Fergie at United pt 2/5: Building a dynasty

Yesterday, Vithushan Ehantharajah looked at Sir Alex Ferguson's frequently fraught first five years at Old Trafford. In the next five years, things only got better...

If Alex Ferguson's first five years at Manchester United raised a few questions among the supporters, his next five answered them emphatically. By summer 1991 Alex Ferguson he had ended the club’s mini-trophy drought – as well as uncertainties over his ability – by following up the 1990 FA Cup with the European Cup Winners' Cup, only United's second continental trophy. The next five years would be spent rising to become the pre-eminent club in England.

In June 1991, just two years after seeing Michael Knighton's takeover bid collapse, the club took the far-sighted decision to float on the London Stock Exchange. Valued at £18m, the club immediately raked in £6.7m – more than the British record transfer fee at the time – and in the subsequent financial boom there was far more to follow.

Back on the pitch, Ferguson was still improving his side. England right-back Paul Parker arrived for £2m, while ahead of him flying winger Andrei Kanchelskis began to terrorise left-backs. And in a deal he later described as the "bargain of the century", Ferguson bought Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel for £530,000.

Now it seemed that Ferguson had a team fit for a league title challenge; with the established spine of Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes coupled with the youthful exuberance of Lee Sharpe and 17-year-old starlet Ryan Giggs. Having made his senior debut in the 1990-91 season – scoring on his full debut, against Man City – Giggs had inspired talk of the “new George Best” in their midst; while Sharpe held down the left-wing slot for the rest of that campaign, 1991/92 was the season in which Giggs made his true first-team breakthrough.

United led from the front in the final campaign before the Premier League era, staying unbeaten leaders until a late October defeat at Sheffield Wednesday allowed Howard Wilkinson's Leeds United to overtake them. That week they also suffered a 3-0 Cup Winners' Cup defeat at Atletico Madrid; the consolation of winning the European Super Cup against Red Star Belgrade (1-0 thanks to a Brian McClair goal) was followed by five straight league wins in which United racked up 18 goals.

By now, McClair and Mark Hughes were forming a solid partnership, but with both players in their late twenties, Ferguson wanted some fresh blood was aware that time was no on their side. Seeking to inject some youth at the business end of the pitch, he set about trailing Southampton’s exciting forward Alan Shearer.

By Christmas there were only really two title contenders: United and their old rivals Leeds. The domestic cups threw the teams together twice in a January week, with Ferguson's side winning both; although they lost in the next FA Cup round to Southampton, they reached the League Cup final against Nottingham Forest and again won through a solitary McClair goal. United’s first ever League Cup win, it ensured that Fergie had won silverware for the third season running.

Beating Southampton the following midweek left United two points clear of Leeds with a game in hand and all set to end their 25-year wait for the top-flight title. But Ferguson's side gathered just one point from the next four games, losing at home to Forest, at West Ham and – with agonising finality – at Anfield to confirm Leeds as champions, with former Red Devil Gordon Strachan playing a key role in their promotion and subsequent championship.

Hughes and Bruce, dejected at Anfield

There were a few crumbs of comfort for Fergie. He had seen his side become genuine title challengers who led the league for most of the season, and he had won domestic and continental (albeit minor) silverware. Meanwhile on the playing side, Gary Pallister replaced Mark Hughes as PFA Player of the Year, while Lee Sharpe was succeeded as PFA Young Player of the Year by Ryan Giggs, who had played in 38 (of the 42) league games while also captaining an FA Youth Cup-winning side representing an exciting future brewing at Old Trafford.1991-92: League 2nd, FA Cup R2, League Cup winners, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup R2, European Super Cup winners

At the dawn of the Premier League, Ferguson sought to freshen up his attacking options with the signing of Alan Shearer. However, United missed out on their man as Kenny Dalglish spent £3.6m of Blackburn benefactor Jack Walker's money to break the British transfer record. Ferguson spent £1m on Cambridge United’s Dion Dublin as a bustling back-up, but it would be a striker signing later that season who made all the difference – along with the fresh crop of FA Youth Cup winners.

United started sluggishly with one point from the first three games before registering five straight wins. Again, though, they faltered in Europe, exiting the UEFA Cup at the first hurdle on penalties after two goalless games against Torpedo Moscow. The home leg was the first-team debut of 17-year-old right-back Gary Neville; 10 days later, David Beckham made his debut in a League Cup game against Brighton.

The “Class of 92” were coming through well, but the first team was spluttering: in a miserable 12-game autumn spell they only beat Brighton, with defeats to Ron Atkinson's title-chasing Aston Villa in the league and League Cup.

With Dublin suffering a broken leg, United needed a change. Having been rebuffed by Shearer, Ferguson also missed out on Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst. Asked by Leeds United if Denis Irwin was for sale, Fergie declined but enquired about diffident Frenchman Eric Cantona, who had helped inspire Leeds to the title but fallen out of favour.

In late November, Ferguson got his man for £1.2m. Cantona was paired up front with Hughes, while McClair joined Paul Ince in midfield. A run of 10 wins in 12 unbeaten games took United from tenth place to top the table in the New Year.

