Alex Ferguson became Manchester United’s longest-serving manager on Sunday with his team topping the Premier League but with heavy snow denying him the chance to mark the milestone with a win over title rival Chelsea.
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"In the history of football, the best (manager) is Sir Alex," said England coach Fabio Capello, the 64-year-old Italian who has also taken charge of Real Madrid and AC Milan. "For such a long time he managed the team and changed a lot. He changed the team, he changed the players, he has been really, really good for the club."
Ferguson has won 26 major trophies since replacing Ron Atkinson in November 1986, including the Premier League eleven times and the Champions League twice.
"It’s an incredible achievement," said United assistant manager Mike Phelan, who also played under Ferguson. "His secret is his enthusiasm, his attention to detail, his work ethic – that’s something he was born into, which comes from his background and his family. He is youthful, has a young mind, and he’s always willing to learn."
Ferguson, who has stopped discussing his future plans after previously changing his mind about retirement to remain in the job, was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999 after guiding United to a treble of Premier League, European Champions League and FA Cup titles that year.
While he has become British football’s most successful manager, Ferguson is quick to point out that Busby had the tougher time, having to rebuild United following the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed eight players.
Busby went on to deliver the club’s first European Cup in 1968 as well as winning five league titles during his first tenure between 1945 and ’69. He took charge again between 1970 and ’71 and remained involved with the club until his death in 1994, aged 84.
"The strange thing for me was that I always thought Matt would be here forever," Ferguson said. "Maybe because he started immediately after the war, rebuilt the club, and then had the emotional issue of Munich, he rebuilt it again to win the European Cup in 1968.
"Maybe to me everything Sir Matt did, all the things that happened, had some sort of eternity about it. I have not had those emotional issues to face that he did. That’s why I felt he would be here forever. It is surprising I have passed his record."
Known as a strict disciplinarian and a a clever tactician, Ferguson stresses the differences between him and Busby.
"Sir Matt was a lot calmer than me," said Ferguson, who once kicked a boot that struck David Beckham’s face during a dressing room bust-up. "We are different characters, with different personalities. Scottish people have a determination to do well no matter what. They travel."
Ferguson was lured from Aberdeen after breaking the domination of the two Glasgow giants, Rangers and Celtic, and winning two league titles and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
"I came down here with the single objective of being successful," Ferguson said.
And primarily a determination to "knock Liverpool off their perch" having arrived in Manchester when United’s northwest rival was the dominant force in English football.
Liverpool’s championship in 1990 was the club’s 18th, compared to seven for United. Just reducing the gap seemed a tough enough mission for Ferguson, who was then in the fourth year of his reign.
"There was no nastiness about Alex when he lost a match. It was just a feeling of ‘It will happen" – you just felt success was coming," recalled United director Bobby Charlton, who played under Busby. "Half the problems that people get into is the fact that they get rid of managers too soon. We would not make that mistake."
Ferguson took until 1990 to produce his first trophy – the FA Cup – but after United stuck with him through seven years without an English championship, he duly repaid the club’s faith in him.
After finally delivering the club’s first title since 1967 in 1993, his success rate has been unrelenting since. Liverpool’s record-haul of 18 titles was finally matched by United in 2009, with the Anfield outfit looking no closer to winning its first league title since 1990.
"Liverpool were the dominant team in the 1980s – that is what I looked at, that was the big challenge for me," said Ferguson.
The current challenge, though, is preventing neighbor Manchester City providing a threat to United with its vast and relatively new wealth from Abu Dhabi.
City has failed to win the league title since 1968 – or any major trophy since the 1976 League Cup – but can, at least temporarily, topple Ferguson’s side from the Premier League summit on Monday with a victory over Everton.