Marking Mancunian mastery
Having examined Sir Alex Ferguson's frequently fraught first five years, increasingly successful second five-year spell, domestically dominant third five-year spell and challenging fourth five-year spell, Vithushan Ehantharajah brings us up to date with virus-sellers, list-ranters and noisy neighbours...
The 2006/07 season marked the 50th anniversary of Matt Busby’s first foray into Europe, and footballers were still setting sail from Manchester to the continent. After 150 goals in five seasons for Manchester United, Ruud van Nistelrooy had packed his bags and headed for Real Madrid.
Although Ferguson had long suspected the striker fancied a move to the glamorous Galacticos, the deadly Dutchman's departure was sparked by demotion to the bench after a training-ground row with Cristiano Ronaldo. Irksome for United, then, that Madrid were also being strongly linked with the ever-improving Portuguese winger.
Ronaldo had a lively summer. In an ill-tempered World Cup quarter-final, Wayne Rooney was sent off against Portugal after stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. In the immediate aftermath, Ronaldo – who had implored the referee to show Rooney a red card – was seen winking to the Portugal bench; an image that would be etched in the mind of every England supporting fan, who would proceed to boo his every touch during the next season.
Luckily for them, Sir Alex gave them the chance, deciding against shipping out the winger and instead allowing him to settle his differences with Rooney – to great effect.
It being tournament year, Ferguson eyed up the England squad for the next big thing to follow the signings of Rio Ferdinand in 2002 and Wayne Rooney in 2004. Nobody had exactly excelled but Tottenham’s deep-lying midfielder Michael Carrick showed promise and the tall Geordie arrived for £18.6m.
The only other incoming player was loanee goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak from West Brom, while exits included Quinton Fortune, David Bellion, Jonathan Spector and Liam Miller – originally signed from Celtic to replace Roy Keane.
On paper, United had lost their main striker and not really replaced Roy Keane, but they flew out of the blocks against Fulham with a 5-1 win featuring goals from Rooney, Ronaldo and Cottagers old boy Louis Saha.
After four wins on the bounce, United hosted their old enemies Arsenal, who had reached the 2006 Champions League Final but were yet to win this season and were described by Ferguson as a "team in transition" after losing Ashley Cole to Chelsea. Predictably they beat United; despite Edwin Van der Sar's deputy Kuszczak saving a Gilberto Silva penalty, Emmanuel Adebayor's late goal was enough for Wenger's first league win against Ferguson in nine attempts.
There were indications of a slight wobble with a 1-1 draw at Reading, but another emphatic seven-game winning run put them three points clear of Chelsea at the top. The champions visited at the end of November, and crucially failed to claw back ground on the leaders, even after Ricardo Carvalho's header cancelled out a finely-taken goal from the injury-plagued Saha.
Much of United’s good work was owed to the new central midfield partnership of Carrick and Paul Scholes, as well as the free-flowing combination of play of Ronaldo and Rooney. Although Ferguson usually played two recognised strikers, Rooney's all-round play and habit of dropping deep to link up with midfield was giving United a new fluidity, as was the absence of Ruud van Nistelrooy – a fearsome predator but rarely to be seen outside the penalty area.
Second-tier Southend dumped the holders out of the League Cup, briefly making a big name out of Freddy Eastwood, but United topped their Champions League group with four wins out of six to qualify three points clear as group winners and right the wrong of last season’s campaign.
Ferguson's side was also powering on in the league, winning six games out of the seven after the Chelsea draw with Ronaldo bagging eight along the way. Jose Mourinho's champions, six points back, were struggling by their standards after Peter Cech sustained a head injury in a collision with Stephen Hunt.
Cech would return three months later – sporting a head-guard – but by then his side had lost too much ground on United. As Ferguson memorably put it at an early-morning Carrington press conference: "The birds are whistling here and the sparrows are waking up at Stamford Bridge coughing."
In the meantime, Manchester United further strengthened their front line with the astute loan signing of Henrik Larsson. Although 35 years of age, the former Celtic and Barcelona goal machine was lured over for a couple of months during his Swedish side Helsingborg's winter break – and proved he still had it by opening the scoring on his debut, a 2-1 win over Aston Villa in the FA Cup Third Round.
The side's first visit to Arsenal's new 60,000-seater Emirates Stadium – built specifically to help them match the financial might of United – ended in a 2-1 win for the hosts, but the defeat didn't sting as it might have done in previous years: the Gunners were still 12 points back and had long since been surpassed by Chelsea as the main threat.
Not that Ferguson held much truck with the idea that Arsenal could match his club simply by building a new ground. "Rival United? Arsenal? Never! They'll need three stadiums and 33 teams to rival us as a club. Nobody is as big as Manchester United. Nobody ever will be either."
As if to prove the point, United responded to the Emirates defeat with seven successive league wins in which they racked up 21 goals from 11 different players. There were four-goal hammerings for Watford, Spurs, Bolton and Blackburn sprinkled with late winners at Fulham and rivals Liverpool, with whose manager Rafa Benitez Ferguson was enjoying an increasingly bitter spat. Asked if the Anfield side could end their 17-year wait for a league title, Ferguson didn't know whether to bellow or guffaw. "You must be joking. Do I look as if I'm a masochist ready to cut myself? How does relegation sound instead?"
Despite turning 65 on New Year's Eve 2006, Ferguson was as energetic as ever. "I'm waiting for the envelope," he said of reaching the traditional retirement age. "I'll get my bus pass and heating allowance and after the length of time I've worked I probably deserve them too. But the important thing is that I feel fine. I'm as fresh as a daisy."
Once again, spring sprung with United chasing the Treble. Portsmouth, Reading, Middlesborough and Watford were beaten as United reached the first FA Cup final at the rebuilt Wembley. And they were having a determined assault on the Champions League.
