Key Figures to the Success of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson has released his autobiography Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography this week. It’s safe although I have not read (and do not plan on doing so), it’s clear Ferguson is willing to credit 95% of his success to one man: himself. So, Fergie, if you’re reading this, this list I have compiled of other figures involved in the game (barring the first two) proves that success cannot be done alone and acknowledgement of the work of others is the sign of a real champion.

Greg Dyke and Rupert Murdoch

The creation of the Premier League not only earned Man Utd a huge increase in revenue, but also allowed to their brand to be one of the biggest today with Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Bryan Robson

The original “Captain Marvel”, Bryan overcame alcoholism then injuries. Played only 14 games throughout the inaugural title-winning 1992-93 Premier League season, but his tenacity and prolific goal-scoring from midfield in previous years had set the benchmark for Ferguson’s future players to exceed. Praised by Ferguson for his stoic character and his refusal to cry when scolded, he was an antithesis of the modern-day player.

Steve Bruce

Arguably the best defender to have never been capped for the England national side. “Brucie” scored the two goals against Sheffield Wednesday after going 1-0 down to help create the infamous phenomenon of “Fergie Time”- a trademark of the never-say-die attitude instilled in Man Utd sides for years to come (plus the endless harassment of referees by players and coaches alike).

Paul Ince

Although an influential player in the early success of Ferguson, his transfer from West Ham was a sign of Fergie’s sheer ruthlessness. The callousness of Ferguson to lure Ince to Man Utd as soon as possible without any regard for his image became noted. Ince had said he would be on holiday when the deal was to be completed and took a photo of himself in a Man Utd shirt before leaving. Unfortunately the Daily Star found the photo and published in the Daily Express, causing West Ham fans to hate Ince.

A note on Robson, Bruce and Ince- all of three of these players in the early success of Fergie’s Man Utd days were/ now are managers. (Robson- Middlesborough, West Brom & Sheff Utd/Bruce- Birmingham, Wigan, Sunderland & Hull City Tigers/ Ince- Blackburn, MK Dons & Blackpool). A mark of a successful managers encouraging and providing a springboard for his top players to follow his managerial footsteps? 

Eric Cantona

He had his moments of glory, his moments of arrogance and his moments of brutality, but his iconic status transcends almost any player who appeared in a Man Utd shirt in the Fergie era. His controversial transfer from the arch-rivals Leeds United, his chip goal versus Sunderland, his kung-fu kick against a Crystal Palace fan then followed by his seagulls analogy… opinions are divided among rival supporters and Man Utd fans alike, but his personal recognition of being awarded so many “Best Player” is a testament to transcending Man Utd into a world footballing brand.

Fergie’s Fledglings

Arguably the biggest figures (by some but not me) to Fergie’s success was the discovery of such fine talent with a matter of a few years. Compared to the Busby Babes, ridiculed by Alan Hansen “You’ll never win anything with kids” and forming the bulk of the 1992 FA Youth Cup champion squad, their unity and dedication would prepare them for their bright future.

The key starlets of Man Utd’s academy were the Neville brothers, Welsh wing-wizard Ryan Giggs, future English media icon David Beckham, the ginger genius Paul Scholes, the exciting but ill-fated Keith Gillespie and dependable stalwart Nicky Butt, who were trained by Eric Harrison and Brian Kidd. These youngsters provided a firm base which not only provided a promising pool of talent, but more importantly Fergie could command his authority and control even further than he had done with his inaugural title-winning players.

Kevin Keegan

Keegan’s Newcastle emerged as Ferguson’s second challengers to his monopoly after Kenny Dalglish’s Jack Walker-funded Blackburn side dramatically faded after their title winning 1994-95 season. After building a ten-point cushion in the ill-fated 1995-96 campaign, Keegan became a noteworthy victim of Ferguson’s infamous mind games with his outburst of “I will love it if we beat them! Love it!” aimed at destabilising his managerial rival during a live television interview. Sadly, this proved to be a huge mistake as caused Newcastle blew their lead and his quote was named Quote of the Decade in the Premier League 10 Seasons Awards.

