Fergie at United, pt 1/5: The first five years

To kick off our week looking back at (Sir) Alex Ferguson's reign at Old Trafford, Vithushan Ehantharajah takes us back to where it all began...

"We’re in a terribly cynical world now and when you lose a few games the judges are out. You see managers going early-season many times in the past years, unfairly... and it keeps going" – Sir Alex Ferguson attacks criticism of Arsene Wenger, August 2011.

It’s easy to see why Sir Alex Ferguson has such compassion for his struggling counterparts – even those with whom he has never seen eye to eye. The years between 1986 and 1991 were the worst half-decade of his reign, and Fergie would be the first to admit he was lucky that it wasn’t his last – especially with managers being discarded as compassionately as a losing lottery ticket.

Govan-born former centre-forward Alex Ferguson took the Manchester United hot seat on 6th November 1986, immediately after the club had parted company with Ron Atkinson – to much derision from the fans. It could all been so different had Ferguson taken one of the other four routes to English football previously offered to him.

Having led Aberdeen to domestic and continental glory – in his eight seasons at Pottodrie he led the Dons to three Scottish top-flight titles, four Scottish Cups and the 1983 Cup Winners' Cup – Ferguson had attracted interest from south of Hadrian's wall, but none of the mooted moves ever worked out.

He turned down Aston Villa because he didn’t fancy working with Doug Ellis; rejected Wolves as he was unimpressed with the directors and atmosphere at Molineux; and rebuffed offers in summer 1986 from both Arsenal and Spurs because he had pledged to lead Scotland to Mexico 86 following the sudden death of national manager Jock Stein.

As Gordon Strachan later revealed, Ferguson said in Mexico that he would only leave Aberdeen for two clubs – Barcelona or Manchester United. The Red Devils were the classic underachieving giants; Atkinson had led them to FA Cup glory in 1983 and 1985 but, despite winning the first 10 games of the 1985/86 season, couldn't maintain a consistent campaign to win their first top-flight title since 1967.

United ended that season in fourth place, increasing the pressure on Atkinson, and when they slumped to second from bottom in November 1986 they fired Atkinson and hired Ferguson. With his assistant Archie Knox, Fergie set about his first task – keeping the club in the top flight – as well as bigger issues such as improving the youth system and addressing a booze culture prevalent among players like Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Bryan Robson.

Fergie hits the bench for his debut at Oxford

His reign started inauspiciously with a 2-0 defeat at Oxford United, and United managed just one goal in his first four games. However,  as November turned to December his side found their range and a Boxing Day win at all-conquering Liverpool was a sign of things to come. United ended the season in 11th, fulfilling Ferguson's first aim, but there were bigger battles to come.  1986/87: League 11th, FA Cup R4, League Cup R3

Ferguson slowly started to strengthen his side in summer 1987, signing Arsenal's England right-back Viv Anderson and then haggling Celtic down from a record £2m to £850,000 for striker Brian McClair, who'd scored 35 goals the previous term. United started well but Ferguson strengthened further in December by signing Norwich City's Steve Bruce.

The centre-back became a mainstay of the United back four that season, playing in 21 of the 22 remaining league games. A greatly improved United finished the season in second place, although they were never really in contention for the league title, which Liverpool – fired by John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes – won by a comfortable nine-point margin which had been wider for much of the season.1987/88: League 2nd, FA Cup R5, League Cup R3

Welcome home, son: Fergie bags Sparky

In summer 1988, Ferguson finally managed to secure the return of Mark Hughes for £1.8m – slightly less than the figure United had received from Barcelona two years before. Hughes would be a great success, being voted PFA Player of the Year, but one failure to seal a summer signing haunted Ferguson – and others – for years.

Knowing that he needed some dynamism in midfield Fergie had courted Paul Gascoigne. He had watched Newcastle's young maestro singlehandedly run rings round his entire midfield – one that consisted of Norman Whiteside, Bryan Robson and Remi Moses. In one particular incident, Gazza nutmegged Moses and patted him on the head as he ran around him to get the ball, to which Fergie jumped out of his seat and yelled, “Get that f***ing so and so!n”

He certainly tried his best. That summer Gascoigne promised Ferguson he would sign for United and the manager went on holiday while the details were tied up; while in Malta, he heard that Gazza had instead joined Tottenham for a British record £2m. Ferguson would later call missing out on the signing as his biggest regret, while Gascoigne would be left wondering if a stricter manager might have helped keep him on the right path.

Ferguson consoled himself by spending £200,000 on the much-coveted 16-year-old Lee Sharpe and £500,000 on former Aberdeen goalkeeper Jim Leighton, but he knew the big one had got away. And the results showed: hampered by injury, United failed to kickstart their 1988-89 campaign as they were forced to throw some of their younger, inexperienced players into the deep end.

Despite impressive showings from Sharpe and Mark Robins, United had trouble maintaining a decent run of form – three wins at the beginning of the season were followed by a nine-game winless streak. This pattern continued into the latter half of the season, where they reached a season high of third, before tailing off to finish in 11th.

The biggest talking point of the season came when Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath – whose 'refuelling' problems were wearing Fergie’s patience very thin – appeared drunk on TV before a United FA Cup tie. Although they were both injured, it was far from the image Ferguson wanted United to project and his patience snapped.

