Ferguson at the core of United's dynasty
Barcelona squares off against Manchester United Saturday (FOX, 2 p.m. ET) in the biggest match of the year, the Champions League final at England's Wembley Stadium.
This is the second of a pair of pieces that looks back at each team's history, and the major influences on their playing style. Our companion piece examines the influence of total football and Johan Cruyff on Barcelona.
Since 1986, there's been one constant at Manchester United: the club's longest serving manager, Scot Sir Alex Ferguson. Great individual players have come and gone through the club during his tenure - Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, Peter Schmeichel being just a few - but the man at the wheel has never wavered in his core belief that the team comes first.
Ferguon's brilliance lies in his ability to manage the biggest egos while convincing the least of his players that they can win any game at any time. This didn't happen overnight, but if you had been paying attention to Scottish football in the late 1970s, you would have seen everything that would come to characterize the Ferguson Way was already in evidence.
Although the English might argue to the contrary, this was an era when Scottish League football was superior to that of the old English First Division, a spell when Scotland routinely qualified for World Cups while England struggled just to join the international elite.
There were plenty of good players in Scotland and a growing North Sea oil-based economy in Aberdeen, where Ferguson first emerged as a special manager. The Dons play their games at Pittodrie, a compact ground tucked into an urban area just away from the broad beaches of the North Sea. It could be cold and wet, but under Ferguson the atmosphere at the ground was often electric, and Aberdeen rose to the challenges offered by their young boss.
It did not begin easily, however. Ferguson took over from a Celtic legend, Billy McNeill, who had actually left Pittodrie in mid-season to take charge of his former club. Aberdeen was then a team featuring a fading star, Joe Harper. Harper's goal-scoring had made him very much the local hero, but his game and declining speed did not fit with the plans the new manager had for revitalizing the Dons. That made for a fitful start: the public was not always behind the new boss, especially when it came to dealing with Harper.
But it took only three seasons for Ferguson to win the fans over, along the way producing a Scottish League title (1981-82) and linking the Dons with Dundee United - who would also win the league in this era - as "The New Firm," a term meant as a direct slap at the Glasgow giants, Celtic and Rangers.
When Aberdeen won that crown, it broke a 15-year spell in which the title had never left Glasgow, serving to validate Ferguson's approach, both on the field and (now infamously) off.
Aberdeen, like today's United, played a high-pressure, counter-attacking game, making use of the width of the pitch, liking to attack down the middle. The home support was loud, Ferguson asking for passionate backing for his players. Ferguson also began his now-legendary tactic of "managing controversy" by insisting that the Scottish media favored The Old Firm, a point of view that was shared by many in the country at the time.
This was an era in which Celtic and Rangers dominated the television screens, and when only delayed highlights of matches were aired. Cracking the Glaswegians' hegemony may have been Ferguson's greatest accomplishment, and that's saying something, given he guided Aberdeen to the European Cup Winners Cup in 1983, defeating Real Madrid in the final.
By then, Ferguson was on everybody's short list when a managerial job opened. He was mentioned as possible boss for Rangers, the club he had once played for, but he turned down job offers from England to remain with Aberdeen. In part, that was because the "right spot" hadn't come along, but also because he was deeply involved with Scotland's 1986 World Cup bid.
An assistant to fabled Jock Stein, he unexpectedly became the man in charge in Mexico when Stein died at the finish of a qualifier against Wales. That Cup also proved to be one of the few failures in Ferguson's career. With a talented side, Scotland had been expected to finally end the hex: The Scots had qualified for five Cups but never advanced past the first round. And neither did he. Even the voluble Ferguson seemed at a loss for words to explain how the Scots, needing a win in their final match against Uruguay to end their drought, could not score against a side reduced to 10 men in the first minute.
He went back to Aberdeen but stayed only until November. That's when Ron Atkinson was axed at Old Trafford.
As at Aberdeen, Ferguson didn't enjoy immediate success. In fact - though it is hard to contemplate today - there was a time in 1989 when fans were baying for his head after three years of disappointment. Banners were hung at Old Trafford calling for him to be sacked, and that winter, many in the media were speculating that he would be gone after Christmas. But the same qualities that Ferguson had brought to Aberdeen - his commitment to scouting and bottom-up coaching - had United's board of directors sold. They had privately told Ferguson he was there to stay.
That year, United won its first trophy under Ferguson, the FA Cup. Twenty-six more major titles, the shattering of Liverpool's long held first division title record and a knighthood would follow. And knowing Ferguson, the climax of the story has yet to be written.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.