There have been some fairytale endings to football matches under the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, so it will have come as no surprise to anyone that yesterday's game at Old Trafford, Ferguson's last as Manager, ended in the fashion it did. The game looked to be heading for an anti-climactic 1-1 draw and at the end of an emotional afternoon, few could have blamed all involved for taking this game for granted as United had already been crowned champions and League Cup winners Swansea City had nothing to play for. The occasion was definitely bigger than the actual game and the game could have been an afterthought to everyone concerned.
Not to Ferguson.
Rio Ferdinand's 87th minute winner typified the belief that Ferguson has installed into this club and it was a fitting way to end the most successful Managerial career of all-time. The will-to-win and late heroics have been the trademark of the Ferguson reign at United. He has installed into every player that has worn the famous red shirt to play until the final whistle, to push forward when others seem content in sitting back and settling for what they have. He is never satisfied and has always demanded perfection from his players for every second of the 90 minutes. Whether it be Steve Bruce's 96th minute winner against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 to propel United to their first League Title in 26 years, or Ole' Gunnar Solskjaer's legendary stoppage time winner in Barcelona to win the European Cup, the annals of history are littered with late goals in crucial moments that have brought so much success to the football club during the 27 seasons Ferguson has spent as Manager. It is no coincidence his teams never know when they're beaten, it is a part of the club's philosophy to win at all costs and that is down to Ferguson. When he took over at Manchester United in 1986 the club was on it's knees. The glory days of the Matt Busby era had long gone and the club was heading nowhere fast. What was worse for the long-suffering United fans was their bitter rivals Liverpool had dominated the domestic and European scene since the 1970's and showed no sign of relinquishing their stranglehold on the Title. When Ferguson arrived at United he stated one of his desires was to 'Knock Liverpool off their perch', something that sounded ridiculous at the time given the gulf in class between the two sides. Not so now, Ferguson leaves United having claimed their 20th league title and Liverpool are languishing in near mid-table as they look to rebuild under Brendan Rodgers.
Things did not begin too well for Ferguson during his first few years as United Manager. It was widely acknowledged that some of the club's more senior players were drinking too much and not preparing in the right way for game and their performances were suffering as a result. They were also growing old together, which was a huge concern as players of that era tended to be a bit more complacent as they reached the twilight of their careers. Ferguson installed a tighter level of discipline at the club and this did not sit too well with some of the players, who thought Ferguson was being too strict and was treating them more like Army recruits than football players. Ferguson recognised the need for a younger, more dedicated player at the club and began bringing them in over his first few years in-charge. He had some success, finishing Runners-Up in the 1987-88 season, albeit 9 points behind Champions Liverpool. However, a disastrous beginning to the 1989-90 season, where they had lost an incredible seven games in a row, had some fans calling for Ferguson to be sacked and it was widely perceived that if he were to lose an F.A Cup third round tie at Nottingham Forest then Ferguson would have been shown the door.
As fate would have it, Striker Mark Robins gave United a critical 1-0 victory and Ferguson's job was saved. United actually went on to win the F.A Cup that season and they haven't looked back. It is strange to think now that Ferguson was under so much pressure and it is a great testament to the Board Members that they stuck by Ferguson and realised his long-term plans for the club were the best way to move forward. Football is a cut-throat business and everybody is looking for the quick fix, particularly in this day and age with so much at stake on the financial side of things. You can look at the most successful clubs throughout history and they all have one common denominator and that's stability. Whether it be Jock Stein at Celtic, Arsene' Wenger at Arsenal or Ferguson at United. These clubs have been some of the most successful in history because they have not altered from their long-term objectives. There is no doubt this was a turning point in the landscape of Manchester United and one can only imagine what would have become of the club if they had removed Ferguson as Manager. There is no way the fans would have had a fraction of the success they have had over the last 20 years without him at the helm, that is a fact.