They wobbled during a four-match winless run in March, dropping to third behind Villa and surprise leaders Norwich. But they wobbled too and a United win at Carrow Road started a run of seven straight victories to the end of the season. When Villa lost at Oldham, United had won their first top-flight title in 26 years; in the end they won the league by 10 points.

Fergie and Giggsy dangle their gongs

Ferguson had become only the third United manager to win the league. Giggs retained the PFA Young Player of the Year award, and although Fergiue reject Paul McGrath won the senior players' gong, the manager could afford to smile. The present was good enough, and he knew his excellent crop of youngsters made the future look even brighter.1992-93: League 1st, FA Cup R5, League Cup R3, UEFA Cup R1


Even the best youth system can't always provide ready-made replacements for legends. By summer 1993 Bryan Robson was 36 and although Brian McClair had done a diligent job alongside Paul Ince, Ferguson wanted another midfield general to complement an attacking side with flying wingers.

Roy Keane, the tenacious Irish midfielder who had been outstanding the previous season for relegated Nottingham Forest, was seen as an ideal signing, but seemed bound for Blackburn. Ferguson phoned Keane and persuaded the 21-year-old to join the champions instead, in the process breaking the British transfer record with a £3.75m fee.

Keane went straight into the side, scoring a shoot-out penalty in United's Charity Shield win over Arsenal and scoring twice on his home debut. With his extra steel, United's defence of their Premier League title was even more impressive than their initial success of obtaining it. After a blistering start, they went top in August and never really looked back.

Their first tilt in 25 years at Europe's top trophy ended before the leaves were off the trees when, having dismissed Hungarians Kispest Honved, they went out of the Champions League on away goals to Turkish side Galatasaray. At least by that point they were 11 points clear, which they extended over the Christmas period while dealing a psychological Boxing Day blow to nearest title rivals Blackburn with an 88th-minute Ince equaliser.

On January 20th, United mourned the passing of the great Sir Matt Busby, who had served the club for almost 50 years as a manager, director and club president. As manager, he had led the club to five league titles, two FA Cups and their first European Cup. Busby inspired the utmost respect from Ferguson, with whom the club's father figure had forged a fruitful friendship at Old Trafford.

Having been domestically dominant, United wobbled in March with a run of six points in five games allowing Blackburn to slice into what had once been a 13-point lead. A week after losing the League Cup final to Ron Atkinson's Aston Villa, United lost 2-0 at Blackburn to two Alan Shearer goals; when United then lost at Wimbledon, Blackburn drew level on points.

But United were ready for a fight. They had already proved that in the FA Cup semi-final against Oldham, with a spectacular late Mark Hughes equaliser earning a replay which they won with ease.  Once again Ferguson's side ended the season on a roll, with four wins in their last five games clinching the title from a disconsolate Blackburn.

Surging with momentum, United went into the FA Cup Final with Chelsea. Glenn Hoddle's side had inflicted two of United's four league defeats that season, but two Cantona penalties plus goals from Hughes and McClair helped United romp to victory – and the Double. The inspirational Cantona, who topped the domestic goalscoring charts, was named PFA Player of the Year – the third different United player in four years to win the award. 
1993-94: League 1st, FA Cup winners, League Cup finalists, UEFA Champions League R2, Charity Shield winners

In summer 1993 United said goodbye to their Captain Marvel, as Bryan Robson left to become Middlesbrough player-manager. Other ageing squad members were also moved on as Ferguson eyed increased chances for his younger players; the only significant signing was £1.25m David May, who had become disenchanted by Blackburn's contract renewal offers and was considered a possible successor for Steve Bruce, now nearing 34.

United beat Blackburn in the Charity Shield and won three of their first four league games, but then lost three in five to slip back. The second of those three defeats included a first league goal for Paul Scholes, three days after scoring a brace on his first-team debut in the League Cup against Port Vale.

Three days after knocking United out of the League Cup, Kevin Keegan's league leaders Newcastle were beaten at Old Trafford. But in their Champions League group Ferguson's side then suffered a 4-0 humbling at a Barcelona team inspired by Romario and Hristo Stoichkov.

Hampered by the three-foreigners rule (outlawed within a year on restraint-of-trade grounds), Ferguson had chosen to drop Peter Schmeichel for that game; soon he had no choice as the Dane was ruled out for 10 matches with a back injury. A 3-1 loss to IFK Gothenburg effectively ended their European campaign for another season, with their closing 4-0 win over Galatasaray rendered redundant.

By that point United, focusing on the league, were putting together some strong league runs to chase down leaders Blackburn. Over the winter period they enjoyed two nine-game unbeaten runs either side of a 2-1 defeat to a Nottingham Forest side inspired by powerful striker Stan Collymore.

Spying another potentially great signing from Forest (to follow Roy Keane), Ferguson courted Collymore as an eventual replacement for Mark Hughes. However, United instead signed Andy Cole, who had scored 68 goals in 84 games for Newcastle, for a record £7m (£6m plus talented young right-winger Keith Gillespie).

In late January a Cantona goal against Blackburn at Old Trafford cut Rovers' league lead at the top to two points – but three days later, the Frenchman was involved in one of football's most controversial moments.