In the first knockout round, goals from Ryan Giggs and Larsson gave them 1-0 wins home and away against Lille and a quarter-final trip to Roma. In the Italian capital Paul Scholes was sent off after two yellow cards in the opening half-hour, before Rodrigo Taddei gave Roma the lead to leave the outlook bleak.
Rooney's calm equaliser – his first in Europe since that explosive debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce – gave the team belief and although Mirko Vucinic regained Roma's lead, United held on to a slender 2-1 defeat with optimism they could turn it round at Old Traafford.
And how. In a display which transcended the season and once more gave United the belief that they could compete with Europe's best, United simply annihilated Roma 7-1, with unsung hero Michael Carrick deservedly starting what turned out to be a rout.
And so to the semis, against AC Milan (while Chelsea and Liverpool fought out their second Champions League semi-final in three years). United won a compelling first leg at Old Trafford 3-2, but were far from convincing, with Kaka tearing through United’s defence at will – equalising Ronaldo's opener before giving the visitors the lead. Rooney levelled before his late winner gave them a one-goal lead to take to Italy – but they knew from experience against Roma that one goal was the slenderest of advantages.
And so it proved. Milan took just 11 minutes to take the lead, with Kaka turning provider for a Clarence Seedorf header. Seedorf made it 2-0 on the half-hour, before substitute Alberto Gilardino broke away from the defence to put the gloss on an object lesson for United.
As if in consolation, that weekend United wrapped up their first title in three years and ninth overall. Ronaldo's penalty earned a welcome win at Man City's new ground, before Chelsea's draw at Arsenal made it mathematically certain.
It was an important blow for United to strike. Chelsea were a financial and footballing force to be reckoned with, but the title win proved that United were more than able to match them, stride for stride.
The country's top two sides met in the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley, and as is so often the case, it was a huge disappointment. Sterile for 116 minutes, it was decided by Didier Drogba's late winner to give Chelsea a consolation prize.
United’s dominance of the season was highlighted by the presence of eight of their players in the PFA's Premier League team of the year. But there was no doubt about the main man. Ronaldo, who had fittingly finished joint-top scorer with Rooney on 23, broke new ground by becoming the first man to be named PFA Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year in the same season.2006-07: Premier League winners, FA Cup finalists, League Cup R4, Champions League SF
No doubt encouraged by Ronaldo's success, Ferguson returned to Portugal in the summer to sign Sporting winger Nani and Porto's Brazilian midfielder Anderson for a combined £30m. He also signed hard-working England midfielder Owen Hargreaves from Bayern Munich and completed the full signing of goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak.
Ferguson also added to the competition up front with the third-party loan of Carlos Tevez. The bustling Argentine goal-grabber had spent the previous season at West Ham, keeping the Irons in the top flight by the skin of their teeth with the last-day winner at Old Trafford. Leaving the club were Tim Howard (to Everton), Gabriel Heinze (Real Madrid), Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal), Alan Smith (Newcastle), Kieran Richardson (Sunderland) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who moved into a coaching role at the club after retiring through injury.
After beating Chelsea on penalties in the Community Shield, the team made an awful start. The first three games yielded just one goal and two points to leave United in the relegation zone for the first time since 1992 – when they had gone on to win the league.
Draws against Reading (in which Rooney got injured) and Portsmouth (in which Ronaldo was sent off) were followed by a defeat at Man City, newly rich after a takeover by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had installed Sven-Göran Eriksson. Their 1-0 win was hardly convincing, but after the Chelsea experience, United were learning to keep an eye on nouveau riche teams.
Going back to basics, United ground out three consecutive 1-0 wins before hosting Chelsea, who had just parted company with charismatic manager Jose Mourinho. Director of Football Avram Grant could do little as Tevez's first goal and Saha's penalty gave United a 2-0 win.
United’s defence were as impervious as ever, but they were uncharacteristically blunt up front; after eight league games they had scored seven and conceded two. But as Tevez clicked with Rooney and Ronaldo, they scored four against Wigan, Villa and Middlesbrough before a 2-2 thriller at early pace-setters Arsenal, Ronaldo's late goal cancelled out by William Gallas's injury-time header.
Barring a defeat to Nicolas Anelka's poached finish at Bolton, United continued to rack up wins in the league; by Boxing Day's 4-0 battering of Sunderland, which took them back top, they had amassed 43 points of a possible 48 since that early derby defeat at City. United had also powered through their Champions League group, winning their first five games against Sporting, Roma and Dynamo Kyiv to top the section.
A good Christmas period was spoiled by defeat to West Ham at the end of December – with Anton Ferdinand cancelling out a Ronaldo goal, before Matthew Upson headed in the winner. That allowed Arsenal to top the table as 2007 ended, although United regained the lead with a 6-0 walloping of Newcastle including a Ronaldo hat-trick.
Combining with Rooney and Tevez in a formation of devastating fluidity, the Portuguese had continued his sparkling form, including an astonishing free-kick against Portsmouth which was voted Goal of the Season and had professional and park-players alike debating the technique behind the strike.
Irksomely for United, it also meant Real Madrid's stealthy pursuit of the brilliant winger was becoming ever more obvious. Ferguson was furious. "Real have no morals at all," he fumed after yet another 'leaked' story of the Spanish giants' interest. "They think they can ride roughshod over everyone but they won't do it with us. In terms of morals, Barcelona have far better moral issues than Real Madrid will ever have."
United started their FA Cup campaign with wins against Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur, and having been unbeaten in January (winning all but one of their games) they faced Manchester City at home in an emotional encounter marking the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster.
United wore 1950s-style kits, with no sponsor or names, and reverted to the traditional 1-to-11 numbering on their shirts. After an immaculately observed minute’s silence, City took the initiative, taking a 2-0 first-half lead through Darius Vassell and Benjani. A late Carrick goal proved to be nothing more than a consolation. After the game, Ferguson commended the City fans for their conduct, adding that perhaps his players were overawed by the occasion.
