission.
When Lazio called again to offer United a sizeable slice of the Veron fee in return for the centre-back, United quickly accepted. Although Ferguson had earlier said the Dutchman may have to do some "making up" with his colleagues, he always claimed that the book had nothing to do with the sale.
"At the time he had just come back from an Achilles injury and we thought he had just lost a little bit," Ferguson would later reflect. "We got the offer from Lazio: £16.5m for a centre-back who was 29 – it was an offer I couldn't refuse. But in playing terms it was a mistake."It certainly seems that neither party had expected the transfer – having just accepted a new five-year deal, Stam had moved into a new house and had to cancel a new kitchen he'd ordered for it – and some said Fergie's summer spending of £50m had raised the odd eyebrow at the PLC.
Still, United needed a replacement centre-back. Despite being linked with Valencia’s Roberto Ayala, PSV’s Kevin Hofland and Lazio’s own Alessandro Nesta, Sir Alex ended up signing Inter Milan’s Laurent Blanc on a free transfer with a 12-month contract. Ferguson had long admired the Frenchman – an international colleague of goalkeeper Fabien Barthez – and trusted that, even at the age of 35, he had the mental speed to read the Premier League game.
The new 4-4-1-1 system usually featured Scholes pushed up behind Van Nistelrooy, who hit the ground running with the consolation in the 2-1 Charity Shield defeat to Liverpool and simply kept scoring. The problem was at the other end, where United only kept two clean sheets in the league before December. Notably chaotic defensive games included a 4-3 loss at Newcastle and the game at White Hart Lane that saw Spurs 3-0 up at half-time before United's five unanswered goals sealed one of the greatest turnarounds in Premier League history.
It couldn't last. As United lost five league games in seven, slipping to an almost unimaginable ninth place in December, wags noted that Ferguson's conquerors included Bolton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea – spelling out B.L.A.N.C. – while Fabien Barthez's fluctuation between the brilliant and bizarre gifted the game to the Gunners with two calamitous errors.
[Insert your own hilarious cod-French caption]
Ferguson’s impending retirement was also cited as a reason for disharmony, and there were whispers of the manager's worst nightmare – losing the dressing room. Not enjoying his advanced role in the 4-4-1-1, Paul Scholes was benched for the loss at Liverpool; irritated, he refused to play with the reserves in the subsequent League Cup game at Arsenal (also lost, 4-0). Scholes was fined £100,000 and rumours surfaced that Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona were watching the situation.
As is usually the way, United pulled themselves together. In each of eight successive league wins which took the team back to the top, Van Nistelrooy scored – a Premier League benchmark – while also powering through the Champions League group stages, the Dutchman scoring eight in 10 continental appearances.
Van Nistelrooy's pre-eminence forced Andy Cole to seek pastures new at Blackburn after seven years; he was quickly replaced by Uruguayan Diego Forlan. But a far more important signing came in February when Ferguson announced that, after consulting with his wife, he was postponing his retirement: "I was worrying about what I was going to do at three o'clock on Saturday afternoons," he explained. "I just couldn't see myself riding off into the sunset just yet."
Others thought Ferguson was dissatisfied with the club's intended replacement, Sven-Goran Eriksson, and Fergie did indeed damn the Swede with faint praise: "I think Sven would have been a nice easy choice in terms of nothing really happens, does it? He doesn't change anything, he sails along, nobody falls out with him. He'd have been alright, you know what I mean? The acceptable face."
The most telling quote, however, sums up his true feelings: "I'm not going to leave this club as a loser". And as March came around, United topped the Premier League, albeit with Liverpool and Arsenal chasing hard.
Deportivo la Coruña were swept aside in the Champions League quarter-finals, but at the cost of a broken foot bone which threatened David Beckham's involvement in the imminent World Cup and introduced the word "metatarsal" into the popular lexicon.
That left surprise package Bayer Leverkusen – who had already disposed of Arsenal in the second groups and Liverpool in the quarters – standing between Ferguson and Glasgow. United were strong favourites but couldn't shake the Germans, who equalised twice through Michael Ballack and Oliver Neuville to get a first-leg draw at Old Trafford.