David Dein

Often acknowledged by Arsenal fans for his contribution to their successes between 1983-2007 as VIce-Chairman, Dein’s mutual decision with his board of directors to build Ashburton Grove relegated Arsene Wenger to working on a comparatively shoestring budget to that of their main rivals. Wenger, who had emerged as Man Utd’s chief rivals during the late nineties and early 2000’s, bore the brunt of heavy criticism by fans for his wage restriction and his activity in transfer market. Losing Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, with the acquisition of Andrey Arshavin, Denilson and Manuel Almunia have scarred the legacy of Wenger’s post-Invincibles years.

Roman Abramovich 

“The original sin”- Jose Mourinho’s sacking after drawing with Rosenberg BK in September 2007 drew a divide between the Russian Oligarch and Chelsea fans. By sacking Mourinho, Ferguson was mostly likely relieved to be freed of the shackles of worrying about his matches against the “Special One” and the mind games which proved to be the only mind games Ferguson never broke. It is arguable that rumours of Mourinho’s impending return to Stamford Bridge circulating in early 2013 sealed the nail in the coffin of Ferguson’s decision to retire from management.

The merry-go-round of managers in the stop-gap period between the sacking and re-signing of Mourinho can be argued as having contributed to the fluctuating results of the Blues and allowing the Red Devils to rubber-stamp their dominance from 2007-09. Player power became the order of the day, with key figures of the Chelsea dressing room organising the deliberate non-performance against West Brom to achieve Andre Villas-Boas’ sacking in 2012. However, difficulties with match officials and UEFA emerged during this time with the atrocity of the blatant turn-downs of four penalty appeals in the 2008-09 semi final against Barca could be suggested as a reason for Chelsea’s struggles in this period.

The Prima-donna superstars: van Nistelrooy, Rooney and Ronaldo

Many die-hard Man Utd fans love to believe Fergie’s success came solely from the Academy system, but the trophies won with the senior squad allowed Fergie funds to splash out on big names. Big funds were obviously needed to keep pace not just with the increasingly-lucrative Premier League, but also European rivals and brought further success. Fergie may have believed this continuation of success would further implement his authority with his players (and accelerate his legacy towards immortality), but the onset of the modern-day footballer proved necessary for him to bend and even abandon his principles to work and create the best working relationship with these more “sensitive” men. Fergie would, however, still smash his iron fist when he desired, booting Beckham out of the club, selling Jaap Stam prematurely, removing Roy Keane’s infamous criticism of the Man Utd squad and snubbing van Nistelrooy from his match-day squads in the closing games of the 2005-06 season proved Fergie wanted no opposition in his own dressing room until the very end of his reign.

However, the magnifying genius of Ronaldo which had transcended every superstar Man Utd ever had with the possible exception of George Best was sufficient for Fergie to show leniency in order for the team to profit their success to their maximum. Whilst Fergie may have credited himself with the ascendancy of Ronaldo, many may feel he restricted the growth of Rooney and took advantage of Rooney’s selflessness as a player to accommodate Ronaldo. Many also feel Rooney’s good will was abused further by continuously being played with an ankle problem during the 2009-10 season with Berbatov misfiring, leading Rooney’s transfer request and threats to walk out unless he received a wage raise. Furthermore, the purchase of van Persie is believed to raised Rooney’s ire even further and leaves further evidence of Ferguson’s cold and selfish treatment for his own ends.

The Glazer Family

With the huge debt they placed upon the club, it can be argued they restricted Ferguson’s resources in the closing years of his reign. Though it appears strange their names appear on its list, it is further abandonment of Ferguson’s principles, not only as football coach but from his political beliefs (leftist, socialist, Labour supporter) which prove pivotal to his successes in his final years. In his interview with Jon Snow, he provides desperate reasoning to his backing of the unfettered capitalist Glazer family in their funding of the club. He refuses to criticise their business activities and their political and economic beliefs, therefore indirectly pleading ignorant of the clashes between his and their ideologies (but presumably sharing the same highly flexible moral values), so that proving success (no matter how tainted or contradictory) was his sole goal in his footballing life.