With Arsenal beating Blackburn that weekend, United fell five points off the pace – but dealt a psychological blow with a 4-0 FA Cup demolition of the Gunners, for whom further trouble loomed at Birmingham. After losing Croatian striker Eduardo to a horrific broken leg, Arsenal conceded a last-minute penalty to equalise and demoralise Arsene Wenger’s men. Meanwhile United demolished Newcastle 5-1 to keep the pressure on.
Calmly disposing of French champions Lyon in the first Champions League knockout, with a late Tevez equaliser in France followed by a Ronaldo winner in Manchester, United looked forward to an Old Trafford FA Cup quarter-final with Portsmouth.
Continually angered by referee Martin Atkinson during the course of the game – specifically the treatment of Ronaldo at the hands of Lassana Diarra – Sir Alex couldn't believe it when Tomas Kuszczak was sent off after bringing down Milan Baros in the box near the end of the 90 minutes. The Polish keeper was a substitute for the injured Edwin van der Sar, so centre-back Rio Ferdinand had to don the gloves for the spot-kick. Muntari converted to give Pompey the win.
Ferguson was furious, once again demanding accountability for referees via the Professional Game Match Officials general manager. “Keith Hackett has got a lot to answer for because he is not doing his job properly. He has to be assessed. I am assessed as a manager, the players are assessed – and the referees should be assessed.”
The fury fired Fergie's men to four consecutive league wins without conceding a single goal, including a 3-0 dismissal of Liverpool. In the Champions League quarter-finals, Roma were also dealt with – Ronaldo and Rooney scoring without reply in Rome, Tevez wrapping it up back in Manchester – before United effectively ended Arsenal's title challenge at Old Trafford by coming from behind to win 2-1 through a Ronaldo penalty and an Owen Hargreaves free-kick.
That created a crucial week in the club's season: a Stamford Bridge clash with Chelsea, whose late title run had seen them surpass Arsenal as United's main challengers – sandwiched by two legs of a Champions League semi-final against Spanish giants Barcelona.
The Camp Nou first leg started brilliantly for United with the award of a penalty, but Ronaldo – eyed up by an entire Spanish nation well aware of Real Madrid's interest in him – hit the post. It was to be a rare chance for the visitors as Barcelona pressed relentlessly, but with Rooney stationed on the wing to help out his defence, the visitors held out for a hard-fought 0-0 draw.
United were again on the back foot at Stamford Bridge in a match that could have seen them all but win the league; victory against Chelsea would leave them requiring just a point from their last two games. However, Michael Ballack put the home side ahead, and although Rooney levelled, Ballack scored the winner from the spot. Now United needed to beat both West Ham and Wigan to be sure of retaining their title.
First, though, the Champions League second leg against Barcelona. United were on the front foot from the off and went ahead through a 25-yard top-corner effort from Paul Scholes, determined to reach a final having missed out in 1999. United held to secure their first European final since then; the following night they discovered it would be against Chelsea, who had finally beaten Liverpool in a Champions League semi-final at the third attempt in four seasons.
Before their Moscow showdown, United wrapped up their 17th league title – one behind Liverpool's benchmark – with a 4-1 win over West Ham and a 2-0 win at Wigan. In the latter, Ronaldo's penalty – his Golden Boot-clinching 31st league goal – equalled Alan Shearer's record for goals in a 38-game Premier League season. United had beaten Chelsea in the league; could they beat them in Moscow to gain their second Champions League title?
In freezing rain at the Luzhniki Stadium, United took the lead when Ronaldo nodded in Wes Brown's cross. Ferguson’s men dominated the first half, but Frank Lampard's equaliser set up a tense and unspectacular second half. Things didn't improve in extra time, despite a clash between Tevez and John Terry sparking a melee which resulted in Didier Drogba being sent off for slapping Nemanja Vidic, and the penalty shootout beckoned.
Rio Ferdinand won the coin-toss and elected to go first. Goals from Tevez and Carrick were answered by Ballack and Juliano Belletti (brought on at the death specifically for the shootout, as was United's Anderson). Ronaldo did his usual stuttering run-up but Petr Cech guessed right and saved it to give Chelsea the advantage.
Lampard, Hargreaves, Ashley Cole and Nani scored, meaning Chelsea captain John Terry had the chance to seal Roman Abramovich's holy grail in the Chelsea owner's home country. But Terry lost his footing while taking the penalty, his shot hitting the outside of the post as Van der Sar watched helplessly.
Now it was sudden-death penalties. Anderson, Salomon Kalou and Ryan Giggs converted successfully before Van der Sar psyched out Nicolas Anelka, pointing to his left but correctly diving right to win the Champions League.
Ferguson was delighted – and knew where the credit didn't lie. "When they took their second-last penalty I clasped my hands and I prayed. He [Van der Sar] nearly saved it, but once the ball went in I said to myself, 'Don't ever pray again'."
Cristiano Ronaldo had a season to remember as he scored an astonishing 42 goals in all, retaining the Football Writers’ and PFA Player of the Year awards. He was the jewel in United’s crown, but could Fergie fend off the magpies in Madrid?
2007-08: Premier League winners, FA Cup R6, League Cup R3, Champions League winners, Community Shield winners
After convincing Ronaldo to stay an extra season at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson went becoming the first team to ever successfully defend the Champions League.
With no major signings over summer, Ferguson kept faith in his champions and looked to bring through the Brazilian youngsters he had been signing from Brazil, like twin defenders Fabio and Rafael da Silva and midfielder Rodrigo Possebon. Two of the three were on the bench as United retained the Community Shield – again on penalties – against Portsmouth, and made their debuts in the opening draw against Newcastle.
Rodrigo was also on the bench as United lost the European Super Cup 2-1 to Zenit St Petersburg in a game marked by a bizarre sending-off for Paul Scholes, who earned a second yellow for inexplicably punching a Wes Brown cross goalwards.
