In association withBBC Sport

Awakening a sleeping giant

When Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986, having broken the Old Firm dominance in Scotland with Aberdeen, he took over a sleeping giant. Manchester United were one of the world’s most storied clubs, but had been starved of success.

Without a league title since 1967, the club of Busby, Best, Law and Charlton had become a glorified cup team. United needed a seismic change in attitude and personnel to get back to the top. What was the notoriously fiery Scotsman going to do first?

Early years

Ending the drinking culture

Alex Ferguson's first day in charge at Manchester United.

Alex Ferguson in his office on his first day in charge of Manchester United on 6 November 1986.

Ferguson quickly identified a problem with players boozing and resolved to confront it, saying: “I'm running a football club, not a drinking club."

He eventually sold fan favourites Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath, allegedly among the team's bigger drinkers. It was unpopular, but this ruthlessness would become an integral part of Ferguson’s reign. The decision was a pivotal moment in his long journey toward reversing the club’s fortunes, as the then captain Bryan Robson explained: “What the manager proved by selling Norman and Big Paul was that he would take the tough decisions, no matter how big or popular the player.”

When Fergie's Aberdeen conquered Europe


Ta ra Fergie?

Mark Robins celebrates scoring for Manchester United.

The goal that saved Fergie? Mark Robins celebrates scoring in the FA Cup third round tie at Nottingham Forest.

In his first full campaign, Ferguson led his side to a credible second place in the league, but United finished 11th the following year.

A poor start to the 89/90 season, culminating in a 5-1 thrashing by Manchester City, saw many United fans calling for Fergie's head. Then came an FA Cup third round tie at Nottingham Forest in January 1990. Legend has it that defeat would have seen Ferguson sacked (though the club have always denied this). United triumphed 1-0 thanks to a goal by unheralded youngster Mark Robins. Ferguson’s side went on to win the trophy, easing the pressure on him and beginning an era of unprecedented success.

BBC Sport: How Robins saved Ferguson's job

Three years of excuses and it's still crap. Ta ra Fergie.

A memorable banner unfurled by United fans expressing their frustrations at the boss

26 November 1992

The man who changed everything

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Kung fu Eric: How BBC News reported Cantona's attack on a fan and subsequent ban and memorable press conference in 1995.

United finished agonisingly short of becoming champions in 1992. But the signing of the mercurial Eric Cantona provided the missing ingredient.

Fergie described Cantona's arrival: "He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head, surveying everything as though he were asking: 'Are you big enough for me?'" His outstanding talent and irresistible presence inspired his teammates. His stay was brief but explosive; four league titles, including the 'Double Double', an eight-month suspension for attacking a fan and arguably the most ambiguous quote ever by a sportsman. Despite retiring in 1997, United fans still idolise Cantona.

Watch: When Football Focus met 'King Eric'

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.

Eric Cantona's memorable quote after receiving an eight-month ban left the press incredulous


The 'Holy Grail'

Steve Bruce celebrates scoring the winner against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993.

Steve Bruce celebrating his 96th minute winner against Sheffield Wednesday.

United were neck-and-neck with Aston Villa in the title race, and looked set to lose ground as they trailed Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 on 10 April.

With time running out salvation came from an unlikely source. Steve Bruce headed home to equalise in the 86th minute. Remarkably, he repeated the trick with another header in injury time. Pandemonium ensued at Old Trafford, epitomised by famous celebrations from Ferguson and his assistant, Brian Kidd. It was the game that led to a new phrase entering football’s lexicon - 'Fergie time' was born. United were confirmed champions in May, ending a 26-year wait for the league title.

The man who told Alex Ferguson his side were champions

August 1995

"You can't win anything with kids"

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Alan Hansen utters his famous line and Steve Bruce recalls how the United players reacted to the sale of Hughes, Kanchelskis and Ince in 1995.

One of Ferguson's earliest actions at Old Trafford was to order a complete overview of United's youth system.

This led to the famous 'Class of '92' - Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Butt and the Nevilles. When he sold three of his side's stars in 1995 (Ince, Kanchelskis and Hughes) and replaced them with youth team players, some questioned his sanity. After an opening day defeat to Aston Villa, Match of the Day's Alan Hansen uttered the words he has never lived down: "You can't win anything with kids". When United, inspired by a returning Eric Cantona, won the double in May, Ferguson was vindicated.

