The Match of the Day pundits had a new one to pick over: Manchester United had fielded a number of young hopefuls in a Premiership match and lost. “You don’ win anything with kids” observed Alan “terrible defending” Hansen. Watching this, a seething Alex Ferguson determined to ram Hansen’s words back down his throat. He knew that his young guns were the real deal, and he wasn’t about to let a former Liverpool player decide otherwise.
For this was the reply to those who wondered if the Red Devils could do it without Eric: we already knew about Ryan Giggs, and following him were the Nevilles, Paul Scholes, and a shy Essex boy called David Beckham. In 1999, they helped Man U firstly to a Premiership and FA Cup double, then topped it with a last gasp triumph in the Champions’ League final over Bayern Munich, which left Ferguson almost speechless as the microphone was offered to him. “Football. Bloody hell” was all he could manage.
Now, the achievement of Matt Busby had been equalled. More, the Premiership returned to Old Trafford the next two seasons as well, meaning that Man U had now equalled the record of Liverpool, Arsenal – and Huddersfield Town. But the competition were not content to sit and watch: Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal side had beaten Man U to the Premiership in 1998 and now did it again in 2002. Ferguson brought in an assistant who was to prove more influential to his team than most know even now: a quiet man from Portugal called Carlos Queiroz. Next season saw the Red Devils back at the top.
The problem was, though, that Queiroz was himself in demand, and he then went to manage Real Madrid. Real didn’t win La Liga in 2004, so Queiroz got the sack (even Fabio Capello got the sack from Real, and he won), returning to Manchester and a grateful Ferguson. But once more the landscape changed: another, rather less quiet, Portuguese had fetched up in the Premiership. José Mourinho had brought success to FC Porto, and now brought it to Chelsea.
Queiroz brought not only his coaching expertise and insights: he also provided the Portuguese and Brazilian connection. Nani, Anderson and especially Cristiano Ronaldo (thought at the time to be a bit pricy at over 14 million) came in on his watch. Although this time it took a little longer to get back to the top, Man U returned there in 2007. They retained the Premiership the following season, added a second Champions’ League title, and then the managerial merry go round struck: Portugal coach Luis Felipe Scolari was headhunted by Chelsea, and Queiroz went to replace him. Of all his assistants over the years, it was to Queiroz that Ferguson was the most generous after his departure.
So the question now was, could they do it without Carlos?