As the August 31st transfer deadline drew near, Ferguson brought out the Glazer chequebook to hand over £30.75m for Tottenham forward Dimitar Berbatov. It was an unusually high amount for a player nearing 28, and noises from within Old Trafford intimated that it would be the last time they shelled out such an amount on a player whose resale value would presumably shrink over the course of his four-year contract.
Tellingly, the price may have been driven up by interest from United's neighbours. In the final days of the transfer window, Man City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi investment group headed by the eyeball-swirlingly rich Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. City would now be able to outspend all their rivals, and although that wouldn't have an immediate effect on the pitch, the transfer market would again be changed as it had been when Roman Abramovich pumped money into Chelsea five years previously.
On the pitch, United stuttered with a loss at Liverpool – their first since 2002 – followed by a 1-1 draw at Chelsea, before finding their feet with five wins in six. Two Samir Nasri goals helped Arsenal win 2-1 at the Emirates to keep the champions down in fourth place.
They wouldn't stay there for long, mainly thanks to an incredible run of clean sheets. After the Arsenal loss United didn't concede again for 14 league games, 12 of which they won. Edwin van der Sar, now 38, played in every single game, setting a new record for most consecutive clean sheets in the league. The run included a 1-0 win at Manchester City in late November and a 3-0 home victory over Chelsea in early December.
In mid-December, United abandoned the Christmas shopping to pop over to Japan for the Club World Cup. Parachuted as European champions into the semi-finals, they saw off Asian contenders Gamba Osaka 5-3 before edging out surprise South American champions LDU Quito 1-0 thanks to Wayne Rooney's winner.
United's continuing hot streak coincided with a decline in the form of leaders Liverpool, who seemed to get worse after an unprecedented attack on Ferguson by their manager Rafael Benitez. After Ferguson had complained about unforgiving nature of the fixture list, Benitez was asked his thoughts by a media corps keen to stir the simmering spat between the two giants of north-west football. But even the most hardened hack was surprised by the Liverpool boss's response.
Benitez took a sheet of notes from his jacket pocket and began a five-minute rant aimed at Manchester United manager. Stressing he was "only talking about facts”, Benitez suggested that as an alternative arrangement "Mr Ferguson organises the fixtures in his office and sends it to us", claimed that "only Mr Ferguson can talk about the fixtures [or] referees and nothing happens", that the United boss was "the only manager in the league that cannot be punished".
"I think he was an angry man," responded an understated Ferguson. "He must have been disturbed, for some reason. I think you have to cut through the venom of it and hopefully he'll reflect and understand what he said was absolutely ridiculous."
Whether "ridiculous" or "fact", the complaint came on January 9th, when Liverpool were top of the league by 10 points. By January 28th they were two points behind United, who simply refused to concede or lose and were on course for an unprecedented Quadruple.
In the League Cup they had beaten Middlesbrough, QPR, Blackburn and Derby to reach the Wembley final against Spurs. In the FA Cup they disposed of Southampton, Spurs and Derby to reach the quarter-finals. And they'd topped a Champions League group including Villarreal, Aalborg and Celtic to reach a knockout tie with Jose Mourinho's Italian champions Internazionale.
The first leg in Milan was goalless, with the former Chelsea manager welcoming Ferguson like an old friend. "He was certainly full of it," related Ferguson, "calling me 'Boss' and 'Big Man'. It would help if his greetings were accompanied by a decent glass of wine – what he gave me was paint-stripper..."
From thinners to champers with a dour scoreless League Cup final decided on a penalty shootout. Once again United were victorious, with the young Man of the Match Ben Foster saving two Spurs penalties after studying iPod footage of the likely takers.
In the FA Cup, Fulham were summarily dismissed 4-0 on their own turf, taking United to a Wembley semi against Everton. The second leg against Inter was decided by a header in the fourth minute of each half – Vidic from a Giggs corner and Ronaldo from a Rooney cross – to give Ferguson his second victory in 14 attempts against Mourinho and take United through to the quarter-finals against Porto.
Next up for Ferguson's apparently unstoppable team was Liverpool at Old Trafford. With United already seven points clear, here was a chance to underline the Red Devils' dominance and virtually end the challenge of Rafa Benitez & Co.
United started brightly with Ronaldo converting a penalty after Pepe Reina brought down Park Ji-Sung. But within five minutes Nemanja Vidic let a long through-ball bounce, allowing the in-form Fernando Torres to nip in and level the scores. Then Patrice Evra’s penalty-area foul on Steven Gerrard allowed the Liverpool skipper to convert from the spot and put the visitors a half-time lead.
United attempted to claw their way back in the second half, but their challenge was over when Vidic was sent off for hauling down Gerrard on the edge of the box, with Fabio Aurelio converting from the resulting free-kick. Andrea Dossena’s lob made it 4-1, as Liverpool closed the gap on United to four points.
A further setback occurred the following week at Fulham, when United lost their second consecutive league game for the first time since 2005. Scholes was shown a red card after 18 minutes when he handled the ball on the line. Former Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy scored from the spot, Zoltan Gera wrapped up the points and Rooney was sent off for a petulant second yellow.
The next day Liverpool hammered Aston Villa 5-0 at home and, after a fortnight's international break, squeaked a 1-0 win at Fulham with a 90th-minute Yossi Benayoun goal to go top of the league. Although United had two games in hand, Ferguson would have recognised something in his rivals' results – alternatively irresistible and unignorable, Liverpool were winning games like champions. Could Benitez lead them to a 20th league title, just as Ferguson had come so close to finally, mathematically knocking them off that perch?
United's answer came the following day against Aston Villa. Ronaldo gave them the lead, but Villa hit back through John Carew and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Ronaldo equalised with 10 minutes to go and after extreme pressure at the Stretford End, young debutant Italian sub Federico Macheda scored in the third minute of injury time to take the champions top again.
