Sir Alex: The appointment
In the autumn of 1986, Manchester United was a club skulking in its own shadow. Fresh from a 4-1 reverse at Southampton, the Reds languished in the top flight’s relegation zone a year after being apparent title shoo-ins. With the club’s demands of excellence scarcely realised since Sir Matt Busby’s abdication, the United board recognised the time for change had again arrived.
In five years at the helm, manager Ron Atkinson had won two FA Cups and had never finished below fourth in the league, but it was Big Ron’s inability to top second spot which proved his undoing.
“Manchester United is a club with exceptionally high standards,” recalls then-chairman Martin Edwards, now the Reds’ honourary life president. “Ron had been with us five seasons and had done reasonably well, but it started to go wrong the season before we decided to make the change. After the game at Southampton I think we were 21st in the league, so we had a meeting on the plane on the way back to Manchester and we all decided it was the right thing to do at the time.
“It was very difficult to tell Ron, because he hadn’t been a failure and he was very enthusiastic, and it’s never an easy job telling a manager that you want him to leave. That bit was difficult, but making the actual decision for the right reasons wasn’t difficult.”
The previous campaign had started with 10 straight league wins, but had sputtered out long before the Reds juddered over the line in fourth place. Understandably, the early months of the 1986/87 season had been soundtracked by incremental discontent on the terraces, while Atkinson was repeatedly subjected to questions about his future in the media.
Keating named the contenders as Brian Clough, Howard Kendall, Don Howe and even Bryan Robson in a player-manager capacity. Others had Terry Venables as the favourite. For the board, however, one figure had long since been elevated above the rest.
“There might have been a few names mentioned – probably just whoever was popular at the time – but none of them was seriously considered,” recalls Edwards. “It was a unanimous decision from the board to go for Alex Ferguson. He was absolutely the preferred choice of all of us.
“We’d first met him when we signed Gordon Strachan from Aberdeen. Gordon had already signed a contract with Cologne and we really wanted to extricate him from that deal, so that’s when Alex came in. He was batting on Manchester United’s side, probably because he wanted him to come to United but also because the move would get Aberdeen more money if he did. So he was very helpful to us and that’s when I first got to know him.
“We knew how well he’d done in overtaking Glasgow Rangers and Celtic and he’d won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 against the mighty Real Madrid, so his pedigree was there. When we actually met him and realised what a firebrand he was and saw the way he conducted himself, that really just confirmed how impressive he was.”
With the target agreed, United’s kingmakers nevertheless had to tread carefully. There was no guarantee that Ferguson would either want or be allowed to leave Pittodrie, especially in the midst of such spectacular and sustained feather-ruffling of Glasgow’s Old Firm.
“We didn’t want to end up with egg on our face,” admits Edwards. “We decided we’d better find out if Alex was willing to join us, so one of our directors, Mike Edelson, rang Aberdeen’s switchboard and
put on a Scottish accent, used an assumed name [that of Alan Gordon, Gordon Strachan’s accountant] and asked to be put through to Alex Ferguson. Alex came on the phone, Mike told him I would like a word with him and he put me through. We arranged to see him that evening – Bonfire Night – up in Scotland and it was the usual cloak and dagger thing: myself, Mike, Bobby [Charlton] and Maurice [Watkins] met him at a petrol station, he drove us round to his sister-in-law’s house and we all met him. It just confirmed that he was the one that we wanted.
“But really what we wanted to know from him was if his chairman, Dick Donald, would allow him to leave. Alex made it quite plain that he wanted to join us, and he also said that he had an agreement with his chairman that he could leave if United came in. Alex had actually said that he wanted something in his contract that he could join a big team, and Dick Donald had said: ‘you’re only leaving if Manchester United come in’. That wasn’t difficult really. So I rang Dick Donald the next day and he agreed to see me.”
Donald made a last-ditch bid to keep his man, with the staggering gesture of offering Sir Alex ownership of the Dons, but to no avail. Compensation was quickly agreed and permission was granted for talks to begin. They didn’t take long. As Sir Alex later admitted in his autobiography, Managing My Life: “To a great extent I was a captive candidate, and happy to be so.”
Two days after signing on, Ferguson watched on as his new charges were dealt a chastening 2-0 defeat at Oxford United; a result which laid bare the poor fitness levels of the squad he had been bequeathed. Further unsettled by confirmation that a drinking culture had been established within the club, the Scot assembled his players in the gym at The Cliff.
“I made it plain that I meant to put an end to Manchester United’s reputation of being almost as much of a social club as a football club,” he wrote. “I told them that they would have to change their ways because I certainly wasn’t going to change mine.”
Further concerns were raised about the physical strength of the existing squad, and a short-sightedness which had gradually decayed the club’s youth and scouting systems. By the time Queens Park Rangers arrived at Old Trafford for Ferguson’s home bow, he used his first column in United Review to spell out the enormity of his task, while also conveying a stony determination to realise it.
“Taking over a club of Manchester United’s magnitude is an awesome task,” was his opening gambit. The sobering clarity continued: “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 there is now only one way to go, and that is forward. The aim at this club must clearly be to win the championship. That is the only real way to lay the ghosts of the past.
“There always has to be a starting point, and I see the championship as the basis for Manchester United’s future. Success has a snowball effect as I found at Aberdeen… It’s not something that can be built overnight, and it could take a few months before I can create a true relationship with the players. But that is what I shall work towards and I am going to love every minute of it here.”
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