Manchester United Five of the Best: Fergie's Last Laugh

nigel smithCorrespondent IFebruary 14, 2010

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Sir Alex Ferguson manager of Manchester United looks on during the UEFA Champions League group B match between CSKA Moscow and Manchester United at the Pat Luzhniki Stadium on October 21, 2009 in Moscow, Russia.  (Photo by Dmitry Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)
Dmitry Korotayev/Getty Images

When the eulogies are written about Sir Alex's management of United, they will focus primarily on his kleptomanic accumulation of trophies.

There should also be acknowledgement that Ferguson, the master of his trade, is also a serial slayer of his critics.

Time and again, Fergie has stared down the gods of outrageous mischief, to steer his team to another triumph, leaving dissenters open-mouthed in amazement,

Success and longevity have given the manager the respect of his peers, the admiration of his enemies and immunity from the consequences of criticism.

It is said that he who laughs last, laughs longest. Sir Alex's mocking disdain for the judgment of pundits and fans alike will echo down the ages.

Here's five moments to savour in the Ferguson canon of two-fingered salutes to his detractors.

1) St. Mirren’s Folly

Ferguson was installed as part-time manager at East Stirlingshire at the age of 32. His potential was soon spotted and Ferguson moved on to St. Mirren, where he was quick to sprinkle his stardust and fashion a winning team.
However, in 1978, Ferguson was sacked by the club after four years. A bitterly contested tribunal case followed once the rejected manager sued for wrongful dismissal. 

St. Mirren’s chairman, Willie Todd, entered the public record as the man who declared allegedly that Ferguson had "no managerial ability."


More than 30 years later, Sir Alex can look back on an astonishing record of success in two leagues. At United, he has won every competition that club football has to offer.

Poor Willie Todd! He now stands alongside the Decca record company executive who in 1962 auditioned the Beatles only to reject the group claiming it “had no future in show business!”


2) Triumph Of 'The Odious, The Inadequate And The Expensive '

The Guardian’s Rob Smyth is a talented football journalist who loves United as much as he loves the game.

But as a pundit, Smyth's judgment will always be questioned after he authored an infamous tract criticising Sir Alex and his team on the eve of the 2006-07 season.

United hadn’t won the title for three years. The team had been humiliated in Europe, finishing at the bottom of its Champions League Group in December 2005. Key players like Keane and Scholes were fading. The football was stodgy. Fans were restive.

Smyth’s piece thus mined a rich seam of general disquiet.

“Almost everything about the club reeks of disarray,” he thundered, before deriding Sir Alex as a “manager who shreds his legacy at every turn.”

Smyth then moved on to butchering the United squad, which he claimed was “almost exclusively represented by the inadequate (Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson) and the odious (Rio Ferdinand).

“The signing of Michael Carrick, a Pirlo when a Gattuso was needed, is a band aid for a bullet wound, and a ludicrously expensive one at that.”

Smyth was only just warming up.

“The problems are so obvious, so fundamental, as to beggar belief that they have not been addressed,” he continued. “These days, the man they call The Hairdryer is full of nothing but hot air.”

The hack’s conclusion left no-one in doubt that in Smyth's view, United's fortunes were inexorably heading south.

“Ferguson, an essentially honourable man, is partly suffering because of the impossibly high standards he set, and he carries the fatigued incomprehension of a man who is out of time.

“It is an increasingly inescapable conclusion that, unwittingly or otherwise, Ferguson is winding down, a prizefighter who no longer has the stomach or the wit for an admittedly enormous challenge.”

With the press corps forming a firing squad and many fans quietly echoing Smyth’s assertion that Ferguson was past his sell-by date, the manager did not lack for motivation as the season began.

Not for the first time in his career, Ferguson came out fighting. The odious, the inadequate, and the expensive shared the manager’s appetite for the battles ahead.

Playing some of the best football since the glorious period of 1998–2001, United toppled the dominant Chelsea to claim the Premiership title.

To be fair, Smyth was gracious enough to offer the mother of mea culpas to Ferguson with an apology published by his newspaper at the season's end.

“He’s done it again,” he wrote. “Written off criminally at the start of the season, particularly by, errrr, me, Sir Alex Ferguson has proved his greatness once more, this time by taking on the financial might of Chelsea and emerging victorious.”

