Alex Ferguson announced earlier today that his 26th season managing Manchester United would be his last. During that tenure, Ferguson’s trophy case became obscenely crowded ; 13 Premier League titles, two European Cups and five F.A. Cups are the more treasured portions of a haul that saw Manchester United become one of the most successful clubs in the history of modern team sports, and a global marketing juggernaut to boot. With Fergie’s impressive reign almost in the rear view mirror, it’s almost hard to believe there was ever a spell in which his job at Old Trafford was in jeopardy. But as this item from When Saturday Comes’ Ashley Shaw illustrates (“Where it all began at Man Utd”, December 2006), things came perilously close to ending for Ferguson towards the end of 1989 :
United were playing dreadful football before ever-dwindling attendances and during a 2?1 home defeat to Crystal Palace in December, Stretford End diehards unfurled the infamous banner, “Three years of excuses and we’re still crap – Ta-ra Fergie” – the die appeared to have been cast. In the intervening years Ferguson has had to deal with many crises, but none have rendered him as powerless as the day the hardcore support openly called for his head.
Part of the crowd’s frustration lay with the board. Chairman Martin Edwards’ failed attempt to sell the club to Michael Knighton, the ball-juggling businessman who later had such a strange time at Carlisle, had made United a laughing stock and highlighted the meagre funds available to the manager. Even so, most agreed that the manager had squandered what little money there was. The acquisition of former Dundee United winger Ralph Milne in November 1988 turned Fergie’s transfer dealings into a bad joke.
By 1989 five United managers had failed the main brief of the job. Ferguson knew when he took over that, in his own words, he had to “knock Liverpool off their fucking perch”, yet three seasons in, his targets looked as imperious as ever while United floundered in mid-table. No one in that meagre 33,514 crowd would have entertained the notion that eight of Fergie’s flounderers against Palace would go on to win the title three seasons later. Yet Mark Robins’ famous Cup-tie winner a month later at the City Ground turned the tide and Ferguson rode his luck all the way to Wembley and beyond.