The forgotten member of the Class of '92What does it take to unearth a footballing genius?

April 1996

Master of the mind games

Kevin Keegan when managing Newcastle United during the 1996 title run-in.

Kevin Keegan's outburst at Sir Alex Ferguson during the 1996 title run-in became the stuff of Premier League legend.

Ferguson revelled in engaging his fellow managers in psychological warfare, most memorably during the 1995/96 season.

After a 1-0 victory against Leeds, he suggested teams might not try as hard against title rivals Newcastle as they did against his side. In response, an emotional Kevin Keegan snapped on live TV criticising Ferguson and quipping: "I will love it if we beat them. Love it." United went on to win the league. The mind games continued throughout his career, provoking incidents such as Liverpool manager's Rafa Benitez's infamous 'fact' rant against Ferguson in 2009.

BBC Sport: Benitez lays into Ferguson in 2009

And I'll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.

Kevin Keegan reacts to Ferguson's provocation during the title run-in

May 1999

Make mine a treble

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Highlights from BBC Radio 5 Live's commentary of United's dramatic victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final (26 May 1999).

Following Eric Cantona's retirement in 1997, United lost the title to Arsenal. But they would hit back in style during the 1998/99 campaign.

United secured a third domestic double in six seasons, to leave Ferguson to focus on the one trophy that had eluded him – the Champions League. As the final entered injury time United trailed Bayern Munich 1-0 and their season looked set to end in bitter disappointment. But two goals inside two minutes from substitutes Sheringham and Solskjaer changed everything. United created history by winning the treble and Ferguson had the defining moment of his career. Oh Teddy, Teddy...

The Guardian: Ex Bayern defender can't watch '99 final

Football, bloody hell.

Fergie encapsulates the thoughts of every United fan in the aftermath of the Champions League win

February 2002

Retirement U-turn

Dutch defender Jaap Stam playing for Manchester United.

The unexpected sale of Jaap Stam brought a rare 'mea culpa' from Fergie, as he later regretted selling the defender.

Ferguson announced in the summer of 2001 that he would retire at the end of the following season, but within six months he had a change of heart.

The club announced that he would be signing a new deal. Sir Alex (he had been knighted in the wake of the treble triumph) said his wife Cathy had told him that he wasn't ready for a pipe and slippers. He later called announcing his retirement the biggest mistake of his career. The 2001/02 season proved a trying one – after a poor start United finished runners-up behind Arsenal. The manager later admitted to another mistake, regretting the sale of defender Jaap Stam in August 2001.

BBC Sport archive: Sir Alex to stay on as United boss

Februrary 2003

Flying boots (and teacups)

David Beckham with a cut eye after a clash with Sir Alex Ferguson.

Sir Alex was never afraid to sell big-name players if he felt they had become a distraction. Beckham was sold to Real Madrid shortly after "bootgate".

Ferguson’s dressing room outbursts were legendary, with rumours of him sending teacups flying on occasion in a fit of pique.

But after one defeat to Arsenal, it was a flying boot that struck David Beckham. Ferguson, who had tired of Beckham’s celebrity, later explained: “David swore. I moved towards him, and as I approached I kicked a boot. It hit him right above the eye. He rose to have a go at me and the players stopped him. 'Sit down,' I said. 'You've let your team down.’ The next day the story was in the press. In public an Alice band highlighted the damage. It was in those days I told the board David had to go.”

Ferguson: Beckham had to leave UnitedBeckham pays tribute to Sir Alex as United boss retires

If I'd tried it 100 times or a million times, it wouldn't happen again. If it did, I would carry on playing.

Fergie attempts to laugh off the incident with David Beckham


Between a Rock and a hard place

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Jeremy Paxman and Michael Crick discuss the dispute over the horse Rock of Gibraltar (Newsnight, 11 February 2004).

Sir Alex fell out spectacularly with racing tycoon, and major United shareholder, John Magnier over the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar.

Ferguson was registered as co-owner of the horse with Magnier's wife, Susan, but his name was dropped from the list of owners when the colt went to stud. He contested the decision, prompting a major dispute with Magnier and his business partner JP McManus, who both criticised the manager's behaviour regarding transfer deals. The move put pressure on Ferguson, who was vociferously backed by United fans, and he eventually reached a financial settlement to end the matter.