McGrath was offered a retirement package but refused it and was shipped off to Aston Villa, while Whiteside was sold to Everton in summer 1988. The fans were furious but Ferguson was steadfast, and even warned club captain Bryan Robson, though not involved on this occasion, that one wrong (inebriated) step would be his last for United. 1988/89: League 11th, FA Cup QF, League Cup R3

While Ferguson implemented major changes on the pitch, United considered huge ones off it. In 1980, Martin Edwards had taken over as chairman from his father Louis, who had helmed the club since 1965; now Edwards pondered a £20m sell-out to flamboyant speculator Michael Knighton.

Before United’s first league game of the season, Knighton introduced himself to the players in the dressing room, then requested for a full kit. As the players looked on, he got changed, grabbed a ball and ran onto the pitch, proceeding to juggle the ball around the turf – displaying some of the skills that he picked up as a failed youth-team player at Everton and Coventry – before vaingloriously slamming the ball home past a non-existent goalkeeper at the Stretford End.

If the world thought that was embarrassing, it got worse when Knighton's backers pulled out and he had to abandon the deal. He went on to buy Carlisle United, hitting headlines again when he claimed to have seen a UFO…

Back on the ground, Ferguson was spending some serious money to build his own squad. Having bolstered midfield with Nottingham Forest's Neil Webb for £1.5m and Norwich's Mike Phelan for £600,000 he strengthened his defence again with Middlesbrough's Gary Pallister, whose £2.3m fee was a record for a defender and second only in the UK to the fee Liverpool paid to re-sign Ian Rush.

Ferguson followed that with the controversial £1m signing of West Ham's Paul Ince in September, but by then he was already facing fan discontent. As anti-Fergie banners waved in the Stretford End, the board backed him with a three-year contract, but discontent was amplified by further disappointing results – including an eviscerating 5-1 defeat at Manchester City.

After his side picked up just four points in eight winless games and slid to 15th, many in the media were preparing Ferguson's obituary when United faced an FA Cup Third Round trip to Nottingham Forest, who had knocked them out at Old Trafford the previous year. Although Martin Edwards always denied it, the feeling was that defeat would cost the manager his job.

A 1-0 win thanks to a goal from young Mark Robins brought about some respite, and narrow wins at Hereford, Newcastle and Sheffield United helped United tiptoe to the semi-finals. A thrilling tussle with Oldham, only settled by Robins again during extra-time in a Maine Road replay, took Ferguson to his first English final.  

Facing a Crystal Palace side buoyed by the returning Ian Wright, Ferguson sent out a self-built side: only Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes remained from Ron Atkinson's 1985 FA Cup winners. United went behind in both normal time and extra time before Mark Hughes' second of the afternoon earned a replay.

At this point, Fergie showed his steel. He replaced his old Aberdeen goalkeeper Jim Leighton, who had endured a torrid season, with Luton loanee Les Sealey. Sealey's brilliant performance maintained a clean sheet, while defender Lee Martin scored the winner. Sealey was given a full contract (and gave his winner's medal to Leighton), while Ferguson had his first piece of silverware for the Old Trafford trophy cabinet.

Fall guy: Fergie's old friend Jim got the chop

However, Atkinson had won two FA Cups in three years while helping United finish in the top four for five successive seasons, whereas Ferguson's United, after that runners-up slot in 1988, had limped to 11th and now 13th – their lowest position since they were relegated 16 years ago. 1989/90: League 13th, FA Cup winners, League Cup R3

Ferguson's first United trophy was fortuitously timed: 1990/91 was the first year after the Heysel disaster that English sides (except Liverpool) were allowed back into European competitions, so the manager was once again in the Cup Winners’ Cup his Aberdeen side had so memorably won back in 1983.

With injuries subsiding, the side – bolstered by Oldham full-back Denis Irwin – started to play with fluency and purpose, established players supplemented by the youth of Lee Sharpe and the emerging Ryan Giggs. Signing a five-year professional contract on his 17th birthday in November 1990, Giggs was carefully nurtured by Ferguson off and on the pitch: he was shielded from the press long after his full debut in March 1991.

By that point United had made their mark in the league, legally and otherwise: they rose as high as fourth before finishing in sixth, but had also been censured for brawling with Arsenal in their October clash at Old Trafford. United were docked two points and Arsenal one, but the affair allowed Ferguson to develop a them-against-us siege mentality which would serve them well.

While the side's form fluctuated in the league, they reached the League Cup final (losing to Sheffield Wednesday) and more importantly progressed in Europe: with Brain McClair scoring in every round, they reached the Cup Winners' Cup final in Rotterdam.

There they were the underdogs against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, who included Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman. Indeed, the Dutchman scored but by that point United were 2-0 up, both goals credited to former Camp Nou flop Mark Hughes (although he tried to credit Steve Bruce for the first). 

Ferguson had once again conquered the continent and although he still needed to improve on their league finishes, sixth place and a European trophy quelled any lingering discontent and united the club behind the manager.1990/91: League 6th, FA Cup R5, League Cup finalists, European Cup Winners' Cup winners

Tomorrow: Fergie's second five years – onwards and upwards. Until then, check out FourFourTwo's ever-expanding interview archive...

ONE ON ONE, Jan 2007: Paul McGrath >>"The next morning, Fergie knew exactly which pubs I'd been to"

ONE ON ONE, Sep 2002: Ryan Giggs >>"Fergie said 'Club car? You've got more chance of getting a club bike!'"

ONE ON ONE, May 2007: Mark Hughes >>"Fergie ran down the stairs to sub me off after 15 minutes"

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? Oct 2007: Norman Whiteside >>"I got interested in the medical side when I had about 17 operations..."

Plus...PERFECT XI, Sep 2009: Denis IrwinASK A SILLY QUESTION, Jun 2007: Bryan Robson