At the BayArena, Roy Keane gave the English champions the lead but Neuville equalised again to leave the injury-wracked Germans ahead on away goals and happy to defend – which they did successfully, climaxing with Diego Placente's injury-time goalline clearance from Forlan's lob.
United's next match was also a must-win: at home to leaders Arsenal, who needed three points to clinch the title. Ferguson was in no mood for cross-questioning about Veron's apparent struggle to fit in, and in a pre-match press conference at Carrington the journalists got both barrels.
"People are always going on about f***ing Veron," he bellowed. "You tell me, what's wrong with Veron? What's this thing about fights and all the rest of this s**t? It's absolute nonsense, you know it's nonsense. Absolute lies. On you go. I'm no f***ing talking to you. He's a f***ing great player. Yous are f**king idiots." Ferguson then abandoned the press conference, ordering the journalists to get out of the Carrington training complex.
"There's something wrong with this shirt…"
If the outburst was designed to help the players prepare for the game, it didn't work. Sylvain Wiltord's winner meant Arsenal won the league at Old Trafford itself. The Gunners went on to a second Double in five seasons, while United's goalless last league game allowed Liverpool to push Ferguson's side down into third, his worst finish since 1991 – despite only gaining three fewer points than in the previous, title-winning season.
Unlike after Arsenal's title success four years previously, Ferguson was less than impressed with the champions. "They are scrappers who rely on belligerence," he said. "We are the better team." A fierce new rivalry was coming nicely to the boil, to be stoked with carefully placed Fergie soundbites about the opposition – such as saying of Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira "He would love to have come here last year, but they wouldn't let him. Players always want to play for a bigger club."
United might still be the bigger club, but Arsenal were arguably the better team. Despite the shrewd acquisition of 36-goal Van Nistelrooy – who followed Sheringham and Keane to become United's third different PFA Player of the Year in succession – a campaign that had started under a question mark ended under several more. Was Ferguson right to have reversed his decision to retire? Was he right to have sacrificed the formation that had helped United dominate England? And was he right about Veron?2001-02: Premier League 3rd, FA Cup R4, League Cup R3, Champions League SF
In summer 2002, Sir Alex Ferguson continued one trend and started another. As usual, disappointment prompted overhaul, with the release of ageing defenders Denis Irwin and Ronny Johnsen, plus the sale of Dwight Yorke to link up with Andy Cole at Blackburn.
The new idea was heralded by the £29.1m arrival of Rio Ferdinand. The classy young centre-back had impressed in England's World Cup finals campaign, and in the decade that followed United would repeatedly prove themselves happy to pay big money for the brightest domestic talents who were young enough to improve – and add resale value if they eventually saw their future elsewhere.
For their part, financially stricken Leeds were in no position to decline their fierce rivals' huge offer, which once again made Ferdinand the world's most expensive defender (a title he had briefly held after Leeds paid West Ham £18m for him in November 2000). And for his part, perhaps haunted by the failed experiment with Laurent Blanc, Ferguson was determined to shore up a questionable defence for good.
"I'll stop your gallop, young man!"
It didn't work immediately. After six games United had only achieved one clean sheet and two wins, sitting in 10th place – their worst start in the Premier League. Worse, champions Arsenal started at speed, with Arsene Wenger believing his side could go an entire season unbeaten. As it happened they lost their 10th game to a goal by impressive Everton youngster Wayne Rooney, but a 30-game unbeaten run spanning 10 months showed that Fergie now had serious domestic competition.
Arsenal were heavy favourites, particularly given United’s inconsistency, leading Alan Hansen to comment that Ferguson was facing the toughest challenge of his career. The response, delivered in a newspaper interview, was forceful, furious and to the point: “My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f***ing perch. And you can print that.”
His side failed to display the same defiance in the final Maine Road derby, but after the 3-1 loss United won four straight games including a 5-3 win over Newcastle, a 2-1 win at Anfield and a 2-0 win at Old Trafford against title rivals Arsenal.