Ferguson ends dispute with Magnier and McManus

November / December 2005

The winter of discontent

Roy Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson.

For so long the heartbeat of Ferguson's teams, Roy Keane's departure from Manchester United was sudden and acrimonious.

2005 was a tough year for Ferguson. Some United fans were unhappy with his public support of the club's new owners, the Glazers.

Chelsea, inspired by a billionaire owner and their own brilliant manager, looked set to dominate the Premier League. Then following a 4-1 defeat by Middlesbrough, Ferguson's inspirational captain Roy Keane took some team-mates to task in an MUTV interview. It proved the final straw for the manager, with Keane leaving the club shortly after. When United crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage, a number of fans were seriously questioning Ferguson's future.

Keane in shock Old Trafford exitPhil McNulty: United at crisis point

I think with Sir Alex Ferguson it was pure business - everything is business. He was driven and ruthless. That lack of warmth was his strength.

Former Manchester United captain Roy Keane

May 2008

Conquering Europe again

Sir Alex Ferguson and Cristiano Ronaldo celebrate winning the Champions League in 2008.

Ferguson and Ronaldo celebrate winning the Champions League. The pair formed a strong bond.

After a relatively fallow few years without league success, Ferguson typically rose to the challenge.

He built another hugely successful team, spearheaded by the youthful attacking talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. This side's greatest moment came on a night of high drama in Moscow, as United became European champions again, defeating Chelsea after a penalty shootout. A second Champions League triumph further cemented Ferguson's legacy as he joined an elite list of managers to win the famous trophy more than once.

BBC Sport: United earn dramatic Euro glory

He was the one who told me to do all the right things. He was a football father for me.

Cristiano Ronaldo explains what Sir Alex means to him

May 2011

Knocking Liverpool off their perch

The Sir Alex Ferguson Stand is unveiled at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex addresses the crowd at Old Trafford after the unveiling of a stand in his honour on 5 November 2011.

United lost star player Ronaldo in July 2009, finishing second the next year. But winning the title in 2011 is seen as one of Fergie's finest moments.

This United squad was weaker than many previous sides, and it was widely considered to be the sheer drive of Ferguson that made the difference. As Alan Hansen explained: "Had he been in charge of any of the top four clubs in the league, then that club would have won the title." This was a particularly significant title as it was United's 19th, putting them one ahead of Liverpool. Given that Ferguson's stated aim in 1986 was to "knock Liverpool off their perch", this one was especially sweet.

Demanding the best every single day

May 2012

Last day heartache

Sergio Aguero celebrates scoring the goal that won the league for Manchester City in 2012

Sergio Aguero celebrates his injury-time winner that sealed the 2012 league title for Manchester City.

United let slip an eight point lead in the league over Manchester City, meaning the teams were level on points going into the final day of the season.

Victory at Sunderland seemed to have sealed it for United until Aguero's late, late goal gave City a 3-2 win over QPR. City won the title on goal difference. Fergie used the bitter disappointment as motivation: “We were champions for 30 seconds. It was a devastating moment. You have to deal with it. I said to the players in the dressing room: There's nothing to be ashamed of; you were fantastic. Walk out that door and tell everyone you're going to win the league next year. That's your job."

Listen: Aguero goal wins the title for City

May 2013

20 and out

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Football Focus tells the story of 8 May 2013 – the day Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager of Manchester United.

Ferguson didn't dwell on disappointment. United bought Arsenal's star striker Robin van Persie in the summer and won the league by an 11-point margin.

Then, suddenly, on 8 May the man who had bestrode English football like a colossus announced he would be retiring at the end of the season. Sir Alex said it was important to go out as a winner. His retirement caused a seismic shock as it had begun to feel he was unstoppable. For football fans, love him or hate him, Ferguson was a constant in a fast-changing world. Real Madrid had 21 managers in the time he was at United. Football would never be the same. We may never see his like again.

Sir Alex turns 75 - Golden years: The tale of United's 20 titlesThe secrets behind Ferguson's success

Sir Alex, you were my idol for a coach, and you are an example for all future generations.

Brazilian legend Pele pays tribute to Ferguson