UEFA Champions League: Charting Sir Alex Ferguson's European Career, Part 1

illya mclellan@illya mclellan @illbehaviorNZSenior Analyst IApril 16, 2011

UEFA Champions League: Charting Sir Alex Ferguson's European Career, Part 1

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    The following article will display through word and video the career of Alex Ferguson on his European excursions. Alex Ferguson's Manchester United side, in vanquishing Chelsea at Old Trafford in the Champions League recently, have now made it to their seventh semifinals under the tenure of the wily Scot.

    During these seven semifinal appearances, there have actually been more disappointments than triumphs with United having been defeated in four of these semis and of course progressing from three. The finals have yielded two trophies, one in 1999 in the miraculous victory in the final minutes of the match against Bayern Munich at Barcelona's Nou Camp, the other against Chelsea in 2008 when they managed to win on penalty kicks in Moscow.

    The following slideshow will chart Ferguson's rise from managerial obscurity in European competition, from his first attempts at European success with Aberdeen, and subsequent triumphs. To his failures in the nineties and his triumph at the end of that decade, to the teams victory in Moscow over Chelsea and the now yearly assault at the top prize in European football.

    Ferguson has managed to make Manchester United one of the most recognized teams in the world of sport, thanks to the way he has transformed United into one of the most successful teams in English sporting history and a big player in European competition every year they compete. In fact, United currently hold the record for consecutive appearances in the UEFA Champions League, with fifteen consecutive participation's since 1996 to the present day.

    Ferguson has turned United into a European monster, always there or thereabouts, with a big squad and excellent resources, and players capable of turning matches in the blink of an eye, or the sweep of a television camera.

    This slide show will attempt to chart the progress that has been made by Ferguson in his years as a competitor in Europe's most prestigious footballing competition.  

Ferguson at Aberdeen: For the Glory of Scottish Football

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    European success with United is not the first time that Ferguson has been successful in Europe. He cut his teeth in European competition while manager of Aberdeen in Scotland. Taking The Dons to success in the 1982-83 Cup Winners Cup and the European Super cup of 1983. The cup winners cup was a victory over none other than European giants Real Madrid. Returning Scotland to winning ways in Europe has not been managed since and Scottish managers have been making more of a name for themselves in the game south of the border.

    Ferguson made the football world sit up and notice with the success he had with Aberdeen, it of course being the primary reason Martin Edwards offered Ferguson the Manchester United post. Ferguson though had been managing in Scotland since 1974, and so had learned his skills in what was one of the toughest coaching environments in the world. Scotland producing such luminaries of the managing world as Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Jock Stein, and Sir Alex Ferguson. Even Kenny Dalglish could be fleetingly mentioned, as he has certainly come back into the game recently with some aplomb after fine success in the eighties with Liverpool as a player and manager.

    The tactical nuance and regime intensity would have been interesting things to monitor in training sessions around Scotland in those days. The Scots over the centuries being intensely motivated and skillful people, several huge names in modern science were Scots. Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, inventors of the telephone and television respectively. They also account for the ancestry of 23 of the United States of America's 44 Presidents.

    This of course gives an idea of the intelligence and determined character of the individuals Ferguson would have learned his game against. He took 10 years to build himself as the manager that was able to have such success at Aberdeen, breaking the Rangers Celtic duopoly on the Scottish trophy. Then he had the chance to pit himself against the might of Europe, and with a victorious introduction to Europe, winning a trophy at first crack. Along the way, Aberdeen accounted for Bayern Munich, Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid in the final. An amazing run for Ferguson, that paved the way for his domination of World Club football. 

Early European Success with United as History Repeats for Ferguson

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    After winning the trophy in 1990 that many say kept Ferguson in the United hot seat, the FA Cup, United qualified to take part in the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup. Ferguson got his second crack at a European trophy and grabbed it with both hands which ended in him holding the trophy in both hands in Rotterdam's Feijenoord Stadion.

    This campaign took in five rounds in which United faced stiff opposition but always fancied their chances of progressing. The final though was a different kettle of fish however and Barcelona were European giants who demanded respect. Ferguson managed his players perfectly to outplay the Johann Cruijff coached Barcelona side and they did not disappoint him, Mark Hughes scoring twice against his former employers to truly erase the memory of him ever having left United for Barcelona during the eighties.

    This excellent cup run and victory underlined Ferguson's gift at negotiating cup competitions, getting the most from certain groups of players in certain incarnations and knowing the right tactical approach for the correct instance, a skill many managers profess to possessing but few are able to demonstrate. Ferguson in these two campaigns certainly gave a hint that he may be a force to reckon with in the top level of European competition, though it would be a few years and a few disappointments before he got the trophy he considered the Grail of Football, the European Champions Trophy.  