Despite the loss, Arsene Wenger remained unperturbed when discussing his own side's chances of finishing top based on Arsenal's momentum and United’s inconsistency, confidently announcing a clear shift of power from Manchester to North London.
Ferguson felt the claims arrogant but they seemed almost prophetic as Arsenal went from strength to strength, and Sir Alex’s side slipped up during the Christmas period with consecutive defeats to Blackburn and Middlesbrough to slip seven points behind the table-topping Gunners. When the Gunners came to Old Trafford for the FA Cup Fifth Round, United were turgid as Arsenal won 2-0 – but it was events after the match that would grab the headlines.
Furious with his side’s performance, Ferguson was laying into his team when he accidentally kicked a boot at David Beckham, cutting the midfielder above the eye. A shocked Beckham had to be restrained, the paparazzi were quick to sell long-lens shots of the plastered-up eyebrow and the media had a field day.
“It was a freakish incident,” insisted Ferguson. “If I tried it 100 or a million times it couldn’t happen again. If I could, I would have carried on playing!” But throughout the season, the relationship between Sir Alex and the England captain had seemingly soured, with rumours abounding that Real Madrid were chasing the midfielder, keen to make him their next “Galactico” signing.
Ferguson had long expressed his admiration for Beckham's dedication to his craft. In 1999 he had enthused that "David Beckham is the country's finest striker of a football not because of God-given talent but because he practices with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn't comtemplate."
However, by 2003 the soundbites were less about Beckham's talent than his Spice Girl wife and increasing fame. "You'll never guess what Beckham wore to training today," he told the press at one conference. "He had this bloody spingly-spangly tracksuit on – he looked like Gary Glitter!"
"Oooh, that smarts"
Never one to agitate for a transfer, Beckham knuckled down and Ferguson also put the matter behind him. By March, the gap between United and leaders Arsenal was eight points, enough for bookmakers to close the betting and begin paying out. United stuck at it and also had their first serious tilt in a decade at the League Cup, losing to Liverpool at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium; a month later they would beat the Anfield side 4-0 in the league to get within three points of Arsenal at the top.
For the seventh successive season United reached the Champions League quarter-finals, this time facing Beckham’s suitors Real Madrid. Run ragged at the Bernabeu in a 3-1 defeat, United took out their frustrations with a 6-2 hammering of Newcastle at St James' Park to go top by three points, although Arsenal had a game in hand. When the top two then shared a pulsating 2-2 draw at Highbury it left the title race still very open.
The return leg with Real Madrid produced one of Old Trafford's most entertaining games of football and a superb individual performance from Ronaldo, whose hat-trick gave Real Madrid a 6-5 aggregate win, with Ferguson’s side winning 4-3 on the night. Beckham, who started on the bench, came on to grab a brace.
It was one of those games even Fergie couldn't grumble about losing, saluting young John O'Shea by relating a post-match encounter with Madrid's winger Luis Figo, "Christ, he wasn't happy," chuckled Ferguson. "I said 'Hey, the youngest player on our team just nutmegged you…'"
Besides, Ferguson had his own domestic crusade to complete – and he got help from unusual quarters. First Bolton, who had earlier that season again won at Old Trafford, came back from 2-0 down against Arsenal to grab a draw and hand United the initiative; then Leeds won 3-2 at Highbury to mathematically hand their fierce Roses rivals the title.
Job done, United lifted the trophy on the last day at Goodison Park, celebrating with a 2-1 win, thanks to a trademark free-kick from David Beckham. It would be his last for the club, a £25m summer move to Real Madrid ending his 12-year stay at Old Trafford – and, despite the 44 goals from Van Nistelrooy, making Ferguson once again unquestionably the biggest noise at the club. 2002-03: Premier League 1st, FA Cup R5, League cup finalist, Champions League QF
The biggest noise in summer 2003 came from west London with Roman Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea. Ferguson accepted their £15m bid for Juan Sebastian Veron (and was possibly pleased to subsequently see that he didn't settle in London, either), also releasing David May and waving Laurent Blanc into retirement.
Incoming were players from around the globe. Having long monitored Sporting's Portuguese wonderkid Cristiano Ronaldo, Fergie spent £12.24m on him before interest from Arsenal and (especially) Chelsea pushed the price too high.
