The 10 Transfers That Defined Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United Tenure
This list can only feature 10 of the 99 signings made by Sir Alex Ferguson during his remarkable career at Manchester United. By necessity, wonderful players who have made an enormous contribution to the club will be left off the list.
The criteria for making the selection come from a desire to represent the span of Sir Alex’s career; players from all his great teams are included. Personal preference certainly comes into it, too—I thought for all of three seconds before deciding on the No. 1 spot, for example.
Not every signing was wonderful, and I did give some consideration to including either Eric Djemba-Djemba or Bebe as signings which demonstrate that Fergie was fallible.
Ultimately, there are too many wonderful players to celebrate to waste a place on the list with criticism.
No. 10: Robin Van Persie
Robin van Persie is the defining reason that Fergie’s retirement took place in a haze of flag waving and triumph. The open-top bus parade showed just how much hunger there was in the red half of Manchester to overturn the painful loss of the title to Manchester City.
It is hard to imagine that would have been the case were it not for the signing of van Persie. So often last season, as United wobbled, van Persie came to the rescue.
Van Persie was taken to heart almost immediately. Announcing that "the little boy inside him" was screaming for United, appearing to choose history, glamour and the chance to work with Sir Alex over offers from Juventus and the interest of Manchester City, van Persie felt like a Red almost instantly.
Repeatedly singing the praises of his United teammates, “unbelievable” became his watchword as he marvelled at the talent around him.
It is unfortunate for him that he only had one season with Sir Alex. In his autobiography, Ferguson apologises to RVP, but claims that he did not lie to the Dutchman and that he genuinely had no plans to retire when he assured van Persie of his plans to remain at the club.
But in ensuring Ferguson’s time at United ended with celebration, the signing of van Persie rates as one of Ferguson’s greatest.
No. 9: Rio Ferdinand
Rio Ferdinand cost a phenomenal amount of money. He was purchased in the pre-Glazer spate of transfers which saw United’s transfer record broken three times in two years. It would not be broken again for a further six years.
It was a coin flip between Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic on this list—the two central defenders whose wonderful partnership formed the bedrock of Ferguson’s last great side. Ferdinand gets on the list, firstly, because I think he’s a very slightly better player than Vidic. Secondly, his transfer represents something deeper—a time when United were competing at the very top table in the world football transfer market.
Ferdinand was excellent in the 2002 World Cup and had been a fine player for Leeds United and West Ham United before that, but it was at United that the sobriquet, shared by everyone on this list, of “world class” was truly earned.
Gifted and calm in possession and a wonderful reader of the game, Ferdinand is also underrated as a leader. He has spent a career making whoever he played alongside play better.
Whilst his time at United may be coming to an end and whilst some fans may resent his relentless marketing of hats with a number on them, Ferdinand’s place in the pantheon of the greats has been earned on the pitch, and his achievements speak for themselves.
No. 8: Denis Irwin
Equally comfortable on either flank, decent from attacking set pieces, and a magnificent defender, the understated Irishman was an incredibly dependable servant of the club.
Winning seven Premier League titles, Irwin was also the only player in the starting line-up of the 1999 Champions League final who had played in the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1991.
One of the best value-for-money buys in the history of football, one of the most decorated players in history, he was easily one of Sir Alex’s defining signings.
Sir Alex related a story that sums up his feelings about Irwin:
At Highbury in one game, he had a bad pass back in the last minute and [Dennis] Bergkamp came in and scored. After the game the press said: 'You must be disappointed in that pass back.' I said: 'Well, one mistake in 10 years isn't bad.' He was an unbelievable player.
No. 7: Ruud Van Nistelrooy
Ahem. Sorry. That’s a Pavlovian response to hearing the man’s name. Because as soon as I think of his name, I picture him scoring goals.
He loved a goal, did Ruud van Nistelrooy. With 150 goals in 219 appearances, it is still not entirely clear whether van Nistelrooy needs standard food, air and water to survive or if goals did the job.
