The football season – my mistake – hasn’t quite finished yet. Wednesday night saw the conclusion of this season’s Champions’ League: Barcelona, a team owned not by big business but by its members, and taking no money for shirt sponsorship, outclassed Manchester United. The Red Devils’ fans were deeply disappointed, but were not calling for managerial scalps. It was not always thus.
Man U were for so many years a team of permanent underachievers. Managers came and went with some regularity; there was even a season spent in the second tier of football. In 1986, a bad start to the campaign did for Ron Atkinson, and Alex Ferguson left Aberdeen, to come south. He got the team into runner-up spot twice, but there had still been no trophies when, in late 1990, the banners started appearing at Old Trafford: “four seasons of excuses – bye bye Fergie”.
The plain fact was that Man U was in need of such change that it was taking some time for Ferguson to get to grips with it. With a significant helping of hindsight, others in the club have said as much, and that they were behind the Scot all the way. But this is total tosh. The decision had been taken to sack him, and it was only a matter of time: that point would come when the team were knocked out of that season’s FA Cup. Only they didn’t get knocked out: they won it. The turning point came in the first match with Nottingham Forest: had Forest scored instead of hitting the woodwork, then Ferguson would have been on his way. In any case, the Man U board already had a successor ready to answer the call.
The cup victory bought Ferguson time. He was now a successful boss, and even a failure to secure the last title of the old First Division the next season could not dislodge him, as his team won the Cup Winners’ Cup in Rotterdam, beating Barcelona. But there was a need for something, someone, to take the team that bit further, to make the difference. Here, Ferguson was the singularly fortunate recipient of a phone call from a friend over in France: Gérard Houllier.
Houllier tipped off Ferguson about a player with a hellish reputation for poor discipline, but an awesome talent, who was unsettled at his present club, Leeds United. Ferguson, reasoned Houllier, might be just the manager to get the best out of him. The player was Eric Cantona, and from the next season, Man U were back at the top of the pile.
In fact, the team won four out of the first five FA Premiership titles. But in the season where they slipped up, they lost Cantona at a key moment, and to a memorably bad lapse in discipline, when he attacked an opposition supporter in a midweek match against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park. Then, in 1997, Cantona retired abruptly, and Man U again failed to clinch the Premiership. The thought then entered that they could not do it without Eric.
Ferguson had to disprove that thought.