Just two days later, United hosted Porto in the Champions League quarter-finals. The visitors went in front within five minutes and, although Rooney equalised, United looked substandard. Tevez scored with five minutes to go but Mariano Gonzalez equalised in the 89th. Once again Porto had come to Old Trafford and silenced the crowd.
In the return leg a week later, Cristiano Ronaldo revelled in his return to Portugal. The former Sporting hero delighted in upsetting his former rivals once again, powering home a 35-yarder in the sixth minute. It was enough: the game flowed but no more goals came and United were through to the semi-final against Arsenal.
Ferguson had an excellent record in semi-finals and his next was that very weekend, against Everton in the FA Cup. Unusually, United lost, a somewhat below-strength side losing on a penalty shoot-out after spot-kicks from Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand were saved by Old Trafford outcast Tim Howard. The Quadruple was off the menu.
Back in the league, Liverpool – who had exited the Champions League after a 4-4 draw against their old foes Chelsea – registered the same extraordinary scoreline at home to Arsenal to go top for 24 hours on goal difference, but it was their last taste of the top. United beat Portsmouth the following night and although Benitez's side won all five of their remaining league games to keep the pressure on, United kept winning theirs too, despite their further adventures in Europe.
In the Champions League semi-final first leg at home to Arsenal they went ahead through John O'Shea but couldn't extend their lead as Arsenal settled for patient possession over penetration. But at the Emirates, United scored two in the first 11 minutes through Park (after a Kieran Gibbs slip) and Ronaldo (with a 40-yard free-kick); in the second half United broke from an Arsenal corner to score through Ronaldo again. Robin van Persie scored a consolation from the spot but United were more concerned that Darren Fletcher had been sent off for the foul on Cesc Fabregas, ruling him out of the final against Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
By now the Catalan side, under Pep Guardiola, were widely regarded as the best team in Europe and Ferguson was keen to wrap up the league as quickly as possible so that he could get his key players rested and prepared for what could be an enthralling contest.
After a 2-0 win over Manchester City at Old Trafford, United needed four points from their last three games. A tetchy 2-1 win against Wigan gave them three, with the remaining point coming in a 0-0 draw against Arsenal, winning yet another league trophy. It was a momentous win, that equalled Liverpool’s record of 18 English titles.
With a week to spare, United rested players for their last league fixture against Hull City, which they won 1-0 thanks to a thunderbolt from emerging Irish midfielder Darron Gibson.
Seeking to become the first manager to retain the Champions League, Ferguson set out to stifle Barcelona, leaving Scholes, Berbatov and Tevez on the bench, playing Park and Rooney on the wings, and PFA Player of the Year Giggs through the middle behind Ronaldo. For the first 10 minutes, it looked like it was a masterstroke, as United got stuck into a nervous Barcelona side.
But once Samuel Eto’o had sauntered past Vidic to fired the ball home at Van der Sar’s near post, United were up against it. Xavi and Andres Iniesta passed them to death as Ferguson's side clearly missing the energy of the suspended Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves, who missed the majority of the season with knee troubles.
Messi's header 20 minutes from time killed the game to give Pep Guardiola his first Champions League title, to go with La Liga and the Spanish Cup (all in his first season). After the game, Ferguson admitted that his side had been outclassed by Barcelona, but vowed to bridge the gap.2008-09: Premier League winners, FA Cup SF, League Cup winners, Champions League finalists, Community Shield winners, Club World Cup winners
After a season or more of speculation, Cristiano Ronaldo finally became a Real Madrid player. Ferguson was an unwilling seller – at one point spitting "You don't think we'd get into a contract with that mob do you? Jesus Christ, I wouldn't sell them a virus" – but accepted the inevitable after United were offered a world record £80m fee for the forward.
Fans and pundits alike wondered where United’s goals would come from, after selling a player who had led the club’s scoring charts for three seasons in a row. Further questions were asked of United’s attacking prowess when Sir Alex passed on the option to buy Carlos Tevez, after his two-year loan spell.
A favourite at Old Trafford who had prompted the fans to regularly chant for Fergie to sign him on – the Argentine turned from hero to villain as he signed for Manchester City (for a reported £47m). Tevez was part of £120m worth of talent brought in during the summer by Mark Hughes, as City flexed their financial muscles.
City were the talk of football, and Ferguson was ready with his tupporth. "They're a small club with a small mentality," he said witheringly. "All they can talk about is Manchester United; they can't get away from it." Pundits were divided as to whether City's wealth of cash could overcome Ferguson's wealth of experience, so it was almost to prove a point that the United manager made a high-profile free signing.
Replacing 26-goal Ronaldo and 15-goal Tevez were a striker who was nearly 30, had struggled for form and fitness in the previous four years, whose side had just been relegated and whose best days were spent at the deadliest of all enemies, Liverpool. But Michael Owen was a worthwhile gamble for Sir Alex. Signed on a pay-as-you-play deal, Owen was a proven goalscorer with bags of experience who wouldn't expect a first-team place. And when had Fergie cared what other people thought?
Also incoming in the summer were Wigan's productive winger Antonio Valencia for £16m, Bordeaux's promising forward Gabriel Obertan and young striker Mame Biram Diouf, although he was immediately loaned back to selling club Molde for the season.
The Community Shield game against Chelsea (now under Carlo Ancelotti) set an entertaining tone, with Nani – expected to step up in the absence of departed compatriot Ronaldo – opening the scoring. Ricardo Carvalho and Frank Lampard put the FA Cup holders in front, but Rooney's injury-time lob took it to a penalty shootout which Chelsea won with ease due to poor efforts from Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra.