His time at United coincided with a relative lack of success. Robin van Persie is the only other man on this list with only one Premier League title, but he only had one crack at it.
Van Nistelrooy was the best player in a team in transition. The irony that his departure was coincided with the emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the player who would help lift United to greatness again, is that Ruud never got to be part of a really great team.
Which is a shame because he was a really great player.
No. 6: Edwin Van Der Sar
Replacing Peter Schmeichel was perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest challenge in the transfer market. Many were called, but only one was chosen.
The Dutchman, in goal for most of his career at United behind Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, provided a calm, assured presence which formed the base of the spine of Sir Alex’s last great team. Playing in three Champions League finals and winning one, no conversation about who United’s greatest ever goalkeeper has been is complete without reference to van der Sar.
A staggering level of confidence, rebuilt from a difficult time at Juventus earlier in his career, van der Sar is a signing that instantly made sense—that instantly felt right. “Of course he’s our goalkeeper. Why did we let him spend so long on loan at Fulham?"
Fortunately, Sir Alex learned from his mistakes in replacing Schmeichel, and the replacement for van der Sar has, barring a few initial wobbles, been a much smoother transition. Perhaps David de Gea will go down in history as one of Ferguson’s great signings too.
No. 5: Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney is a football genius. In many ways, it is a shame that he does not belong further up this list.
The teenager who arrived from Everton with the world at his feet and a nation’s expectations on his shoulder has found the burden a heavy one to carry. A transfer request in 2010, a final, irreconcilable falling out with Ferguson in 2013, and Rooney’s reputation amongst fans as a United legend is tarnished.
Whilst the flashes of genius still show themselves, the player who appeared completely unafraid on the football pitch does not show himself as often as he once did. But it is a testament to his impact on Manchester United over the past decade that as I write this I feel I have to justify why he is not further up this list.
If the rumours from BBC Sport (h/t Bleacher Report's Tim Daniels) about Rooney signing a contract extension are true, then there is every chance he will end his United career as the top scorer in the club’s history. It is hard to argue that is not definitive.
No. 4: Peter Schmeichel
It is hard to put the effect of Peter Schmeichel’s presence into words. Like Gandalf bellowing, "You shall not pass" at Tolkien’s Balrog, he yelled and screamed and star-jumped his way into the history books as one of the great goalkeepers of all time. Like the Balrog, occasionally one got through, but there were times when it seemed like one never would.
A game against Newcastle springs to mind: In the “I would love it if we beat them” season, at St. James' Park, with United under, Schmeichel allowed Cantona’s winner to count for all three points.
Constantly corralling his defenders, much to their occasional annoyance, his teammates no doubt appreciated his results, if not his methods. He also contributed to United’s devastating counterattacking style, launching long throws half the length of the pitch into the onrushing paths of Giggs or Beckham.
From 1991 to 1999, Sir Alex did not have to worry about the base of the spine of the side. In Schmeichel’s time at United, he won five league titles, three FA Cups and a Champions League, and he was instrumental in each of those triumphs. He is the best goalkeeper I have ever seen and easily one of Sir Alex’s finest signings.
No. 3: Cristiano Ronaldo
If he was still at the club he would be No. 1 on this list. Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player Sir Alex Ferguson has ever signed, but that his absolute peak has been spent elsewhere means others earn the top two spots.
However, for a player who wasn’t ever at his peak with United, he wasn’t half bad. Winning the Ballon d’Or in 2008, having scored approximately 337 goals in a season (I may have the numbers slightly wrong), Ronaldo is simply the most destructive player ever to grace the Old Trafford stage.
A force of nature, the kid with all the tricks who turned himself into the T-1000, unstoppable, devastatingly quick, a blur of step-overs and lots and lots and lots of goals.
His name is still sung at Old Trafford, unusual for a player who so vociferously appealed to be set free from the cruel shackles of Manchester United.
However, having seen him in action, no one can really be surprised that United fans are prepared to forgive and forget that bit because the contribution blurs the bad memories in a haze of euphoric recall.