With United now committed to the long-term plan, they had to endure more misery as far as gaining the league title was concerned. At least until the 1992-93 season, where they claimed their first title for 26 years and reward the faith that everyone at the club had in Ferguson's model for success. He also had a bit of luck during this season with two new additions that would become two of the greatest players to ever play for the club. It was in the 1992-93 season that Ferguson decided to unleash a young left-winger by the name of Ryan Giggs onto the unsuspecting football community. He had used Giggs sparingly until this season, keen not too put too much pressure on his young shoulders. You can't keep talent like Giggs' a secret for long though, and his performances enthralled everybody who was privileged enough to see him play. He was touted as the second coming of George Best and some would say his career has surpassed that of the great man held in such high regard at Old Trafford. 658 appearances and 114 goals later Giggs is now a United Icon and having just signed a one-year extension to his current deal is now looking to play until he is 40 years of age. A remarkable achievement in today's game that relies on pace and power. Giggs has been an ever present throughout all the great moments in Ferguson's career and is one of the main reasons behind the club's success.
The other, of course, was Eric Cantona's arrival from Leeds United. The troubled but talented forward was signed for £1.2 million and proved to be a masterstroke by Ferguson. Cantona provided the club with a huge lift both on-and-off the pitch and even though his career was brief (143 appearances, 64 goals) he will be forever be remembered as one of United's most gifted players. Ferguson did have his troubles with Cantona, most notably the incident where he drop-kicked a fan after being sent off at Crystal Palace that resulted in an eight month ban, but i think Ferguson will himself conclude that for the money that exchanged hands, Cantona was one of his best pieces of business.
That's not to say Ferguson hasn't been ruthless during his Managerial career, he has had to be at times. He has no trouble disciplining the biggest stars at the club and his infamous 'Hairdryer' has become the stuff of legend. He has had no problems moving players on throughout the years if he feels the time is right. The bounty of youth players developed by the club that have come through the ranks no doubt made his decisions much easier. United under Ferguson have continuously produced International players from their youth team that have been the cornerstone of every successful championship winning team during the 71-year old's time as Manager. Ferguson has always stressed the importance of having local, home-grown players in the squad to aid the cohesion of the team and no team was more successful in doing this than Manchester United. Their most gifted crop, the 'Golden Age' of United youngsters were one of Ferguson's greatest accomplishments. When Ferguson sold on star players Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes it sent shockwaves through the football community. Not only that, he didn't sign any meaningful replacements and was convinced his youth players could fill the void left by some of the club's departing stars. This was met with widespread criticism throughout the media, with BBC Pundit Alan Hansen's now famous quote 'You don't win anything with kids' being the most recognisable as we look back in time. Ferguson, as he has been for most of his career, was right and the players like Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes would end up providing the team's backbone during the most successful period in the club's history. Beckham, as we are all now fully aware, would go on to become a global superstar and remains so to this day. This did not sit well with Ferguson at times and he did end up selling Beckham as he thought his off-the-field exploits were harming his game. Beckham recently declaring his admiration for Ferguson in an interview, stating he still sees Ferguson as a father figure and the man responsible for all the success that has come his way, a true indication of just how much influence the Scot has had on all aspects of the football club from the outset of his appointment.
Scholes, in particular, is a joy to watch. The most complete midfield player England has seen for a generation and widely regarded by his fellow pro's as one of the finest to ever grace a football pitch. When the great Zinedine Zidane declared Scholes as 'The finest player I ever had the pleasure of competing against', you know you've done something right. Shy and unassuming, Scholes fit the Ferguson mould for a player perfectly. He formed an unplayable partnership with Captain Roy Keane in the centre of Midfield and his vision, eye for goal and timing of his runs were on another level to what we had seen from any player before or since. When Scholes retired at the end of the 2010-11 season, his presence was greatly missed. Scholes had emerged as one of the finest role models in the game and even at 37, was still contributing greatly to United's success. It was no surprise that when Ferguson was looking for help in January 2012 for his depleted Midfield he turned to Scholes, who came out of retirement to assist the Manager he owed his career to. Scholes was masterful in his return and played a huge part in United's triumph this season. His ability to retain possession and see things on the field almost before they happen will not be seen again for some time. As Scholes left the field on Sunday at Old Trafford for the final time, as understated as his persona had been throughout his career, the United fans present gave him an ovation fit for a king. Rightly so, Scholes had been at the forefront of everything great that United have achieved in the Premier League era and it was a fitting end to the career of a once-in-a-lifetime talent.