A shock early defeat at newly-promoted Burnley was quickly rectified with five straight league wins, including against visiting rivals Arsenal and Man City. In the former, Arsene Wenger ws so incensed by the disallowing of a late goal that he was sent to a stand full of crowing locals, while the derby was particularly pulsating, a 4-3 cracker won in the sixth minute of overtime by Michael Owen's first goal for the club.
In the press conference after the City win, Ferguson came out with another soundbite which would be endlessly repeated. "You know when you've got a noisy neighbour and they keep the radio on all the time? You can complain to the council, you can bang on the wall, you can go to their door, but they still keep the music on. So what do you do? You get used to it."
The winning run came to the end at Anfield, where Ferguson looked to get one over on an under-pressure Rafael Benitez, who had lost his last four games. The game came to life with 15 minutes left when Fernando Torres put Liverpool ahead after speeding past Vidic and Ferdinand. Vidic and Javier Mascherano were both red-carded in injury time before Liverpool sub David N’Gog sealed a 2-0 win in the sixth minute of injury time.
Further disappointment followed two games later, as United lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, courtesy of a goal from John Terry 15 minutes from time, dropping them down to third.
Ferguson was hampered by injuries to his centre-back partnership of Ferdinand and Vidic, as well as the long-term absence of Edwin van der Sar. At least Rooney was flourishing: in the absence of Ronaldo and Tevez he was leading the line and loving it, well on the way to his to a personal best goal-haul.
The New Year started with great jubilation at Old Trafford, but in the away end as fans of bitter rivals Leeds United celebrated a 1-0 FA Cup shock, their first win there since 1981. It was the home side's first Third Round exit since 1984, before the era of Alex Ferguson.
Just over a fortnight later, there was more cup anguish for United as they lost to Manchester City in the League Cup – but only in the first leg of the semi-final, 2-1 at Eastlands. Carlos Tevez scored both City's goals, celebrating in front of the United bench, following typically confrontational comments from Gary Neville before the game.
In the return leg a week later, United went 2-0 up through Scholes and Carrick. But five minutes later, Tevez nipped ahead of Ferdinand to level the game on aggregate and away goals. With extra-time looming, Wayne Rooney – who had bagged four goals in the intervening league game against Hull – grabbed the winner from a Giggs cross in the second minute of time added on. Once again, City had been beaten 4-3 at the death by their neighbours.
Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to have the jinx over City and looked to be timing his charge for a historic 19th title just right. United went straight from the City semi to the Emirates, where Nani inspired a 3-1 win against Arsenal.
Having once again negotiated the Champions League group, United travelled to an ageing AC Milan featured LA Galaxy loanee David Beckham. After starting sloppily with Ronaldinho giving Milan the lead inside three minutes, United gained control with a Scholes leveller and a second-half Rooney brace, despite Seedorf's late consolation.
That weekend, United lost at Everton and Chelsea win at Wolves meant United trailed the Stamford Bridge set by four points. They kept the pressure on by winning a midweeker against West Ham while Chelsea were busy losing to Inter Milan in the Champions League.
Then came a small piece of history as United successfully defended a domestic cup for the first time. In truth United were slightly lucky to beat Aston Villa, who complained that Vidic should have seen red for the tackle that gave away an early penalty. James Milner's conversion was quickly cancelled out by Owen and Rooney’s 74th-minute header sealed the trophy.
The media story ahead of United’s second leg against AC Milan was the return of David Beckham to Old Trafford. By the time he came on to a thunderous (and emotionally received) welcome, Milan were all but out at 3-0 down on the night, and Fletcher's late finish made it a resounding 7-2 on aggregate. Still, Beckham made the headlines by picking up and wearing a yellow and green scarf as a show of support for the fans disillusioned by the Glazers’ ownership of the club.
The two legs of the quarter-final against Bayern Munich sandwiched the key league visit of Chelsea. United got off to a flying start in Munich, with Wayne Rooney getting on the score-sheet after 66 seconds. United dropped deep to defend their lead, but a deflected Franck Ribery free-kick after 77 minutes was followed by an injury-time winner by Ivica Olic.
Worse still, in the build-up to the winner the effervescent Rooney turned his ankle, limping off the pitch. A scan revealed that Rooney had suffered some ligament damage and could miss the rest of the season – and certainly United’s summit meeting with Chelsea that weekend.The champions were a point clear of the visitors at kick-off but Carlo Ancelotti's team deserved the win. Joe Cole's back-heel put them in front and Didier Drogba's offside goal clinched it, and although Federico Macheda bundled home an injury-time consolation, the game was lost.
Drogba's goal had Ferguson on the offensive. "That's twice we've been beaten by refereeing decisions: it happened at Stamford Bridge as well. The linesman is right in front of Drogba and he gets it wrong. It was a poor, poor performance from the officials in a game of this magnitude. The quality of the officials has cost us, though I must admit we looked leggy in the first half and Chelsea were by far the better team. They have got to be favourites now, Chelsea are in the driving seat. We can win all our remaining five games and we still won't win the title if Chelsea win theirs."
Chelsea now had a two-point lead, and United’s league and Champions League dreams were in the balance. By the end of the week, the latter was gone after an incident-packed second leg against Bayern.
Surprise selection Wayne Rooney set up Darron Gibson for the opening goal after just three minutes. Four minutes later, Nani put United ahead on aggregate, and four minutes before half-time, he made it 4-2. But on the stroke of half-time, Ivica Olic took advantage of sloppy defending to bundle home. Louis van Gaal’s side had hope, which grew early in the second half when right-back Rafael was sent off for a second yellow card for a foul on Ribery.
A heavily limping Rooney was replaced by John O’Shea, but in the 75th minute Arjen Robben rifled in a magnificent volley from a Ribery corner to send Bayern Munich through on away goals. Clearly angered by their exit, Ferguson slammed the behaviour of the Munich Bayern players in the lead up to Rafael’s red.