United also spent £6m on Paranaense's World Cup-winning Brazil anchorman Kleberson, £4.2m on Nantes' Cameroonian midfielder Eric Djemba-Djemba, £2m on Sunderland's French forward David Bellion and £2m on US goalkeeper Tim Howard – with Fabien Barthez still less than 100% convincing. Indeed it was Howard who started the campaign, saving two shootout penalties as United beat Arsenal in the Community Shield.
Penalties came to the fore again when United met Arsenal at Old Trafford in September. The home side were awarded a contentious injury-time penalty, missed by Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutchman was immediately surrounded by gloating Arsenal players, still incensed that their skipper Patrick Vieira had been shown a second yellow for kicking out at Van Nistelrooy.
The FA took action, suspending four Arsenal players and handing out fines totalling £275,000 – which included a record fine for the club (£175,000) for failing to control their players – but Ferguson wasn't content, coming out with comments so strong he had to apologise to avoid his own FA censure.
"I think it's obvious Arsenal have been doing deals with the FA for years," he claimed. "Look at the number of times they've got off with charges outside of the fifty-odd sendings-off they've had under Wenger. I think they've been up 10 times before the FA and got off with eight of those. It's remarkable, very remarkable. We hope to win titles without anybody's help."
They set about it in confident fashion, winning 16 of their first 20 league games, but controversy was brewing off the field. After meeting John Magnier and JP McManus through his interest in horseracing, Sir Alex struck up a friendship with the two and the two subsequently bought shares in the club.
However, a dispute between the two and Ferguson over the ownership of the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar intensified into a feud. Building up their stake, the pair started to ask awkward questions at board level and in public about the running of the club. As usual, the fans took their manager's side, but the dispute would come to have profound effects on the club.
Old Trafford fans make their feelings clear
Meanwhile, at ground level, United’s season was slowly starting to unravel, despite being on top of the pile at the turn of the year. Two days after the controversial home game with Arsenal, Rio Ferdinand was asked to take a routine drugs test at United’s Carrington HQ, but left without doing so.
Ferdinand took the test as soon as he realised his error, but in the ensuing legal battle his defence team were unable to convince an international tribunal that this was an honest mistake. As a result, he was banned for eight months and fined £50,000. With the ban starting from January 12th, Ferdinand would miss the rest of the league season, plus Euro 2004.
Needing to put the setback behind them, Sir Alex supplemented his attack with the signature of Louis Saha from Fulham. Van Nistelrooy was ploughing on as ever and Cristiano Ronaldo had started to find his feet, after being criticised for being a bit of a show-pony by sections of the media and one or two team-mates.
However United’s position at the top was under threat from Chelsea and an undefeated Arsenal side, and the defence looked fragile in Ferdinand’s absence. Still, they were making sedate progress in the FA Cup and had once again made it to the first knockout round of the Champions League, being drawn against last season’s UEFA Cup winners FC Porto, under up-and-coming manager Jose Mourinho behind them.
United went 1-0 up in Portugal through Quinton Fortune, only to be pegged back by Fortune's South Africa team-mate Benni McCarthy, who then made it 2-1 with 12 minutes left to play. Worse was to follow as Roy Keane was sent off (for the 11th time in his career) after stamping on Porto’s keeper Vitor Baia.
Despite being without the inspirational captain for the second leg, United looked to be going through on away goals as Paul Scholes put them ahead at Old Trafford after 31 minutes. At the end of the first half, Scholes had a second goal chalked out for offside, but replays showed the linesman’s decision was incorrect.
It proved to be costly, as Constinha equalised for Porto, following up a free-kick that Howard had only managed to parry, sending the Portuguese side through 3-2 on aggregate, much to the delight of Mourinho who galloped down the touchline in jubilation. By May, he would be a Champions League winner – and bound for a new challenge in England.
"Remember my name!"
Worse came at the weekend when a 4-1 battering in the first derby at Man City's new ground effectively ended United's title challenge. They ended up only winning seven of their final 18 games, with many questioning their inexperienced and lacklustre signings. While Ferguson stood by his players, captain Keane took the opportunity to vent.
