Golden years: The tale of Manchester United's 20 titles

By Chris BevanBBC Sport
Man United's 20 league titles

Some have been won at a canter, others have gone to the wire. But there is a story behind each of Manchester United's title triumphs, from their first in 1908 to their 20th, secured on Monday evening.

This latest landmark, extending United's record as England's most successful club in domestic competition,external-link is testimony to their extraordinary dominance in the last two decades.

When Sir Alex Ferguson won his first and United's eighth crown in 1993, Liverpool led the way with 18 titles but United also trailed Arsenal (10) and Everton (9). Now they are out on their own in front, while Liverpool have not added to their tally.

"It's not so much passing Liverpool. It's more important that United are the best team in the country in terms of winning titles," said Ferguson after United had won their 19th title in 2011. Achieving that goal did not affect his appetite for more glory.

For six of United's successes, the title race has gone down to the final day. There was no dramatic finish for Ferguson this time, but this season was not the first to have been settled so early on.

United share the record (along with Preston, Sunderland and Aston Villa) for the biggest margin of victory under the system of two points for a win (11 points in 1955/56) and hold it outright since it switched to three in 1981 (18 points in 1999/00).

There have been two league and FA Cup Doubles in 1994 and 1996, one Treble (1999) and many more near misses during campaigns built on brilliance or belligerence, and often both at the same time.

From their early triumphs under Ernest Mangnall to the great teams of different eras under Sir Matt Busby and now Ferguson, BBC Sport looks at the men and the moments of magic that have made the difference.

Key: EC = European Cup CL = Champions League UE = Uefa Cup FAC = FA Cup LC = League Cup

1: 1907-08 - The first title, with hints of blue

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How it was won: With thanks to their neighbours. Ernest Mangnall's team was built around four men who joined from Manchester City - Billy Meredith (left), Herbert Burgess, Jimmy Bannister and Sandy Turnbull - after being suspended by the Football Association in a scandal over illegal payments.

United, promoted only two years earlier and still playing at Bank Street in Clayton - the site of which is now the car park for the Manchester Velodromeexternal-link - topped the table from start to finish after winning 13 of their first 14 games.

What they said: "Our side had been strengthened by the inclusion of four City players who had been sacked for impropriety. The great Billy Meredith was one such player.

"We created a record in the number of points obtained. The club were not allowed at the time to give us a bonus, but to show their appreciation the directors arranged a continental tour for us to Austria and Hungary." (Defender Charlie Robert in the Manchester Saturday Post)

2: 1910-11 - Opening the Old Trafford account

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How it was won: On the final day, in United's first full season at Old Trafford.

Aston Villa went top on goal average on the penultimate weekend after beating United 4-2 at Villa Park. Villa also had a game in hand, but could only draw it at Blackburn, meaning the title race went to the last game - when they lost to Liverpool at Anfield and United thumped third-placed Sunderland.

What they said: "Sunderland scored first and the scoreboard at Old Trafford showed Liverpool were winning 2-0. The news was the tonic we required. In the next 10 minutes we paralysed Sunderland and scored four goals.

"At the end of the game our supporters rushed across the ground in front of the stand to wait for the final news from Liverpool. Suddenly a tremendous cheer rent the air and was renewed again and again and we knew we were the champions once again." (Defender Charlie Robert)

3: 1951-52 - Busby ends the 41-year wait

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How it was won: The 'nearly men' held their nerve. United had finished second in four of the previous five seasons under their ambitious manager Matt Busbyexternal-link but his first title, and United's first for 41 years, finally arrived on the last day of the season.

Arsenal needed to beat United by seven goals to snatch it from their grasp but that never looked looked like happening, especially when injury reduced the Gunners to 10 men after 24 minutes. They finished with nine and Jack Rowley (pictured) scored a hat-trick as United coasted home 6-1.

What they said: "Johnny Carey, Johnny Aston, Allen Chilton, Stan Pearson, Jack Rowley and the rest of the 'old gang'. You set a high standard of skill, sportsmanship and team play. You were an example and a challenge to the youngsters who have so brilliantly succeeded you." (Busby speaking in 1957 when he described this title win, the last hurrah of his ageing post-war team, as the inspiration for his younger players)

4: 1955-56 - The Busby Babes come of age

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How it was won: In style.

By now the 'Busby Babes' made up the majority of United's line-up.

This swashbuckling side, largely home-grown and with an average age of 22, stormed to the title, remaining unbeaten at Old Trafford and dropping only three points in 21 games there.

