It’s all been a bit rubbish since Fergie called time on his life as manager of Manchester United, hasn’t it? Well, when I say rubbish – I mean rubbish for United fans the world over. The majority of the football world whose allegiances lie elsewhere have been rubbing their hands in glee as David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer and Ralf Rangnick (if we mention him, Giggsy should probably get a shout too) all failed to return United back to the summit.
Manchester United have announced Erik Ten Hag as their new manager and he will arrive at Old Trafford over the summer – no doubt plotting how the hell he can restore the club not just back to its former glory, but to at the very least being the best in the city. Mind you, they kind of mean the same thing at the moment.
United will hope they have got this one right – which made us think about a previous time when United announced a manager that would go on to (eventually) dominate English football.
It’s fair to say, that although it was big news at the time and probably carried a lot of 1986 fanfare, the unveiling of Ferguson and Ten Hag have one or two differences.
Let us transport you back around 36ish years – November 6th, 1986 and the day Fergie landed at Old Trafford.
The landscape at Old Trafford
By 1986, 1967 was a long time ago. And 1967 was the last time Man United lifted the First Division (in fact, it ended up being their last First Division title). 19 seasons had passed and Old Trafford has seen Liverpool become the dominant team of the 70s and early 80s, Leeds have an incredible decade in the 70s, Nottingham Forest appear in the late 70s and early 80s, Aston Villa win a title and then the European Cup and now Everton were on the cusp of another defining era in their history.
Sir Matt Busby, Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson had all had a go at winning the title but all had, ultimately, failed. There were a smattering of FA Cups in there – in the late 1970s, United reached three finals in four years. Docherty’s side lost 1-0 to Southampton in 1976 before returning to Wembley in 1977 to triumph 2-1, denying Liverpool the chance to win the Treble. Dave Sexton was then in charge for the classic final against Arsenal in 1979 – after being 2-0 down, United scored two goals in the final five minutes only for the Gunners to snatch the Cup through Alan Sunderland with pretty much the last kick of the game.
After Sexton’s stint in the hot seat, Atkinson won the FA Cup twice – beating Brighton in a replay in 1983 and Everton in 1985, best remembered for United defender Kevin Moran becoming the first player to be sent off in a final and Norman Whiteside scoring a glorious curled winning goal in extra-time.
It was Atkinson who had looked most likely to lead United to title glory – he finished 3rd in his first two seasons (81/82 and 82/83) and then 4th in the next three campaigns.
It was the 85/86 season that hurt most – United had raced out of the blocks, winning ten out of their first 11 games – but were unable to close it out as Liverpool ended up winning the double in Kenny Dalglish’s first run as a player/manager.
A poor start to the 1986/87 season saw Martin Edwards, the United chairman, decide a change was needed. United were fourth from bottom having won just three of the opening 13 matches. Atkinson’s last match was a Littlewoods Cup defeat to Southampton on the Tuesday, before being informed he was being dismissed later in the week.
Atkinson said at the time of being told;
“I’m not bitter. We’ve not been helped by injuries, but that is not an excuse.”
Edwards was quoted as saying that Atkinson had been fired “in light of performances over the last 12 months”.
United had been through seven managers since the last title – could the eighth make any kind of difference?
Alex Ferguson – Aberdeen manager
Put simply, Alex Ferguson’s achievements had become the stuff of legend across Europe during his glorious spell at the Pittodrie club.
Fergie managed to overturn the traditional dominance of the Old Firm duo Rangers and Celtic in his eight years at the club – winning three league titles, four Scottish Cups, a League Cup, and, incredibly, a European double – including famously beating the mighty Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983.
Ferguson had been consistently linked to a move south of the border during his time at Aberdeen – but he had firmly stayed put until United finally knocked on the door. It was the news that Dons fans had feared would come one day – “Fergie, Knox off to United” said the Press & Journal.