After being sent off at Selhurst Park for kicking out at Crystal Palace defender Richard Shaw, Cantona reacted to a torrent of racial abuse from Palace fan Matthew Simmons by launching a kung-fu kick at him. The club quickly fined him £20,000 and suspended him for four months, but the FA doubled the suspension, while Cantona was convicted of assault and sentenced to two weeks in prison (reduced to 120 hours' community service).

With Ferguson's siege mentality justified as never before, United won five of their next six games, with Cole finding his feet by scoring five in one game against hapless Ipswich. United's goal difference was now better than Blackburn's but the gap stayed at three points – until defeat at Anfield stretched it to six.

United overcame Crystal Palace in an ill-tempered FA Cup Semi-Final but were still focused on the league and whittled Blackburn's lead down to two points by the last round of matches – which had Rovers at Europe-chasing Liverpool while United visited safely mid-table West Ham.

All looked lost when the Hammers took a shock first-half lead and Shearer scored at Anfield, but equalisers at each ground from McClair and John Barnes left the title race open. A late Jamie Redknapp winner for Liverpool meant one goal would be enough for United but Andy Cole squandered a couple of chances and the title was gone.

Last-day agony at Upton Park

The disappointment was compounded when United lost 1-0 to Everton at Wembley in the FA Cup Final, thanks to a goal from Paul Rideout, leaving United without a major trophy for the first time in six seasons. 
1994-95: League 2nd, FA Cup finalists, League Cup R3, UEFA Champions League Group stage, Charity Shield winners

Expecting a summer of strengthening to match cash-happy Blackburn, United fans (and much of the media) were surprised to see Ferguson apparently hell-bent on dismantling the team he had built. Paul Ince moved to Inter Milan for £7m, Andrei Kanchelskis to Everton for £5m and Mark Hughes to Chelsea for £1.5m.

To replace them, Ferguson turned not to star signings but the talented fledglings coming up from the 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning side: Gary and Phil Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. With Cantona set to return in September, and the likes of Bruce, Roy Keane and Schmeichel on hand to offer experience and support to blood the players, it seemed a calculated risk. Not everybody agreed.

“You’ll win nothing with kids,” claimed Alan Hansen on Match of the Day after a 3-1 opening-day defeat at Aston Villa. But with Scholes chipping in goals, United won 10 of their next 13 league games to shadow rampant league leaders Newcastle.

The cup competitions didn't start as well. Losing on away goals to Rotor Volgograd, United were out of the UEFA Cup by the time Cantona returned in September (with a vital penalty equaliser against Liverpool), and a weak shadow team crashed out of the League Cup to Yo
k City.

Clearly United were concentrating on the league but five winless games, climaxing in a Christmas Eve defeat at Leeds, left them 10 points adrift of Newcastle at the turn of the year. But an FA Cup Third Round win at Sunderland started an astonishing run of 15 wins in 16 games – nine of them by a single goal – which saw them steam through to the FA Cup final while also demolishing Newcastle's league lead.

On March 4th at St James' Park Newcastle threw the kitchen sink at Ferguson's side but couldn't score, Eric Cantona's goal stealing an impressively resolute away win. Within a fortnight they had overhauled Newcastle as Keegan's side collapsed.

While the young players were impressive, the wily manager's mind games came to the fore. Following a 1-0 win over a determined Leeds on April 17th, Ferguson slyly wondered aloud if the Yorkshire side would try as hard 10 days later against Newcastle as the season entered its final week.

In the event Keegan's men also beat Leeds 1-0, but Ferguson must have been amazed to see what happened next. Interviewed live on Sky, the clearly emotional Newcastle manager produced one of football's most famous outbursts, claiming he would "love it" if Middlesbrough managed to beat the leaders that weekend.

They didn't. United won 3-0 at Bryan Robson's new home and, with Newcastle having drawn their final two games, wrapped up a third league title in four years – while also disproving Alan Hansen's words. 

United's opponents in a hotly-anticipated FA Cup Final were Hansen's old side Liverpool, who had their own array of talented youngsters in Collymore, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp.

While the game was a turgid affair, notable more for a questionable wardrobe than compelling viewing, it was won by a piece of brilliance from Eric Cantona, who volleyed expertly through a body of players. United became the first English side to achieve a second Double, while Cantona became the first United player since George Best in 1968 to win the Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year award.  1995-96: League 1st, FA Cup winners, League Cup R2, UEFA Cup R1

Tomorrow: Fergie's third five-year spell – from the Double Double to the Treble. Until then, check out FourFourTwo's ever-expanding interview archive...

ONE ON ONE, Nov 2008: Eric Cantona >>"After he leaves... that’s what makes me worry. Ferguson is so strong"

WEB EXCLUSIVE, Dec 2007: Peter Schmeichel >>"If Sir Alex is happy, United will win matches"

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?, Jul 2007: David May >>"I still jump for every header that Vidic or Rio goes for"

PERFECT XI, Mar 2007: Sir Bobby Charlton >>"He's the only manager capable of handling all these players"

Plus...PERFECT XI, Apr 2006: Eric Cantona

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