A 14-game unbeaten streak from February until the end of the season gave them a record winning-margin, the biggest of the 20th century under the system of two points for a win. That summer, Busby went against the wishes of the Football League and ensured the club entered the European Cup.

What they said: "One of the secrets of United's success is that nearly all of us grew up as boy footballers. The Manchester United way is the only way we know." (Defender and two-time title-winning captain Roger Byrne, extract from the Official Illustrated History of MUFC)

5: 1956-57 - The first treble bid falls short

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How it was won: United were chasing glory on three fronts in the spring of 1957. After a 3-1 defeat by Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the first leg of their European Cup semi-final on 11 April, three league wins in nine days saw them retain their title.

That meant United could field their reserves in an Easter Monday win over Reading but they went out of Europe after a thrilling 2-2 draw with Madrid in the return on 25 April.

The Treble was gone, and they missed the Double in controversial fashion, losing the FA Cup final to Aston Villaexternal-link after keeper Ray Wood suffered a fractured cheekbone in a challenge from Peter McParland, meaning United played for an hour with 10 men.

What they said: "We were ruthless you know. And we had this dream. To do it perfectly. We'd win everything but with proper elegance. We'd play the sweetest football. We'd have great players. Poetic. Eleven grown men chasing a ball. Very poetic." (United chief coach Jimmy Murphy)

6: 1964-65 - Busby rebuilds again

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How it was won: Their tightest ever triumph.

It took time for United to recover from the 1958 Munich disaster that shattered the club, but Busby built another title-winning team, led by the 'Holy Trinity' of Denis Law (pictured), George Best and Bobby Charlton, who set the template for a dazzling brand of attacking football. Success came with a swagger.

They faced a long, hard fight for the title, though. United beat Arsenal in their penultimate game, while their nearest rivals Leeds could only draw at Birmingham.

That meant only a 17-0 last day defeat by Aston Villa could deny United the title on goal average. In the end they lost 2-1 and won the title by 0.686 of a goal.

What they said: "Although our defensive record was good, we never lost our attractiveness as a team because we were so deadly on the break." (United midfielder Nobby Stiles)

7: 1966-67 - On the cusp of European glory

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How it was won: By what would become one of United's trademarks - another strong finish to the season.

Busby described his fifth and final title as "my finest hour" before he finally captured the European crown he craved the following season.

A second-half surge of form saw United stay unbeaten from Boxing Day onwards and their biggest win of the season, a 6-1 thrashing of West Ham on 6 May, saw them clinch the title in style.

What they said: "The most important factor behind our championship success was signing Alex Stepney." (Busby on the keeper he bought from Chelsea for £55,000 in September 1966)

"It was the first thing I noticed, coming in as a Londoner. There was a seriousness and a hardness about northern teams, especially United, that I hadn't found in southern teams. United had great players but they had that steely edge of determination with it." (Goalkeeper Alex Stepney)

8: 1992-93 - First Premier League triumph

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How it was won: On the golf course, inspired by Eric Cantona. The Premier League era began and, with it, the end of United's long wait for an eighth title.

Aston Villa pushed them hard but faltered in the run-in. On 2 May, manager Alex Ferguson was playing golf when a stranger approached him on the 17th green to say "excuse me Mr Ferguson, you are the champions. Oldham have won at Villa".

The players partied all night at defender Steve Bruce's house and the celebrations continued during their win over Blackburn the following evening.

What they said: "The club is alive. It's as if the good old days were back and the major factor, as far as I'm concerned, is the Frenchman. (Ferguson, speaking about his recent signing Eric Cantona on 1 January 1993)

"It was like a huge burden had been lifted from the fans. At last, after 26 years, United would no longer be ridiculed as the massive club that couldn't take the title." (Defender Gary Pallister describes Old Trafford before the Blackburn game)

9: 1993-94 - The first double

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How it was won: After a wobble in the spring.

United did not lose a league game between September and March and led by 16 points in January. But a run of one win in five games allowed Blackburn to close the gap, which went down to three points when they beat United with seven games to go.

That was as close as things got at the top, however. Five wins saw United home and they went on to complete their first Double by beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final.

What they said: "When we lost out to Leeds in 1992, some people wondered if we would ever win the title at all. For the United teams that followed our first title, it was easier because the burden had been removed and they could get on with playing and winning without having to worry about history all the time." (United forward Brian McClair)

"Au Revoir Cantona and Man United.. come back when you've won 18" (A banner on the Kop when United drew at Anfield in January)

10: 1995-96 - The one they won with kids

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How it was won: Speaking on Match of the Day on the opening day of the season after Manchester United lost 3-1 to Aston Villa, host Des Lynam said: "United were scarcely recognisable from the team we've known over the last couple of seasons, what's going on?"