1993 to 1999 Domestic Bliss but Continentally Not Up to the Mark

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    During the time between United lifting the old European cup winners cup trophy to the day United triumphed over Bayern Munich to take the Champions League trophy, United had stumbled a little through a European wilderness, seeming to not have the requisite fortitude to survive in what is one of the world's toughest trophies along with South America's Copa Libertadores.

    They had some low ebbs in these years, losing to teams that many United supporters had never heard of, from Torpedo Moscow in the UEFA Cup in 92-93 to Rotor Volgograd again in the UEFA in 95-96, to the Cantona rage inspiring Galatasary exit of 93-94 European Cup to the disappointing reverse against Borussia Dortmund in the semi final of the 96-97 Champions tournament.

    United were a huge force during this time domestically, if not winning the trophies they were otherwise runners up. The team seemed ready to launch in Europe but seemed unable to negotiate ties against the smaller teams from the continent. It took a moderately successful campaign in the 1996-97 Champions League, in which they lost twice to Juventus in the group stage, which really showed the level they were at in Europe, as though they beat Porto FC in the quarter final, they were out-thought and out-played by Borussia Dortmund in the Semi.

    Ferguson of course was maneuvering things in the background, getting the necessary players and ambition going in the side for his grand assault of the 1998-99 season. The transformation from the team that labored to defeat twice against Juventus in 96/97 season was quite unbelievable for those who witnessed it.    

1998/99 Success Against Juventus Showed United Were Finally Up to Standard

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    Not only was the victory over a talented Juventus side a huge footballing moment in itself, but its afterglow signalled United had arrived in Europe as genuine contenders. They were brushed aside with little fuss the year previously, but in 98/99 they were ready for far more than the Italian side realized, the first match finished in a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. The real shock was to follow as even though Juve took a 2-0 lead after only ten minutes of the return leg in Turin, United were able to claw their way back, and in the end win a thrilling football match that hinted to the world that United might this time be worthy of all the fuss.

    They had finally managed to bring their game up to the required level to unseat the old Giants of the European game, thereby installing themselves again amongst that elite group. The required level being excellence across the pitch with a couple of genius's thrown in for good measure. United had a team that was out to prove themselves capable with Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Roy Keane getting the required goals after the entire side had played well enough to depose a side who had lorded it over them before, a side boasting the talents of Zinedine Zidane, Fillipo Inzaghi and company was overpowered and left defeated in the wake of what looked as if it could be United's best team since the Sir Matt Busby managed 1968 side which included Bobby Charlton, George Best and Brian Kidd.

    United were stunned early by the ferocity of Juventus but slowly eased a controlling stake in the match, pulling a goal back when Roy Keane masterfully guided a Beckham corner into the top corner with a turn of his head. Then United strikers Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke linked up for the two remaining goals to put in arguably one of their finest ever performances as a United strike force. Juventus were stunned by the end of it, looking as if they had seen a ghost. They had in fact, the ghost of a European history, forged in disaster and completed with a tribute like triumph in 1968 for the fallen who lost their lives in Munich in 1958. United had another chance to be able to call themselves Europe's best.    

1998/99 the Grail at Last as Ferguson and United Emulate Busby and His 'Babes'

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    United's ascension to the pantheon of European Champions was to come in a quite surprising and almost unexpected manner. After a match in which Bayern Munich had looked the better side, United languishing somewhat without the services of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, it was United who seized a late initiative that still angers Munich fans to this day.

    Munich had controlled the match well, Carsten Jancker was fouled on the edge of the United penalty area and Mario Basler stepped up and swerved the ball into Peter Schmeichels goal. United were second string for most of the match until Ferguson introduced a late substitute in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and suddenly the game turned on its head.

    To some degree it can be said Munich sat back and tried to soak up the pressure inviting the pressure and expecting to hold out. Because they had managed that so far in the match. The introduction of Solskjaer changed the dynamic and United were suddenly energized, winning a corner in injury time that was partially cleared only for Giggs to put a weak shot into the area that another substitute, Teddy Sheringham instinctively guided into the bottom corner for the equalizer.

    A stranger moment was to follow. Thirty seconds after play resumed, United got a corner which was guided expertly by Beckham, for Sheringham to head down and Solskjaer to bang the ball into the roof of the net for the United victory, and a final emulation of the 1968 side.

    In some ways it was nothing as convincing as the 1968 sides 4-1 extra time demolition of Benfica side that included the great Eusebio, but in others it was the same, any team that is able to pick through the treacherous maze of a cup football run is worthy of praise for maintaining composure and belief.

    The 1999 Champions League win was the moment Manchester United could truly call themselves a great club again. Ferguson had finally done it, gotten the trophy he so pined for, the vision had been rendered true and it seemed in the following years that Ferguson would finally retire.

    Look out for part two soon.