3) 1996!

As football seasons go, nothing should give Sir Alex more pleasure than the August 1995 – May 1996 campaign.

Of course, the Treble Year was an unforgettable high octane adrenaline rush. But for the sheer theatre of punching the pundit in the face with bursts of thrilling football, ramming his words down his throat, and then watching him beg for understanding, United’s second Double year is unmatchable.

It began inauspiciously. United’s close–season of the long knives had seen the departure of three first-team stalwarts and the elevation of a golden crop of youngsters.

The Manchester Evening News, a famously cautious journal, was worried and ran a poll inquiring whether the manager should be sacked.

A 3-1 reverse at Villa Park added to the tension and had the media publishing United’s obituary.

Television pundit Alan Hansen offered the opinion that "you'll never win anything with kids." He was right, of course, as Arsenal fans may now recognise but not then.

Only the quality of Hansen’s punditry and his steadfast refusal to adopt the bland, sit on the fence disposition of the standard football analyst has saved his TV career.

The 1995-96 season is also remembered as the year that Eric Cantona returned to United’s colours after serving a nine-month ban for his ‘kung-fu’ assault on an oafish Crystal Palace fan.

There had been much speculation that Cantona would abandon English football when the suspension came to an end. Indeed, United were under enormous pressure to make an example of their French striker.

The Football Association’s Chief Executive at the time, Graham Kelly, described the attack as "a stain on our game" that brought “shame on football.”

The reaction of legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough was typically blunt.

"I'd have cut his balls off," Clough announced.

The press was unanimous in its condemnation too. The Independent summed up the general mood when it wrote of “the strength of demands for them [United] to rid themselves of the turbulent Frenchman who launched himself at a supporter, kicking him kung-fu style in the chest before landing punches as frightened women and children looked on.”

Ever the United servant, Ferguson turned a deaf ear to the complainants. He noted that the previous season, with Cantona absent for half the campaign, United lost the league to Blackburn by a single point. There would surely be a different outcome if Cantona could be restored to peak performance.

From there, it was easy for Sir Alex to cut Cantona some slack.

"I don't think any player in the history of football will get the sentence he got unless they had killed Bert Millichip's [the FA chairman] dog. When someone is doing well, we have to knock him down.”

At great risk to the public image of United, Sir Alex defied conventional opinion and coaxed Cantona back to Old Trafford. The Frenchman again proved the catalyst to some marvelous performances which culminated in United winning the league title.

Cantona’s resurrection was completed when he scored the winner that took the the FA Cup from arch enemy Liverpool.


4) 'Selling RVN Is Madness '

Surely, Sir Alex was bonkers to sell Ruud Van Nistelrooy for £10.3m to Real Madrid in 2006?

Revered by fans and admired by every coach in every country where football is played, the Dutch master was the deadliest United forward for a generation.

Not since Dennis Law was in his pomp had United possessed a player guaranteed to score more than 25 goals a season. Fergie's decision to let RVN go to Real Madrid was considered a blunder of the highest order.

Fast forward a year and United as champions were again the toast of English football. Cristiano Ronaldo, the player who enjoyed an uneasy relationship with RVN, blossomed as United’s newest celebrity.

Gossip suggests that Fergie was forced to get rid of RVN in order to save Ronaldo’s United career. If so, Sir Alex’s gambler’s luck proved its worth yet again.

Though he never enjoyed the affection afforded to the Dutch master, Ronaldo proved himself to be a much better player and even more ruthless in front of goal as United swept all before them.

5) The Tevez League Cup Semi-Final

"I know that Ferguson did not respect me as a player," Carlos Tevez moaned after his 2009 summer transfer to Manchester City "Before Berbatov arrived in Manchester, Ferguson told me, 'You will still be the starting striker, so be cool'. But he lied to me!

"What I want to do next season is score against United. I promise I will not celebrate in front of the United fans but I will shout in Ferguson's face. You can be sure of that; and it will be one of the most beautiful things I have done in football."

Tevez scored three times against United in a frenetic League Cup semi-final but it was his former team which triumphed over the two legs to break Tevez’s heart once more.

The smile on Sir Alex’s face at the sound of the final whistle was the defiant ‘I told you so,’ that will give Tevez nightmares.