Roy Keane

For Sir Alex Ferguson to discredit the most rigid and powerful cog in his wheel of success within his autobiography is a sign of his lack of integrity as a person.

In my opinion, Roy Keane is the most important figure in the success of Ferguson’s Man Utd reign. No other player could replicate the manager and his playing/managerial persona as well as Keane did. Since his departure in 2005, Man Utd have struggled for a leader who could vocally bark orders and confront the opposition head-on with no flickering of their desire to continue pressing and chase victories. Roy Keane was the only representative Ferguson ever had in terms of having a captain who took the manager’s drive, passion and responsibility of co-ercing team-mates into busting a gut to dominate opponents and the never-ending lust of trophies.

His early life was an impoverished childhood in unemployment blackhole Cork, where as a boy he was rejected by overseas English scouts for his size, instilling self-doubt and a belief that football was an unforgiving business. Spending time being managed by the late Brian Clough introduced Keane to the hard knocks of the dying brand of old school English football, but developed his contempt for under-performing team-mates. When signed by Fergie, Keane’s confrontation with officials and players worsened, but he proved to be the embodiment of the perfect Ferguson player: hard-working, forward-thinking and selfless.

Keane developed a fearsome character within the Old Trafford dressing room, as staff would describe the atmosphere at training sessions at Carrington dictated by whatever mood Keane was in when he entered the premises. Despite Keane’s lectures on commitments towards others, he lived a “My way or the highway” lifestyle off the pitch as heavy drinking sessions lead to embarrassing newspaper headlines.  Subsequently, his battles against alcoholism became well-documented, particularly when during a long term knee injury period incurred by Alfie Haaland. Keane’s drinking benders proved prolific during weekends, causing Sir Alex Ferguson to announce he was willing to fine any player seen drinking with Roy. The upheaval of having his professionalism questioned meant he emerged thinner, fitter and sharper than his previous guise.

His most notable performance in a Man Utd shirt was 1999 Champions League semi-final second leg versus Juventus, where after scoring the first goal of the night for Man Utd, he picked up a yellow card for a poor tackle on Edgar Davids. Many describe top players who pick up yellow cards which lead to suspensions often being emotionally affected and allowing their contribution to the team’s effort; not Roy Keane however. Immediately after being booked, he is visibly shown barking out orders even more passionately and his determination to run every ounce of energy he had in his legs proved his willingness to carry a team on his shoulders. He was unwilling to shirk his responsibilities on a night which Man Utd succeeded in reaching a historic first Champions League final.

Unfortunately, his 2005 interview with MUTV proved his undoing. Such open and flagrant criticism of players which Ferguson may have provided the hairdryer treatment in a bygone era was deemed out of order by the Man Utd management. However, there were some who felt Ferguson and Keane had tired of managing their wraths against each other and Keane’s ageing legs was reason enough to cull him from the club for good.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s worst fear was having to work alongside a potential control-freak among his coaching staff. This has been suggested for Man Utd’s rejection of Roy since his departure.

There is something about Keane that inspires such extreme devotion – and also wonder. At the 2012 Soccer Aid event, superstars like Robbie Williams and Will Ferrell were clearly in awe of Keane. Most fans of big English clubs other than United hate him, of course, and in that respect Keane is an uber-Marmite figure: those who love him would generally be willing to go to the ends of the earth for any unspecified Keane-related purpose. As a player, he was of his time by not being of his time: he captured the pre-millennium angst of the outsider who cannot understand the world of which he is part. In doing so he brought to mind a number of pop-culture characters of a similar disposition. Two in particular: Tyler Durden in Fight Club and Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. Like Keane, both raged, raged against the dying of society’s light. There are other similarities. The intense adoration Keane receives evokes that of Tyler Durden, while his obtuse charisma, anti-heroism and scattergun frustration is shared by Tony Soprano. Keane, like Soprano, was raging for a better world and a better him. He has always been an incredibly complex man, a compelling fusion of instinctive intelligence and pathological desire.