As we look back at Ferguson's career there is one season that stands out more than any other, the 1998-99 treble winning season. An inconceivable achievement when you look back at it. The three biggest trophies any English club can win were all won by United in what was probably Ferguson's finest ever squad. They reclaimed the title from the hands of Arsenal with a 20 game unbeaten sequence to end the season and pip their North London rivals by one point. Then, the convincing 2-0 defeat of Newcastle in the F.A Cup final had every United fan dreaming of the impossible. What happened in Barcelona against Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final exceeded all expectations. United had been largely outplayed for most of the game and were very fortunate to only be 1-0 down entering the final stages of the game. Munich were seemingly in control but began to sit back and invite pressure onto them. In the 91st minute United had a corner and Teddy Sheringham scored a sensational equaliser, sending the United fans in raptures. The drama was not over either. The Munich players had nothing more to give and they were visibly devastated by United's leveler. United, as had been the case for most of that season, were relentless. They continued to pressure and another corner led to Solskjaer's close-range 94th minute winner, giving Ferguson his first European Title with the club. It was a finish that has yet to be matched and brought down the curtain on the finest season in the club's history. Ferguson himself said it best after the game “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football, bloody hell,” amid jubilant scenes at the Nou Camp. This was without doubt Ferguson's finest moment as Manager. To manage his players through three grueling competitions and to win them all was simply extraordinary.
Ferguson would add one more Champions League medal to his collection, a 2008 penalty shootout victory over Chelsea, but he has stated he feels United have under-achieved in Europe over the years. A club of this magnitude should be competing in the latter stages of the tournament far more frequently than they have done in recent years. That may be a bit over-critical from the Manager, but the high standards he has set himself and his team over the years are the main contributing factors to United's longevity and success. The have had pretenders to their throne as England's best club over the years and Ferguson has seen them all off. First Blackburn Rovers, then Arsenal, Chelsea and finally their 'Noisy Neighbours' Manchester City. All have come with big spending power and threatened to end United's dominance and all have failed in the long run. One of Ferguson's greatest traits as United's boss is he has never taken anything for granted. Success one season doesn't necessarily mean you can expect the same next time around. Manchester City, at times this season, have looked far too complacent in their efforts to retain the title. They have the look of players that felt the job was done last season and struggled to find the motivation to have another crack at it this time around. That attitude is just not good enough when you have United snapping at your heels and City didn't put up much of a fight as United regained the League Championship for a record 20th time. This would have been extremely satisfying to Ferguson as City were easily their biggest threat in terms of consistent dominance, given their financial backing and squad of players. Ferguson has once again had the last laugh, as he always seems to do and after City's humiliating F.A Cup final defeat at the hands of Wigan, City manager Roberto Mancini is poised to be sacked. The sort of hair-trigger response that would have cost United and their fans incredible amounts of success if they had done the same with Ferguson. What a difference a year makes in Manchester.