“We have one or two young players who have done very little in the game," he said. "They need to remember that and not slack off. They need to remember just how lucky we all are to play for Manchester United and show that out on the pitch.” Ferguson let him off – "When I look at Roy Keane I often see myself. He cares, he's a born winner" – but once again his captain was being somewhat injudicious in his comments.
As usual, Keane got the chance to lift some silver. With the League Cup long gone after a fourth-round exit to West Bromwich Albion, United focused on the FA Cup, beating Arsenal in the semi-final and demolishing Millwall at the Millennium Stadium. A routine 3-0 win handed United their 11th FA Cup, thanks to goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and a brace from Van Nistelrooy (again United's top scorer with 30 in all competitions).
While the Dutchman picked up the man of the match award, it was Ronaldo’s all-round performance that drew many plaudits, after a season spent infuriating the Old Trafford faithful with flashes of brilliance, but little end product. Still only 19, he still had time to – as Roy Keane alluded to – do his bit.
United would need him to. Champions Arsenal had finally fulfilled Wenger's promise that they could go a league season unbeaten (the first team to do so in the top division since Preston North End in 1889) – or 'Invincible', as they were described, while the threat from runners-up Chelsea would only grow with their new financial power. 2003-04: Premier League 3rd, FA Cup winners, League cup R4, Champions League last 16, Charity Shield winners
Chelsea’s progression after one season of Abramovich’s financial backing gave the rest of the league an indication of their potential. After spending in excess of £250m on a new-look side, while hiring Jose Mourinho – who had orchestrated Porto’s Champions League triumph that year, after leading them to the UEFA Cup the year before – reigning champions Arsenal and Manchester United were made well aware of their ambition.
Sir Alex responded with transfers of his own, bringing in Alan Smith from relegated Leeds and Paris St Germain’s Argentinian left-back Gabriel Heinze. With a view for the future, Ferguson also brought in highly rated younglings Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique from Parma and Barcelona respectively.
Following Fabien Barthez, who had fled to Marseille in April, through the out door were Nicky Butt (to Newcastle) and Diego Forlan (to Spain, where he would finally fulfil his undoubted potential).
Before the season had even got under way, Sir Alex Ferguson announced that he would be boycotting the BBC in protest at a documentary – aired earlier that year – which highlighted and scrutinised the links between the United manager and his football agent son, Jason. The first chance for him to ignore the microphone was after losing the Community Shield 3-1 to Arsenal, Smith scoring on his debut.
United’s league season started against Mourinho’s new-look Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and although an injury-hit side (lacking Van Nistelrooy among others) played well, Eidur Gudjohnsen registered the only goal of the game. And although Smith scored in each of the next two games, he would soon have some serious competition up front.
At end of August, Sir Alex spent £27m to sign the most promising English youngster in a generation: Everton striker Wayne Rooney, who had impressed with four goals at Euro 2004 before injury ended his (and by extension England's) involvement in the competition.
After recovering from injury he eventually made a barnstorming debut in a Champions League game against Fenerbache. What followed was one of the best debuts Old Trafford has witnessed as the 18-year-old grabbed a brilliant hat-trick – right foot, left foot and a free kick – in an emphatic 6-2 win.
However, United couldn't get any momentum in the league, drawing five games out of seven by mid-October to fall six points behind Chelsea, who looked impressive, and a huge 11 behind Arsenal who looked, well, invincible. When they rolled back into Old Trafford in mid-October, the Gunners had gone 49 games unbeaten.
Ferguson's pre-match soundbites set the scene. "What Arsenal players did [at Old Trafford] last season was the worst thing I've seen in this sport. They're a mob – they get away with murder." Since then Arsene Wenger's men had gone 49 games unbeaten but United were in no mood to host a party for the 50th… although they did set up a buffet.
With a goalless game in its 73rd minute, referee Mike Riley awarded United a penalty after Sol Campbell appeared to have upended Wayne Rooney in the box, although replays suggested otherwise. Van Nistelrooy stepped up and exorcised last season's demons by firing the ball home at the Stretford End and roaring in celebration. In the 90th minute, with Arsenal pushing for the equaliser that would have protected their unbeaten record, Rooney converted Smith's cross to complete the defeat.