United struggled, in relative terms, in the early period of Ronaldo's career with the club. It took three years for him to get his first league winners medal. He clearly enjoyed it, however, as United went on to win three in a row and added European glory in 2008.
Ronaldo was the star man in a magnificent team. He made telling contribution after telling contribution. When Manchester United won the European Cup in 1999 they were probably the best team in Europe.
When they won it in 2008 there was no probably about it, and that was in no small part due to Ronnie’s superhuman efforts.
No. 2: Roy Keane
Sir Alex Ferguson has only signed one alter-ego. One man who could match his own fierce and driven will to win. A leader of men, capable of stirring magnificent effort from those around him.
Keane was Robert De Niro to Ferguson’s Martin Scorsese, or perhaps more aptly, Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden to Edward Norton’s narrator in Fight Club. The first rule of Keano, for Sir Alex Ferguson, is you do not say anything nice about Keano.
It is sad but somehow inevitable that they would turn their guns on each other. You can’t put two men who want to win that much in such close proximity to each other for that long without an implosion.
They now stand like a Jedi Knight and his former apprentice, arguing over which of them has turned to the dark side.
However, how the story ended is not the part of this particular narrative I am here to focus on. I come to praise Keano and Fergie, not to bury them. Once upon a time, their relationship functioned to engender fierce loyalty and exceptional determination.
In Keane’s autobiography, he expressed a wish that the performance in 1999 in Turin will not be remembered as the high point of his career. Well, sorry, Roy, but you shouldn’t have set such an impossibly high bar.
Football is a team sport, but sometimes an individual embodies the team, and in return the team finds itself embodying him. And it happened on the day that Roy Keane dragged Manchester United, kicking and screaming, past the might of Juventus and into the Champions League final.
That he was unable to play in that final is agonisingly fitting, for Roy Keane is a complex and tragic hero, and things can never be easy for him.
Ferguson signing Roy Keane was the beginning of something magical, but perhaps the kind of magic that should be spelled with a "K" to bring an extra hint of darkness and mystery.
Seven Premier Leagues. Four FA Cups. A Champions League. The steel of the ’94 side, blended seamlessly with the silk of ’99. “Roy Keane with a captain’s goal," as the famous commentary from Turin goes.
Roy Keane with a captain’s career, as his United epitaph should read.
No. 1: Eric Cantona
Excuse me. I need a moment. I’ve got goosebumps.
Viva Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager who simply did not know how to get what was inside Eric to show itself on the pitch. A fateful telephone call from Bill Fotherby, Leeds’ chairman, attempting to sign Denis Irwin from United, led to Sir Alex—or plain old Alex, as he was then—enquiring about the availability of Eric Cantona.
Reaction to his signing was mixed. However, Eric was soon to be hailed as the King of the Stretford End, the first to be honoured with a monarchical position since Denis Law.
And it was no surprise that he was hailed. Cantona made an instant impact as United marched to their first league title in his first season at the club, their first for 26 years. Four titles in five years, including the “you’ll never win anything with kids” 1995-96 season.
In the recent Class of ’92 documentary, Paul Scholes says Hansen was right, and the kids would have won nothing without Eric.
Cantona is at the head of this list because he was the catalyst. The alchemical ingredient which proved to have been the missing link. The Class of '92 looked at Eric in awe and worked harder every day to try and be as good as he was.
Cantona got United. United got Cantona. Seemingly at home in the city and certainly at home at Old Trafford, Eric Cantona lit up the "Theatre of Dreams" and made that nickname seem a little less ridiculous.
I will leave the last word on this to my podcast co-host, Ed Barker, the editor of United Rant. He ran into Eric in a jazz club in Rio De Janiero last year (because where else would you run into Eric Cantona?). Finding words difficult to come by, Ed settled on "Thank you. You brought me more pleasure on the pitch than any other player I've seen."
I think Ed speaks for many of us. Merci, Eric.
And thanks, Sir Alex, for bringing him to the party.