Aberdeen’s unexpected seat at the top table of Scottish football was very much under threat by this move, as the P&J went on to report;
“Aberdeen manager and director Alex Ferguson last night agreed to become Manchester United’s eighth manager since the (Second World) war – only hours after the dismissal of Ron Atkinson.
“The 45-year-old, the Dons’ boss since 1978, is moving just five months after giving up the Scotland manager’s job – and Archie Knox, his co-manager, is moving to Old Trafford as well.
“Ferguson said last night that United were “the only club in the world” that could have persuaded him to leave Aberdeen.”
And in an instant, it was the end of the club’s most successful era.
Ferguson had inspired the club in a way United hoped he could do for them. He was quoted as saying following his departure;
“After eight years working with (club chairman) Dick Donald and everybody else at Pittodrie, I cannot begin to express the sadness I feel at having to end what for me has been an unforgettable experience.
“The Old Trafford job, however, was something I could not turn down.”
The Aberdeen players were gutted, understandably – but many, including club captain Willie Miller – one half of the defensive rock that Aberdeen was built on, his partnership with Alex McLeish being watertight, expected it to happen at any point, telling the Press & Journal;
“The first reaction, of course, is disappointment that we are losing Alex, but looking at it from the manager’s point of view, it is a step forward and it was probably a challenge which he could not resist, given his record.
“It was not unexpected that he would be approached by Manchester United, but everyone at Pittodrie will be disappointed that he has accepted.”
There was a clear and understandable feeling that whoever replaced Fergie at Pittodrie was on a hiding to nothing. How could anyone live up to the man who had achieved the seemingly impossible?
The man tasked with stepping into such big shoes was Ian Porterfield. He lasted two seasons and during his tenure, the Dons did reach the Scottish League Cup final and qualified for Europe in both seasons. Before Fergie, this would have been huge. Post Fergie, it felt like a big step backwards as Rangers emerged under Souness as the side to beat.
Of course, in this day and age, we get instant fan reactions within seconds of any news breaking. We even get early player hot-takes (thanks, Fred) on the new appointments – back in 86, we had to rely a lot more on what the press were saying before we could get down the pub and put the world to rights.
So, what did the press say?
Frank McGhee of the Guardian led with;
“The manager Manchester United really need, have desperately lacked and would love to have is unavailable and disqualified for one reason. He is 76 years old. But if they can’t get Sir Matt Busby, it is obvious that they must look for someone with almost all that marvellous man’s qualities – reaching for the lot would be asking for a bit much. The indications are that in Alex Ferguson they may have come fairly close to hitting the target, even though the most they can hope for is an inner rather than a bullseye.”
Patrick Glenn of the Observer observed;
“When Martin Edwards offered Alex Ferguson the Manchester United job last Thursday, it was as if the Big Fisherman himself had held out the key to the Pearly Gates. The very idea of Ferguson’s non-acceptance was absurd. His irresistible competitiveness – at times, it borders on the psychopathic – has long been sustained by apparently endless energy, and to have refused the biggest club in Britain would have seemed to Ferguson a self-betrayal deserving of hara-kiri. Ferguson’s unshakable commitment to whatever cause he espouses has been evident since, as a teenager, he led his fellow apprentice toolmakers’ industrial action at their factory on the south side of Glasgow.”
And the Associated Press penned;
“Having previously rejected offers from Glasgow Rangers and Tottenham, plus a number of advances from Europe, it was obvious it would take something rather special to entice Alex Ferguson away from his beloved Aberdeen. Manchester United are that special and when they dispensed with the services of Ron Atkinson on Thursday there was never any doubt that Ferguson would be able to resist the temptation of joining one of the truly great names of world football.
“So keen was Ferguson that he agreed to become United’s seventh manager since the retirement of Sir Matt Busby in 1970 without bothering to inquire what salary he could expect to earn at Old Trafford. ‘I remember the late Jock Stein telling me he always regretted turning down the chance to manage United when he was offered the job,’ said Ferguson, after settling into his oak-panelled office at Old Trafford. ‘It’s the only job in football which would have taken me away from Aberdeen, so you could say I’m both heartbroken to leave Scotland but as excited as a teenager to be joining the biggest club in football.’”