D'you think he liked that?
At the full-time whistle, Wenger’s men continued to protest the penalty decision, with Campbell refusing to shake Rooney’s hand in the belief that his England team-mate had dived. As the fracas reached the tunnel, post-match food laid out for the players was flung around, with a slice of pizza hitting Sir Alex Ferguson on the side of the head. Although it was thrown by an Arsenal player, the guilty party remains unidentified, though Ashley Cole later revealed that he “wasn’t English or French" – which, frankly, doesn't narrow it down much considering the Gunners' cosmopolitan squad.
Following the events of that night, Ferguson presented an extensive dossier to the FA, detailing a string of events, both during and after the game, which he felt should be looked at. The FA refused Sir Alex’s request, but did charge Van Nistelrooy with serious foul player for a challenge on Cole, resulting in a three-game ban.
While psychologically vital, beating Arsenal meant nothing in the table when United lost their next league game 2-0 at Portsmouth and Chelsea started to pull away from the pack. Ferguson stayed light-hearted – "You never know, malaria might hit their camp" – but concentrated on his own side.
United didn't lose again for 20 league games, although they should have done early in the New Year against Spurs at Old Trafford, when Pedro Mendes' effort from just inside the United half was spilled over the line by Roy Carroll. The Northern Ireland keeper dived backwards and clawed the ball back into play, deceiving both the referee and assistant; the 'goal' would have been the only one of the game.
In fact that was the first of three successive goalless draws, a rarity for United. The second was embarrassing, as non-league Exeter took mighty United to an FA Cup replay; the third was the opening leg of the League Cup semi-final against pacesetters Chelsea, United having beaten Arsenal in the quarters. That first leg in London was dull, but Chelsea took the spoils at Old Trafford when a Damien Duff free-kick intended as a cross fortuitously found its way into the United net from all of 50 yards.
While the League Cup has seldom been a Ferguson priority, Mourinho’s second victory in four months over the man he respectfully called "The Boss" represented a big step forward in Chelsea’s bid to replace Manchester United as the dominant force in English football. With that in mind, United’s February fixture at Highbury took on greater significance, with both sides needing a win to keep in touch with their West London rivals.
This time, the tunnel drama started before the game. As Gary Neville emerged from the away dressing room, he was confronted by Patrick Vieira squaring up to him, only to be confronted by United captain Roy Keane. As things got heated, referee Graham Poll had to step in and calm the situation down before the players had even left the tunnel.
With Arsenal and Vieira clearly rattled, a fired-up United put on a strong display – coming back from behind twice and going on to win 4-2, despite playing the last half-hour a man light after Silvestre's red card.
United leapfrogged Arsenal into second but were still 15 points behind Chelsea and soon crashed out of the Champions League too, losing 1-0 home and away to AC Milan. It was the fifth time in six seasons since winning the trophy that United had crashed out at the first knockout stage – the exception being 2001/02, when they beat Deportivo la Coruña then lost to Bayer Leverkusen.
Chelsea cruised remorselessly on to win the title, breaking records for points total, most victories, clean sheets and goals conceded. When Mourinho's men came to Old Trafford in May, United were big enough to give them a guard of honour as they ran onto the pitch, and the new champions didn't disappoint with a 3-1 victory which underlined the distance between the teams. Like the previous season, United finished third – but 18 points off the pace.
United's last chance of silverware was the FA Cup, in which – after the Exeter scare – the side had cruised past Middlesbrough, Everton, Southampton and Newcastle to set up one more clash with Arsenal. But whereas other games between the two had been thrilling for one reason or other, this was an awful 0-0, not helped by Wenger playing a side with only one natural forward – Dennis Bergkamp.
Inevitably the game went to penalties. Taking United's second, Paul Scholes was horrified to see Jens Lehmann save his effort, and with all other kicks converted, Arsenal's fifth taker Patrick Vieira won the cup and left United potless for the second time in four seasons.