When Sir Alex did indeed announce his retirement, it came as a shock to all concerned. He had shown no desire to retire during the course of the season and had spoken in interviews about building on this season and stated his desire to remain at the heart of all matters at the club. No doubt this is a decision that Ferguson agonized over for some time, when you have been at a club for as long as he has it becomes part of you, it's in his blood and it would have been with great sadness that he came to this decision. One good thing for United as they look to the next chapter in their history is Ferguson couldn't be leaving them in better shape. They are the Premier League Champions and the best team in the country by a fair distance. They have a tremendous mixture of young and experienced players who are all capable of coping with the stresses of playing at the highest level on a regular basis., The much praised youth development shows no signs of slowing down, with players such as Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly and Rafael all fully established in the first team and in the case of Welbeck and Cleverly, Internationals. With all these things in United's favour, it is easily the best job in football to be walking into regardless of who you are following. David Moyes, who himself was the subject of an emotional send-off at Everton on Sunday, will have some mighty big shoes to fill following the great man. However, Moyes was hand-picked by Ferguson himself to continue the astonishing progress the club has made under his leadership. Moyes has done a remarkable job at Everton given their modest means and the pressure will be on for him to deliver a trophy as soon as possible to silence the doubters who feel the job may be too big for him. Most true United fans will give Moyes their backing as Ferguson has signed off on the appointment and they know he wouldn't have left the club in the hands of anybody who wasn't capable of sustaining it's growth. Moyes is a highly skilled motivator who gets the best out of his players and is in the same mould as Ferguson, so it shouldn't be that big of an adjustment for the players. What will be interesting to see is how Moyes will utilise the funds at his disposal, something he hasn't been fortunate enough to have during his time at Everton. Ferguson will, of course, be staying around the club as an Ambassador and a Director and Moyes will do well to seek his counsel if he should require it.
As Ferguson stood on the pitch, thanking the fans, players and staff alike for their contributions during his 27 seasons, you could see just what this football club means to him. 'The greatest experience of my life' is how he described his time Managing the World's biggest football club and I'm sure that most of the 76,000 watching on would agree with him. Ferguson had said that he had chosen this time to retire as his wife recently suffered the loss of her sister and after all she has sacrificed for him that it was time to return the favour. A proud family man, Ferguson will no doubt be looking forward to spending time with those who mean the most to him. That's not to say he won't be keeping a watchful eye on proceedings at Old Trafford and left the fans with a clear instruction on how things should proceed in his absence "I'd like to remind you that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me. The board stood by me, the staff stood by me and the players stood by me. Your job now is to stand by your new manager." On last instruction from the great man to his loyal following that is sure to be obeyed.
Not even the apparent rift with Wayne Rooney could spoil this occasion, such was the emotion of the day. Rooney was omitted from the squad amid rumours of a bust-up with teammate Phil Jones and a Transfer Request. Rooney has looked a shell of his former self in recent months and is no longer considered a regular in the United lineup following the arrival and subsequent success of Robin Van Persie. Ferguson later confirmed that Rooney had indeed submitted a transfer request which the club had declined. Ferguson indicated that he wanted Rooney to go away and think about what it would mean to leave a club of this magnitude and come to a decision after the summer break. This isn't the first time Rooney has threatened to leave the club and may just be looking for some appreciation or perhaps a new deal. Rooney is already on a reported £250,000 a week at United and a new contract given his below-par performances this season won't sit well with players more deserving or the fans. The general consensus amongst fans is that Rooney should be allowed to leave if the club receives a fair offer for him, given his reported desire to seek pastures new. Ferguson has always been a believer in the 'No player is bigger than the club' philosophy and Rooney is no exception. You would have to wonder where Rooney could possibly go that would be a better environment than this but if the rumours of fighting with teammates are true then he may have burnt his bridges with the club.
In the end, it was the perfect way to end a staggering career. Lifting the Premier League title for the 13th time in-front of the adoring fans who have worshiped him for years. The smile on his face as he looked around this great stadium for the last time as Manager said it all. He would miss this, and miss it greatly. Not as much as the game will miss him. One of the true characters without question and whether you like United and what they stand for or not is irrelevant. You cannot deny the achievements and the standards they have set under Ferguson's leadership. It is the benchmark for what all other club's aspire to be and has been for quite some time now. At the end of his fairytale career, Ferguson has amassed 38 trophies during his time at Old Trafford, which simply beggars belief. Whether United continue in this vein in his absence or not remains to be seen. The memories will live forever for everyone that has been associated with the football club during this incredible time.
Sir Alex Ferguson, a one-off and the greatest manager in the history of the game, will never be forgotten.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_