30 Years On: Sir Alex's Ferguson's 1st Manchester United Season

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2016

Alex Ferguson, shortly after taking over at Manchester United.
Alex Ferguson, shortly after taking over at Manchester United.Russell Cheyne/Getty Images

On November 6, 1986, the fate of Manchester United was permanently altered, thanks to the arrival of Alex Ferguson. Thirteen years later, he received a knighthood in the wake of the historic treble he won en route to becoming United's most successful manager—and if not the greatest of all time, then at the very least an undeniable all-time great of his sport.

But long before that, Sir Alex was "Fergie" or "Alec" to those who knew him well. And in 1986, United's board made a decision that would change the course of football history.

Outgoing manager Ron Atkinson was well liked by fans, having brought two FA Cups during his time in charge with a vivacious and attacking style that was a tonic after the dour functionality of Dave Sexton.

However, he had followed up the 1985 FA Cup win with a disappointing 1985/86 season. United had got off to an astonishing start, winning their first 10 games, and not losing until their 16th—on November 9, just a fraction under a year before Atkinson was out of the door.

In the not quite a year over the rest of the 1985/86 season and the beginning of the 1986/87 season, United played 40 league games, winning just 12. It made sense to make a change, particularly given the Red Devils had lost six of their opening eight games in what was to become Ferguson's first campaign in charge.

Ferguson and Moyes: Two very different managers.
Ferguson and Moyes: Two very different managers.Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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The new manager's credentials were impeccable. When David Moyes took over United, he was frequently said to have been cut from the same cloth as his illustrious predecessor. In truth, their pre-United careers had wildly differing levels of success.

Moyes' solitary trophy was a Second Division title with Preston North End. Ferguson, on the other hand, was already a phenomenon. Three Scottish titles—with Aberdeen, not Celtic or Rangers. When his Dandy Dons first broke the duopoly in 1979/80, it had been 15 years since the Scottish champions had come from outside of Glasgow.

When he led his side to back-to-back league titles in 1983/84 and 1984/85, it was the first time anyone from outside of the Old Firm had retained the trophy since Hibernian in 1951/52. He won the Scottish Cup four times and, most impressively of all, guided Aberdeen to the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1982-83, beating Real Madrid in the final.

He had plenty of cause for courage in his convictions, and United fans, though they could not have known just how much of an effect he would go on to have, could have plenty of cause for hope.

Looking back on his first interview—conducted with broadcasting giant Barry Davies—is instructive. He speaks with great assurance about the draw of United, words that carry more weight when Davies asks him about the clubs he had turned down in the past.

There is an intoxicating mesh of steeliness and romance to his words. They are delivered without hyperbole, in a measured tone and with a soft emphasis of the kind that in hindsight looks like evidence of internal certainty:

So many people all over Britain have a care for Manchester United, a tremendous care and concern for them and want to know how they're doing and want to know and hope they're doing well. And I hope the Manchester United players realise that responsibility, and I'm sure they do. And if they do, then we've a real good chance.

His last line is telling. "Once [the players and I] get a relationship, I'm sure we'll do very well."

When he said that, he perhaps did not expect the process to take as long as it did, but in that line lives the kernel of his entire footballing philosophy. The relationship between manager and players was at the heart of everything that was to come.

As certain as he looked on television, behind the cameras, Ferguson had some doubts. In his 1999 book Managing My Life: My Autobiography, the focus of his analysis of his first season in charge centres on his mission to change United's drinking culture.

"I realised the problem was so serious that it had to be confronted without delay," he wrote. "The prospect of starting off with a showdown hardly eased the edginess I was feeling."

Later, he said of his first meeting with his players: "They must have thought I had very little to say for myself, and if they suspected that it was all a bit nerve-racking for me, they were right."

It is interesting to note he hardly talks about the performances in that first season beyond his shock at the poor levels of fitness displayed in his first game, a 2-0 loss to Oxford United. He mentions his team finished 11th in the First Division, no mean feat given they had been second from bottom when he took over, but the mechanics of what occurred on the pitch get little attention.

His retrospective focus was instead on the size of the task facing him:

Putting them in a position to challenge consistently would, I knew, be a long haul. I would have to build from the bottom up, rectifying the flaws I had recognised and spreading my influence and self-belief through every layer of the organisation.

I wanted to form a personal link with everybody around the place—not just the players, the coaches and the backroom staff but the office workers, the cooks and servers in the canteen and the laundry ladies. All had to believe that they were part of the club and that a resurgence was coming.

It is understandable that his memories focus on the big rebuilding work. There was little to mark out the season from a football perspective.

There was certainly no new-manager bounce brought about by his arrival. United lost away at Oxford, drew with Norwich City away then scraped a narrow 1-0 home win over Queens Park Rangers in his first Old Trafford encounter.

Back-to-back victories would have to wait until the end of December, but at least when they came, they were memorable. A routine 2-0 success over Leicester City was followed up with a Boxing Day victory at Anfield, 1-0 thanks to a Norman Whiteside winner.

From the turn of the year, they went unbeaten until March. Bryan Robson and Whiteside stood out to Ferguson. In Managing My Life, he wrote of Robson: "It would have been impossible for any manager to avoid thinking of Robbo as a hero. He was a miracle of commitment."

Of Whiteside, he wrote: "When I first saw Norman on the training ground at the Cliff, I felt the excitement that is stirred by watching a player of the highest class."

He was less impressed by the squad as a whole, though. He goes on to relay a conversation with United's then-chairman: "I told Martin Edwards that I really needed about eight new players, and to my surprise, he was taken aback. You could say I was shocked at how shocked he was."

In the end, the offseason saw Ferguson bring Viv Anderson and Brian McClair to the club. The latter became a club stalwart, but the rebuilding process would take a long time. By the time it bore fruit, though, United's new manager had done enough groundwork, laid enough foundation, that he and the club could support a superstructure of immense strength.

In those first six years in charge, he revamped the scouting system and the academy and most certainly proved that "a resurgence was coming." His first season hardly mattered on the pitch, but in taking on the drinking culture head on and beginning to rebuild the club from the ground up, it mattered a great deal off it.

A resurgence surely was coming.
A resurgence surely was coming.PETER WILCOCK/Associated Press

As has been said so many times in so many places since, Ferguson was incredibly fortunate United gave him the time to build what he set out to put in place. United were fortunate they did too. It is a parable for the power of long-term thinking, an antithesis in so many ways to the way football is run.

The problem with drawing the conclusion that long-term investment in a single manager is a panacea for the games ills, though, is that Ferguson was no ordinary manager. Watch that clip of his first interview again. Hindsight adds authority to it, certainly, but imagine watching at the time. We know who he became, but even then it was obvious he was special.

Ferguson and Mourinho face off in the Champions League.
Ferguson and Mourinho face off in the Champions League.Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Thirty years on, a new United manager is wobbling a little during his first season in charge.

The work facing Jose Mourinho is different, of course, but he comes with the certainty of experience and a legacy of success. He is not a long-termist in the way Sir Alex was, but nonetheless, with a proven manager at the helm, United can afford to think a little further down the road than they have done of late.

After all, they better than anyone else know how rich the potential fruits can be.


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