Rooney had settled in well, becoming PFA Young Player of the Year and United's top scorer – although his total of 17 hardly bore comparison to the 110 racked up in the previous three seasons by Ruud van Nistelrooy. United clearly needed all their big names fully firing if they were to tackle a Chelsea side backed by seemingly limitless spending power. But first, United had some ownership issues to deal with themselves…2004-05: Premier League 3rd, FA Cup finalists, League Cup semi-finals, Community Shield runners up, Champions League first knockout round.
In the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s dispute with horseracing partners John Magnier and JP McManus – who had gradually become the club's biggest shareholders – the Manchester United board had been on the search for new investors in an attempt to reduce the influence of the pair.
In March 2003, US sports franchise owner Malcolm Glazer had purchased a 2.9% stake in United for a reported £9million. Glazer gradually acquired more stock while discussing with the Old Trafford chief executive David Gill his intentions to buy the whole club.
By October 2004, Glazer had reached 30%, meaning he had to launch a formal takeover bid. In May 2005, he bought out McManus and Magnier's 28.7% share to achieve a controlling stake, and further summer share purchases took him up to 98% ownership, enough for a compulsory buyout of all the remaining shareholders. By then, he had already ended the club’s PLC status – as well as delisting it from the London Stock Exchange – with the final valuation of the club a staggering £800m.
Despite wanting rid of the "Coolmore Mafia", United fans didn’t take too kindly to the takeover being based on debt – Glazer borrowed £265m for the takeover which is now secured against Manchester United’s assets, with a further £275m in other loans.
Supporters had held protests at the end of the last campaign, with a group of disgruntled fans creating a new club called FC United of Manchester. Ferguson wasn't impressed: "I wonder how big a United supporter they are. They seem to be promoting or projecting themselves a wee bit. It says more about them than us."
It was against this fractured background that Ferguson had to plot the overthrow of undisputed champions Chelsea. He started his summer overhaul from the back, where no goalkeeper had consistently impressed since Peter Schmeichel, by signing Edwin van der Sar from Fulham; he also bought young Stoke goalkeeper Ben Foster and immediately sent him on a season's loan to second-tier Watford.
The other summer purchase was indefatigable South Korean midfielder Park Ji-Sung, who had been vital to PSV Eindhoven's run to the Champions League semi-finals. United also announced that young Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel would join the club in January, although in the end he signed for Chelsea. Meanwhile, Phil Neville was sold to Everton, Kleberson bussed out to Besiktas and Roy Carroll released on a free.
The team got off to a decent start, winning their first three league games with Rooney and Van Nistelrooy combining well and among the goals, while also cruising through their Champions League qualifier 6-0 on aggregate against Hungarians Debrecen, despite finishing with 10 men after an injury to Kieran Richardson after they had made all their substitutions.
But United only won two of their next seven league games, culminating in a 4-1 hammering in late October at a Middlesbrough side managed by Ferguson's former assistant Steve McClaren. That was followed by defeat at Lille in the Champions League group, meaning United were struggling to even reach the knockout phase after just one win in the first four games.
The Lille game was overshadowed by more trouble from the increasingly loose cannon Roy Keane. Following the Middlesbrough match, the captain had used the club's TV channel to once again air his grievances, criticising John O'Shea, Alan Smith, Kieran Richardson and Darren Fletcher, while lambasting record signing Rio Ferdinand: "Just because you're paid £120,000 a week and play well for 20 minutes, you think you're a superstar."
That was a step too far even for the increasingly long leash United had allowed Keane. The TV interview was pulled and, although the club circled the wagons in public, all was not well behind the scenes.
Stranded back in sixth place, United were already 13 points behind Chelsea, who were nine points clear of their nearest rivals. And Mourinho's men, 40 games unbeaten, were coming to Old Trafford again – on the 19th anniversary of Ferguson's appointment. Although the press were desperate to stoke the sort of antagonism towards Mourinho that existed between Ferguson and Wenger, the United manager was having none of it.
"I like José," he insisted. "I think he sees himself as the young gunslinger who has come into town to challenge the sheriff who has been around for a while. He has a great sense of humour and there is a devilish wit about him. We get on."