"They were never getting through that tie; with 11 men we had no problem," Fergie fumed. "The young boy showed a bit of inexperience but they got him sent off. Everyone sprinted towards the referee – typical Germans."
That weekend, stalemate at Blackburn meant United lost ground to Chelsea, and they looked in danger of falling further behind before a 93rd-minute Paul Scholes header grabbed a win at Manchester City away – their third derby victory out in four games.
Going into the final game, United had to beat Stoke and hope that Wigan could hold Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. That quickly became exposed as a pipe-dream as the Latics lost 8-0, rendering United's 4-0 win redundant and hoisting the new champions to a record-breaking 103 goals.
After three successive Premier League titles (and two successive Champions League finals), United fans had little to celebrate bar the consolation of the League Cup. True, in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney had stepped up to the plate with 34 goals, helping him claim the double personal title of PFA Players' Player of the Year and Football Writers' Footballer of the Year.
However, during Rooney's own absence through injury, nobody else could help United maintain their standards – or those set by their rivals, including a Chelsea side resurgent under wily old Ancelotti. And off the field, the protests against the Glazers gathered steam, after loan re-financing reveal the huge burden of debt that had been laid upon the club.2009-10: Premier League 2nd, FA Cup R3, League Cup winners, Champions League QF, Community Shield winners
The first three month of April were brilliant for Wayne Rooney. He bagged 19 (!) goals, including the one that won the League Cup; he was the main man in a United team chasing domestic and European glory; and he was looking forward to proving his worth at the World Cup in South Africa.
Then he got injured, United lost their mojo and England lost the plot. He returned to the UK under a massive cloud that would only thicken as the press revelled in his private problems.
At least he would have a new strike partner to play with, as Mexico's brilliant young Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez arrived. He scored as United got off to a decent start with a convincing Community Shield win over Chelsea, but the free-flowing nature of United’s play that day would not be reflected in the coming season. Ferguson's team were solid rather than spectacular, unmovable rather than irresistible, as they equalled the club record run of 29 matches unbeaten.
Of course, United could never be boring, and there were highlights as Ferguson drove his side relentlessly on toward the 19th title that would finally knock Liverpool off their perch. For starters, in September they allowed Liverpool to come back from two goals down at Old Trafford before Dimitar Berbatov completed a superb hat-trick for a 3-2 win.
For much of the previous year the Bulgarian had been cutting a frustrated figure on United’s bench while Ferguson preferred Rooney as his lone striker, but the roles changed as Berbatov benefited from Rooney’s injury, poor form – and entirely unwelcome headline-grabbing.
In mid-October, the football world was astonished at a growing row between Rooney and United. After claim and counter-claim about his ankle trouble escalated, a “dumbfounded” Ferguson confirmed that the forward wanted to leave Old Trafford.
Worse was to follow when the noisy neighbours got involved. Stories appreared claiming that Rooney would be perfectly happy to move to Manchester City, who in turn were only too happy to pay him a mind-boggling wage, starting by buying out his contract in January.
Trying to come to terms with the possible defection, Ferguson sought refuge in farming analogies. "Sometimes you look in a field and see a cow, and you think it's a better cow than you've got in your own field. And it never really works out that way. It's probably the same cow, or not even as good as your own cow."
But while Ferguson engaged in cattle chat, Rooney's representatives were talking turkey with United's paymasters, and three days later he signed a five-year deal said to be worth up to £250,000 a week. "I think Wayne now understands what a great club Manchester United is," Ferguson says. "I'm pleased he has accepted the challenge to guide the younger players and establish himself as one of United's great players."
First, he'd have to re-establish himself in the team. Hernandez was quickly building his own reputation, making his mark at Stoke with a brace including a brilliantly improvised backwards header, while Berbatov bagged five in a 7-1 rout of Blackburn that sent United top for the first time.
The Bulgarian was already in double figures before Rooney broke his Premier League duck on New Year's Day. And by that time, Ferguson had become the longest-serving manager in Manchester United’s history, overtaking Sir Matt Busby’s record of 24 years, 1 month and 13 days in charge of the club.
In accordance with tradition, United started the calendar year chasing several trophies at once. Although they had lost the League Cup in a 4-0 rout at West Ham, they walked a Champions League group of Rangers, Valencia and Bursaspor to be drawn against Marseille in the first knockout round.
Meanwhile, the FA Cup trail started with a 1-0 win against Liverpool – now back under Ferguson's old rival Kenny Dalglish – and continued with wins against Southampton and non-league Crawley Town in the next rounds to reach a quarter-final with Arsenal.
In between the cup wins came the season's first league loss, at a Wolves side who seemed to have the knack of beating the big clubs, if not the lesser ones, but United got the chance to bounce back the next week in the Manchester derby. An away win would take City within two points of the leaders; could the noisy neighbours be unwelcome guests?
Nani put United ahead, latching onto Giggs’ through ball to finish with aplomb. The Portuguese winger had started to come into his own, taking on extra responsibility as one of United’s key players. But his goal was cancelled out when an effort from Edin Dzeko deflected off David Silva and went in. Enter the under-fire Wayne Rooney, whose brilliantly instinctive but expertly taken overhead kick won the match for United against the tam he might have joined.
Still United looked unconvincing. After a shaky 0-0 in Marseille, United hammered Wigan 4-0 but the game was most notable for an elbow-led barge on James McCarthy by Rooney which went unpunished.
That left him free to open the scoring at Chelsea, but the hosts came back to win through David Luiz and a Frank Lampard penalty. An injury-time red card for Vidic ruled him out of the trip to Liverpool, who dominated a niggly game 3-1 with a Dirk Kuyt hat-trick.
United were now just three points clear of Arsenal, whom they hosted in the FA Cup Sixth Round. A somewhat odd line-up featured seven natural defenders, including the Da Silva twins as wingers – but it worked as Fabio opened the scoring and Rooney completed the job.