Keane, like Tony Soprano, is a mass of often uncomfortable contradictions. Thank goodness for that. The most interesting people in life are invariably flawed, and Keane has been the most interesting person in British football for the last few decades – an outsider even down to his Diadora boots, never mind the candour that is so rare in modern football. What kind of hero would you prefer? Prom kings are for dreamers and liars. Having Roy Keane as a hero allows a vicarious ride through life in all its miserable glory.


If this tells us of the essentially cruel nature of football, they will not necessarily be our abiding memories of Keane. We will remember him as somebody who personified leadership, who controlled games with forensic intelligence, who was a grossly underrated passer and who, on occasion, put the fear of God into both opponents and teammates. That was a consequence of an intractable obsession with excellence. Keane combined a higher state of concentration and an inhuman perfectionism to consistently reach a level of performance beyond almost anyone else – even if that level of performance regularly did not satisfy the critic within. He was not interested in glory. Glory was something that came if you did your job properly. That, nor heroism, interested him. “You can be a hero – whatever that is,” he sniffed in his autobiography.

Players of Keane’s type are regularly described as ‘winners’, and with good reason. Keane did not so much have a will to win as a need to win. “If I was putting Roy Keane out there to represent Manchester United on a one against one, we’d win the Derby, the National, the Boat Race and anything else,” Sir Alex Ferguson once said. “It’s an incredible thing he’s got.”


Keane’s detractors say he was little more than a thug who went round booting people at a time when the game’s laws had not evolved sufficiently. This is such offensive poppycock that it barely merits mention. The primary weapons in Keane’s arsenal, by a distance, were his energy, positional sense and game intelligence. Never was this more evident than during a magnificent performance in the 1996 FA Cup final against Liverpool. The game is remembered for Eric Cantona’s masterful late winner, which clinched the Double for United and completed his fairytale; justly so, yet that goal was infinitesimal in the grand scheme. In this game, as much as any others, Keane’s footballing philosophy emphatically came to pass.

This particular devil has always been obsessed with detail, and the minutiae of football matches. “They say God is in the detail; in football that’s true,” he said in his autobiography. “Sometimes games are won by a magical goal – that’s what people remember. But the essence of the game is more mundane. Detail. Wearing down the opposition. Winning the psychological battles – man on man – from the moment the ref blows the whistle for the first time.” Keane called it the Law of Cumulation. “First tackle, first pass, first touch, everything counts. A lot of little things add up to the thing that matters: breaking the opposition’s hearts – but first their minds, their collective mind.”

Liverpool were a dangerous, free-flowing side who created umpteen chances in the two league games against United that season: a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford and a 2-0 win at Anfield that could have been 8-0 but for Peter Schmeichel. Keane did not play at Anfield, but he grudgingly respected Liverpool’s abundant attacking talent: Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and Steve McManaman all played the most progressive football of their career under Roy Evans. The unpredictable brilliance of Stan Collymore was also worthy of respect. Keane’s fear of Liverpool’s capabilities was accompanied by loathing. In short, he couldn’t stand them. The notion of the Spice Boys was anathema. Lee Sharpe tells a story of him and an “absolutely smashed” Keane bumping into the Liverpool players in a bar one Saturday night. Keane went through them one by one, dismissing their England B caps, England under-21 caps and League Cup winners’ medals. The gist, frequently expressed, was simple: “What the hell have you done in the game?”

Then they turned at Wembley in cream Armani suits. The FA Cup final had been turned into fancy dress day, a jolly boys’ outing. You can only imagine the unremitting contempt on Keane’s face as he looked those sartorial monstrosities up and down. With help from his trusted lieutenant Nicky Butt, Keane shut Liverpool down with remorselessness, concentration and intelligence. They had barely a chance all game. It was one of the great defensive-midfield performances. It meant the game, as hyped as any FA Cup final in the modern era, was a stinker, but are you going to tell Roy Keane that was a bad thing?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s