On that November afternoon, the sheriff's men outshot the gunslinger. Darren Fletcher – the young Scottish midfielder among those criticised by Keane – put United ahead after 31 minutes, his header back across goal looping into the far corner. With the injured Keane watching from the stands, United’s young side held on, to inflict only Chelsea’s second league defeat in the Mourinho era.
It wasn't enough to heal all wounds. On November 18th, after 12-and-a-half years at Old Trafford – seven of them as captain – Roy Keane left Old Trafford by mutual consent. United fans were shocked, but the news was put into perspective a week later when club legend George Best died at the age of 59.
United fans mark the end of an era
Victory against Chelsea kickstarted a run of nine league wins in 12 unbeaten games to climb to second, but United remained 13 points behind the unassailable Londoners. Worse, a lacklustre European campaign meant they exited in the group stages for the first time since 1994 and the 4-0 humbling at Barcelona.
In January, Ferguson reinforced his squad with French left-back Patrice Evra and commanding Serbian centre-back Nemanja Vidic, while the League Cup semi-final win over Blackburn set up a Cardiff final with the season's surprise package Wigan. However, Blackburn got immediate revenge in the league with a 4-3 win against a United side featuring Rio Ferdinand floundering in midfield, gifting Rovers a goal and being sent off in the 88th minute, while David Bentley scored the first ever Premier League hat-trick against United.
Ferguson's men also progressed to the fifth round of the FA Cup and a game at Liverpool. Rafa Benitez's side won 1-0 through Peter Crouch but the game was marred by a horrific injury sustained by Alan Smith – breaking his ankle blocking a John Arne Riise free-kick. Worse, in ugly scenes outside Anfield the ambulance taking the player to hospital was pelted with missiles and shaken.
The following week, United brushed aside Wigan 4-0 to lift the League Cup, thanks to a Rooney brace supplemented by Louis Saha and Cristiano Ronaldo. Watching unused from the bench was Ruud van Nistelrooy, starting a month on the naughty step after a training ground bust-up with Ronaldo.
Frustrated by the Portuguese winger's selfishness at Carrington, the Dutchman had launched a tirade of abuse at Ronaldo, before telling him to “Go crying to your daddy.” Ronaldo’s father had passed away a few months before, although Van Nistelrooy was actually referring to United assistant manager, compatriot Carlos Quieroz, with whom the young winger had developed a close bond.
As he had done with Roy Keane – who had more years of service behind him that Van Nistelrooy – Ferguson showed little remorse, as he left the Dutchman out of the starting XI for the final and kept him benched for the next six games.
It didn't affect United's charge, as they won seven consecutive league games after the League Cup final, but Chelsea were in similar mood and Ferguson's men could only chip away at the chasm between them. Painfully, Mourinho's side mathematically retained their title with a comprehensive 3-0 Stamford Bridge win against United.
United clinched second place with a 4-0 win against Charlton and finished eight points behind Chelsea, halving the previous season's difference. But they still had a lot of ground to cover, and it looked like they would have to do without their 24-goal top scorer.
After being told he was on he bench for the season's final game against Charlton, Ruud van Nistelrooy walked out of Old Trafford. Disbarred from the subsequent testimonial for Roy Keane, he had played his last game for United; after 150 goals in 200 starts for the club, he would join Real Madrid in the summer.2005-06: Premier League 2nd, FA Cup R5, League Cup winners, Community Shield runners up, Champions League group stages
Tomorrow: Fergie's fifth five-year spell – Domestic bliss and European fun Until then, check out FourFourTwo's ever-expanding interview archive...
Q&A, Apr 2006 – Ruud van Nistelrooy >>"The manager held a press conference and I couldn't believe what I was hearing..."ONE ON ONE, Nov 2001 – George Best >>"Fergie has his knockers, but he always treated me with respect"ONE ON ONE (well, two), Apr 2003 – Gary & Phil Neville >>"People say players' wages are raping the game, but that's rubbish"
Having examined Sir Alex Ferguson's frequently fraught first five years , increasingly successful
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