What happened next
Alex Ferguson didn’t exactly get the new manager bounce we speak of today. His first game in charge ended in defeat – 2-0 against Oxford United who would go on to win the League Cup that season.
Fergie had to wait a fortnight for his first three points – beating QPR at Old Trafford following a 0-0 draw with Norwich.
In his programme notes before that game, Ferguson wrote:
“Taking over a club of the magnitude of Manchester United is an awesome prospect. But ultimately a football club is a football club and I shall simply try to run things at Old Trafford in what I believe to be the right way.
“I am not really interested in what has happened here in the past. I don’t mean any disrespect to the great achievements of Manchester United over the years. It’s simply that now there is only one way to go, and that is forward. The aim at this club must clearly be to win the championship.”
Understandable prose from the new boss – he could not say anything else. He was taken to Old Trafford as they believed he was the man to end the drought. Fergie left Aberdeen because he agreed.
United improved over the course of the 1986/87 season eventually finishing 11th in the First Division – the first time they had not been in the top four since Atkinson’s arrival some years before.
They did the double over arch-rivals Liverpool – results that would play a big part in the title landing the other side of Stanley Park. They were the only away side to win at Anfield that campaign.
Other high points included a 4-1 battering of Newcastle, a derby day victory over City which edged them towards the Second Division and a 2-0 win over Arsenal, a side slowly coming together in the early days of George Graham.
Not all was positive, however – United lost twice to Wimbledon in their debut season in the First Division. Norwich City won at Old Trafford just after Christmas. And “lads, it’s Spurs” turned them over 4-0 right and the end of the season.
Fergie knew the team needed a complete overhaul, saying in his 1999 autobiography Managing my Life:
“When I joined United on 6 November 1986, they had gone 19 years without a title and nobody had to tell me that if I did not end that drought I would be a failure.
“Putting them in a position to challenge constantly would, I knew, be a long haul. I would have to build from the bottom up, rectifying the flaws I had recognised and spreading my influence and self-belief through every layer of the organisation.
“I wanted to form a personal link with everybody around the place – not just the players, the coaches and the backroom staff but the office workers, the cooks and servers in the canteen and the laundry ladies. All had to believe that they were part of the club and that a resurgence was coming.
“But unless the rebuilding was accompanied by a measure of success, there was bound to be doubt about whether I would be given enough time to fulfil my plans.”
That summer, he hit the transfer market for the first time – signing Celtic striker Brian McClair for £850,000 and former European Cup winner Viv Anderson for £200,000. He failed to sign AC Milan’s Mark Hateley who went to play for Arsene Wenger at Monaco and Peter Beardsley – who moved from Newcastle to Liverpool. Ferguson also, curiously, turned down the chance to sign John Barnes – believing Jesper Olsen was a better option. Fergie was also keen on Norwich’s Kevin Drinkell – who opted to stay at Carrow Road.
Players were starting to be moved out as well – Peter Barnes joined City during the season. Frank Stapleton went to Ajax. Goalkeeper Chris Turner was listed along with Graeme Hogg. Gary Bailey retired following injury.
When you look down the squad list at the end of the 1986/87 season, there were some names who survived the long-term cull and played a part in United eventually winning something under Ferguson – the 1990 FA Cup and 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup proving to be the eventual springboard for winning the first FA Premier League in 92/93.
Clayton Blackmore, Gary Walsh and Bryan Robson played parts in the United rebuild.
Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Norman Whiteside, Gordon Strachan and Terry Gibson did not.
It took time, as we know, but Ferguson eventually got it right at Old Trafford.
We would probably all agree that in the more modern era he would not have kept the job long enough to lift the first FA Cup.
Will Ten Hag end up being Ferguson or Moyes? Only time will tell – and maybe, just maybe United should have stuck with their first man in after Sir Alex after all.