Ferguson came from Aberdeen to greet a team in decline—a beloved behemoth, shackled by inefficiencies and bloated from two decades dining out on past glories. This was Manchester United, but not as you know it today.
The 44-year-old Ferguson, with his fiery will and absolute self-belief, was cast as the man to spark a revolution. He had broken the Old Firm duopoly in Scotland and done so purveying an attacking style that appeared to fit United's romantic tradition.
History watched over his shoulder. Sir Matt Busby's great team of Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton, risen from the tragedy of the Munich air disaster in 1958 to conquer Europe a decade later, had given United to the world. Their legacy deserved better than the 1970s and '80s teams in red who occasionally won the FA Cup and were once relegated.
Ferguson understood that completely, but it wouldn't be easy.
He set to work at Old Trafford at a time when United's big-name players were still big drinkers, when fans stood on the terraces and football grounds were concrete ruins. There was no Singha beer at United back then, no megastore for tourists to rummage through, no fan park in which to watch games.
Foreign players were a novelty; you could pass back to the goalkeeper; Liverpool were in the midst of a dynasty. There was no Premier League, no Champions League and no Internet. You were lucky if your team were on television more than once a month.
These were the days of Panini sticker books, annuals and players with mullets.
The football world Ferguson will walk away from on May 19, after his 1,500th and final game in charge at United, has been transformed during his 27 years at the club and is barely recognisable from the one in which he began his reign.
Ferguson has been United manager through many eras, yet somehow he has adapted to all of them. He's known many players, but somehow he's been able to relate to all of them—well, nearly all of them.
He's built and rebuilt and stood up to many challenges. From Liverpool, to Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and all those between, Ferguson has faced many foes. Some have bettered him, but never for long.
Ferguson's haul of 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cup wins, four League Cups, two European titles and a Cup Winners' Cup will never be matched. He will be remembered as the greatest manager football has known, and his years at United have long since eclipsed the feats of Busby before him.
How did he make it last? Aside from his obvious leadership credentials, perhaps Ferguson's most telling talent has been his sense of when to initiate change. His stubborn reputation belies a flexibility that has allowed him to re-imagine his United team over and over again.
From blooding the Fergie Fledgings in 1995, to altering his approach to win the 2008 Champions League, to shifting his tactics to keep up with Europe's finest in this very season, Ferguson has never let time catch up with him.
Along the way, he's managed to get the very best out of more players than we have time to mention. Eric Cantona was the maverick he made a messiah; David Beckham a precocious teenager who left as the most famous footballer on the planet; Cristiano Ronaldo a raw talent who walked away a world beater.
Those are just a few of many. All were very different personalities, with very different needs, but Ferguson found a way to build rapport and inspire them.
With such small margins between success and failure, Ferguson's capacity to relate to his players—regardless of their age, personality or nationality—is testament to his remarkable man management and has played a major role in achieving the feats he has at United.
He leaves the United dugout having done more for one team than any manager in history. The team he took over in turmoil, languishing at the foot of the First Division table, are champions for the 13th time on his watch and instilled with the same winning mentality and sense of tradition he brought to the breakthrough class of 1992-93.
It won't be easy for the man who follows him (be it David Moyes or otherwise), but whoever it is will get a far better start than Ferguson did in 1986.
Ferguson's success goes far beyond what we see on the pitch. It has leveraged United's aggressive global expansion, and an estimated 659 million fans worldwide would not have been possible without the allure of a team in the ascendancy.
It was never about the business for Ferguson though. All he ever cared about was staying true to United's ethos, continuing Sir Matt's proud tradition and putting United back where they belonged at the end of the 1960s.
Suffice to say, he's done that and more.
Order Life with Sir Alex, Will Tidey's book charting Ferguson's time at United