BBC pundit Alan Hansen famously replied: "You can't win anything with kids… the trick of winning the championship is having strength in depth, and they just haven't got it."

Those kids went on to do the double. Newcastle were 12 points clear in January but imploded and their manager cracked after Ferguson suggested other teams tried harder against United than against Newcastle.

What they said: "He went down in my estimation after that and I'll tell him this - we're still fighting for this title. He has got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I tell you, honestly, I would love it if we beat them now, absolutely love it." (Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan, ahead of the final weekend)

United beat Boro 3-0 to secure the title.

11: 1996-97 - Au revoir, Cantona

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How it was won: Heavy defeats by Newcastle and Southampton early in the season were forgotten as a long unbeaten run put the season back on track.

A fourth title in five seasons was secured without kicking a ball on 6 May when Liverpool lost to Wimbledon and Newcastle were held by West Ham.

What they said: "He has exceptional ability, an inspiration - simply a great player. And you have got to put this team up there with the best of any era. It has so much talent and ambition and so many good young players coming through." (Sir Bobby Charlton on Eric Cantona's decision to retire at the end of the season,external-link and the team he left behind)

"We learnt from Eric's actions, the way he played and trained. Gary and Philip Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and myself stay behind after training and just practise free-kicks and shooting.

"These are things we've always done because that is what Eric always used to do." (Ryan Giggs on Cantona)

12: 1998-99 - The Treble

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How it was won: Winning back the league title from Arsenal was the first leg of United's historic treble.

The Gunners pushed them all the way to the final day when Andrew Cole came off the bench to score a lobbed winner (left) as United came from behind to beat Spurs and edge out Arsene Wenger's men.

He was not the only United substitute to have an impact that year, as Bayern Munich found out in the Champions League final. The FA Cup was also bound for Old Trafford, making this the greatest season in the club's history.

What they said: "The most important thing was the spirit of this team. They just never gave in, they don't know how to. A manager can talk about tactics but if the players can't bring that inner beast out of them then he is wasting his time. They've got that beast inside them and they found it when it mattered. People will never forget this team. My 1994 double winners had mental toughness but this crop is the best. They have proved that, they are legends." (Sir Alex Ferguson, knighted following the Treble success)

13: 1999-00 - Batteries recharged in Brazil

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How it was won: On the beaches of Brazil.

United were panned for pulling out of their defence of the FA Cup in order to compete in the inaugural World Club Championship in Rio de Janeiro in January. When they failed to get out of their group, their trip was described as a disaster.

History, a record points haul and the biggest winning margin in top-flight history, demonstrates otherwise.

Their chief rivals Leeds and Arsenal dropped points while they were away and United, who had enjoyed a 26-day break from league action, ended up running away with the title.

What they said: "The trip gave us a break mentally. We came back refreshed in our legs and heads." (United defender Mikael Silvestre, whose side won 11 and lost only one of their last 16 league games after getting back from Brazil)

"The league was organised for United this season. Of course this was a major factor in the title." (Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger)

14: 2000-01 - The first hat-trick of titles

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How it was won: At a canter, again. United went top when they beat Leicester 3-0 in October and stayed there. The title was all but sealed with 6-1 win over nearest rivals Arsenal in February, with Dwight Yorke (left) scoring a 22-minute hat-trick.

In fact, United could afford to lose their last three games and still finish 10 points clear.

What they said: Before the season was over, Ferguson announced he intended to leave United at the end of the following campaign, saying: "I'm really looking forward to next year. I've got a great bunch of players who have shown over the years they have a special character.

"I want to go out with my head held high, knowing I have completed 16 years at the club regardless of what's happened in the background. The players want to be the first to win four titles in a row and I want to help them."

Arsenal won the league by 10 points in 2001-02, but Ferguson remained at the helm.

15: 2002-03 - Another fightback

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How it was won: From behind. United were six points behind leaders Arsenal in mid-September.

Writing in his column for the Daily Telegraph, BBC pundit Alan Hansen remarked at the time that Ferguson's position was "the greatest challenge of his career".external-link

Ferguson responded: "My greatest challenge is not what is happening right at this moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their [insert swear word] perch. And you can print that."

Typically, United came good, taking the title by winning 14 of their last 17 games.