It completed a nightmare fortnight for the Gunners, who had lost the League Cup final to Birmingham and been beaten by Barcelona in the Champions League. United, on the other hand, put paid to Marseille with two Hernandez finishes; a Wes Brown own goal made things tense but the home side hung on to book a quarter-final date with Chelsea.
Berbatov's late goal beat battling Bolton before a noteworthy game at Upton Park. Losing at half-time to two Mark Noble penalties, Ferguson shuffled his pack and Rooney bagged a hat-trick before Hernandez capped a 4-2 win. However, Rooney's celebration of his third goal led to an FA charge for abusive language and a two-game ban, including United’s hotly-anticipated FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City.
First, though, Europe and Chelsea. Rooney's goal gave United their first win at Stamford Bridge in nine years, and United quickly controlled the second leg with a Hernandez tap-in. Ramires' red card seemed to seal it and though Drogba got one back, Park scored within a minute and United were through to face Schalke in the semis.
Speaking of which, it was now off to Wembley for the FA Cup date with Man City. After controlling the first half, City took the lead through Yaya Toure and United were in trouble from then on, not helped when Paul Scholes saw red after a wild challenge on Pablo Zabaleta.
Concentrating once again on the League-and-Champions-League double, United gathered four points from Newcastle and Everton before taking command of the European semi with a confident 2-0 win at Schalke. Rooney set up Giggs before scoring himself and only Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer kept the score respectable.
A 1-0 loss at Arsenal meant Chelsea were only three points behind with three games left – the first being an Old Trafford clash with Carlo Ancelotti's team. With that firmly in mind, Ferguson chose what many saw as a weakened team in the second leg against Schalke; it was still strong enough to win 4-1 on the night, with goals from Antonio Valencia, Darron Gibson and a late brace from emerging Brazilian midfielder Anderson, setting up a Wembley final with Barcelona.
Playing the shadow squad allowed a thoroughly rested United side featuring eight changes to completely dominate the first 45 minutes against Chelsea. Javier Hernandez scored the 20th goal of his debut season after just 36 seconds. Nemanja Vidic doubled the lead, and though Frank Lampard pulled one back against the run of play, the game ended 2-1.
United needed just a point from their remaining two games, and it was secured at Blackburn. Number 19 was theirs; Manchester United had broken the English League title record, surpassing Liverpool’s record of 18 titles.
"It was a long day, it was agony at times, but we got there in the end," Sir Alex Ferguson said. "I was a bit disappointed in the performance, to be honest, but I'm not particularly bothered by that. It is a great achievement to win a 19th title."
In the build-up to the Wembley showdown with Barcelona, almost undisputedly the best team in Europe, the question was what United had learned in the last two years since their chastening 2-0 defeat to the same opposition in Rome.
Certainly United put up a fight. Once again Barcelona went in front (through Pedro) and dominated midfield possession, but Rooney equalised, even if it was against the run of play. However, in the second half, Barcelona stepped it up a gear and the superlative Lionel Messi restored their lead from distance before a brilliant David Villa goal gave Barcelona their fourth European Cup.
Some scrutinised Sir Alex’s selection and questioned the omission of top scorer Dimitar Berbatov, but Ferguson refused to give any excuses. "Nobody's given us a hiding like that but they deserve it," he said.
"They play the right way and they enjoy their football. They do mesmerise you with their passing and we never really did control Messi. But many people have said that. In my time as manager, it's the best team I've faced."
The final ended the illustrious careers of Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes, who pulled down the curtain on a first-team career spanning 17 years and 676 games.
"What more can I say about Paul Scholes that I haven't said before?" said Ferguson. "We are going to miss a truly unbelievable player. Paul has always been fully committed to this club and I am delighted he will be joining the coaching staff. Paul has always been inspirational to players of all ages and we know that will continue."
2010-11: Premier League winners, FA Cup SF, League Cup R5, Champions League finalists, Community Shield winners
And so Sir Alex Ferguson once more started to dismantle and rebuild. Following Van der Sar and Scholes (and Gary Neville, who had retired in the spring) out of the door were Owen Hargreaves, John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Gabriel Obertan.
In came youth. Ferguson spent big on Aston Villa's England winger Ashley Young, Blackburn’s highly-rated defender Phil Jones and young Spanish keeper David de Gea.
Ferguson also seemed to want a top-class midfield creator. Inter’s Wesley Sneijder, Tottenham’s Luka Modric and Arsenal’s Samir Nasri were considered, but the first two stayed put and Man City, who could now offer Champions League football, beat United to Nasri's signature in a telling shift of transfer-market power.
United faced FA Cup winners City in the Community Shield, and it was the noisy neighbours who took a two-goal half-time lead through Joleon Lescott and Edin Dzeko. But young defender Chris Smalling reduced the deficit, and Nani finished an excellent passing move involving Wayne Rooney and youth-team product Tom Cleverley to level. And in injury time, Nani pounced on an error to round Joe Hart and slide the ball into an empty net. Plus ça change, plus ça même chose, as Eric Cantona might have put it.
Indeed, United's future looks full of goals and youthful enthusiasm, with all its inherent fallibilities. A young side is conceding 20 shots per game yet still winning, with astonishing results like 8-2 against Arsenal and 5-0 against Bolton.
Ferguson will always trust in youth, but he may well be facing his biggest challenge yet on his own doorstep. He's seen some alleged sea-changes before – many said United were finished after the 5-0 loss at St James' Park, while there were times when Chelsea and Arsenal held the upper hand – but October's 6-1 home loss to Man City was shocking by any standards.
Ferguson declared it his “worst ever day”, but is as defiant as ever. "We'll come back," he said. "We will react, no question about that. It's a perfect result for us to react to because there is a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room and that will make an impact.”
After 25 years of almost unparalleled success, you wouldn't bet against him.
Next week: The Perfect XI for Ferguson's full 25 years. Who would you pick?
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