What they said: "Even in the most successful campaigns, there always seemed to be a game when it went horribly wrong. A nightmare match that reminded you that success never comes easy. It was as if we needed to lose a game badly to teach us that we couldn't afford to lose any more. That season it came at Maine Road in November when we lost 3-1 to Manchester City." (Defender Gary Neville)

16: 2006-07 - Meeting the challenge of Chelsea

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How it was won: By attrition, in a two-horse race between United and champions Chelsea, chasing a hat-trick of titles.

Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea were not about to give up their crown easily but their draw with Bolton meant United took a five-point lead into the last three games of the season, one they would not relinquish.

What they said: "This title is the team's greatest achievement to date simply because it is a relatively new team and really it's their first attempt at winning a title together. That's why we're all encouraged. I think this team will get better." (Sir Alex Ferguson)

"From last year our style has changed. Cristiano Ronaldo, Louis Saha and Wayne Rooney started playing up front together and the speed in our play, what I call the Manchester United way, returned. It's speed. Quick, counter-attacking football. Defending one minute and then ball in the back of the net 10 seconds later. We lost that for some reason over the previous couple of years but we're getting back to it." (Gary Neville)

17: 2007-08 - Ronaldo reigns supreme

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How it was won: Another desperately tight triumph. Cristiano Ronaldo scored the most goals but others played their part, like Carlos Tevez's equaliser at Blackburn or Ben Foster's heroic goalkeeping display at Derby.

That meant United kept their noses ahead, just. On the last day of the season Chelsea needed to beat Bolton and hope United did not win at Wigan. In the end, the Blues could only draw and United won 2-0.

What they said: "A lot of how good Cristiano is down to how successful United are as a complete team unit. They can attack with five or six players. When they attack, they are the most difficult team to play against right now. Chelsea are more machine-like - they will grind out results whereas United will run over you." (Blackburn keeper Brad Friedel, speaking in April 2008)

This title left United one short of Liverpool's total of 18 and, when asked whether they could beat it, Ferguson said: "I think it will come. This side is young. It's developing all the time. There are plenty of years left in them and they will do it in their own time."

18: 2008-09 - Another hat-trick

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How it was won: With a lot of help from goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who went 14 games without conceding a goal.

That was not the only hot streak United enjoyed. Eleven wins on the trot from Boxing Day saw them hold off a determined Liverpool side, who won 4-1 at Old Trafford and lost only twice all season. United became the first team to win three consecutive English top-flight titles on two separate occasions - and also equalled the Reds' total tally.

What they said: Asked just before United clinched the title with a draw at Arsenal if the best team always wins the league, Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez said: "It just means they have more points.

"If United win the league it means they will have more points, clearly, but there are some very good teams in different positions in the table. To say who is the best at one moment is not easy."

"The greatest challenge now is to try to win it next year because that would be something special. A 19th title would give us a special place in the club's history." (Sir Alex Ferguson)

19: 2010-11 - The record breaker

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How it was won: At Old Trafford, where only two points were dropped all season. Not on the road, where United won only five times in the league.

Champions Chelsea were five points clear at the end of October before dropping 20 points in their next nine games. United stayed unbeaten until 5 February,a run of 24 matches, but only finished off the Blues' challenge in May, when they beat them 2-1 to move six points clear with two games to go.

A 1-1 draw with Blackburn at Ewood Park saw them over the line, and secured outright the record for most titles.

What they said: "It is a great achievement by the team and manager to overhaul our nearest rivals during the 70s and 80s. Fifteen, 20 years ago you would never have thought it." (Long-serving winger Ryan Giggs)

"You have to look at the league and look how strong it is. Our rivals have dropped unexpected points too. It is not fair to say it is a bad United team or a bad league. This is a hard league to win." (Sir Alex Ferguson)

20: 2012-13 - Winning it back, again

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How it was won: United lost the title to neighbours Manchester City in the last seconds of the previous campaign but they won it back in far less dramatic circumstances.

When City dropped points, United kept on winning. Initially they did it the hard way, coming from behind, but by the New Year they had found their rhythm - rarely hitting top gear but picking up victory after victory to keep moving towards title number 20. By mid-February they had built an unassailable lead.

What they said: "The only thing I said to them at the start of the season was don't lose it on goal difference again. It has been a big turn over from last year and I have to congratulate our players on their consistency." (Sir Alex Ferguson, who has now won 13 titles as United boss)

"United have been a machine who have kept killing. We haven't. They were always going to come back strongly, and we intended to do the same. It's just how the season panned out." (Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart)