It might sound a little weird to say now, but when Sir Alex Ferguson, in the summer of 2001, announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2001/02 season it seemed the perfect time to depart for a man that had already become the standard bearer for the Premier League era.
His Manchester United team had won seven of the previous nine titles, and finished a close 2nd in the other two seasons; claimed a League and FA Cup double in 1996, and crowned a fantastic treble in 1999 with a dramatic Champions League triumph in Barcelona.
What more was there to achieve? A lot more, as it would turn out. Ferguson changed his mind, decided to stay on and would ultimately produce the greatest Manchester United team of all time, between 2006 and 2011, before departing in 2013.
It’s a claim that might sound controversial; what was so special about this era? This after all is the same club that produced the ill-fated Busby Babes of the 50s, the Charlton and Best European champions of the 60s, the Cantona- inspired warriors of the early 90s and the Class of ‘92-dominated team of the late 90s. How do you choose from such a rich pick? How could a parent choose a favorite child? I’ll leave that for Man Utd fans to get into.
For my money though, there is no topping what Ferguson’s team produced in England and abroad between 2006 and 2011.
That was far from obvious in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson’s volte face. Indeed, three years later, by the end of the 2004/05 season, it would have been easy to conclude that the Scotsman had made the wrong decision, that a stellar Premier League record had been unnecessarily sullied by his desire to hang on to the job.
United finished the 2001/02 season in 3rd place – behind Arsenal and Liverpool – the first time they would drop outside the top two since the Premier League started nine years earlier. That they also finished 3rd in 2003/04 and 2004/05 seemed significant and although they had added another title in 2002/03 and climbed back to finish 2nd in 2005/06, the trend appeared to point to a gradual decline and a passing of the guard to a new order.
That might sound overly dramatic today, and the current United team would gladly take a five year record that reads 3rd, 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd (we heard enough bragging about a 2nd place finish, 18 points behind Man City, in 2018). But these were different times; this was a clear step down – at best a mini slump – from the dominance that had come before.
Two other factors contributed to the portents of decline:
First was the rise of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. The Gunners had been the major threat to United following the Frenchman’s arrival in 1996, beating the Reds to the title in Wenger’s first full season in 1997/98 and challenging them consistently from then on. As United appeared to wane, Wenger’s team gathered speed, winning another title in 2001/02 and achieving Wenger’s “impossible” dream of an unbeaten season in 2003/04.
In truth, Arsenal were well poised to also win 2002/03, only for a late collapse to derail them and hand the title back to United. Their Invincible season made up for that – and seemed to mark their ascension to the throne…
But for the second factor: the arrival in 2003 of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. With deep, seemingly bottomless pockets at their disposal Chelsea rapidly transformed from also-rans to the richest kids in town, attracting prime talent from all over Europe. They finished 2nd behind Arsenal in 2003/04, but their spending had only just started.
That summer brought in a further influx of new faces and most notably a new manager, the Portuguese Jose Mourinho, fresh from a triumphant Champions League campaign with Porto. Having finally usurped United’s crown, Arsenal found their reign a short-lived one; they were quickly usurped by their London rivals, who claimed the next two titles in dominant fashion.
Arsenal and Chelsea aside, some of United’s troubles were of their own making. Ferguson chose the worst possible time to pick a string of duds in the transfer market, none more so than in his attempts to find a worthy replacement for goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, who had moved on after the treble win in 1999.
No less than six goalkeepers arrived – and departed ignominiously – over a five year period. Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Andy Goram, Fabian Barthez, Tim Howard and Roy Carroll all tried in vain to fill the sizeable void left by the Great Dane. Accomplished, expensive stars – Sebastián Verón and Laurent Blanc – arrived and floundered, as did a string of up-and-comers, like Diego Forlan, David Bellion, Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba. As the mainstays of United’s dominance gradually moved on – Denis Irwin, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam and David Beckham were all gone by the summer of 2003 – their replacements weren’t quite up to scratch.
Yet, perversely, the roots of United’s revival would also come from the transfer market. One exception to the bad buys of the early noughties was Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, who arrived in 2001. His goals shot United to the title in 2003 and won him the Golden Boot that season, but he would be gone before the Reds reached the summit again, leaving for Real Madrid in 2006.
Still, he set the trend for a string of well-picked arrivals that would form the backbone of the next United renaissance. Rio Ferdinand, a cultured ball- playing centre back arrived from Leeds United in 2002 for £30m; he was followed a year later by flashy teenage winger called Cristiano Ronaldo, bought from Sporting Lisbon for £13m; another prodigious teenager arrived in 2004 in the shape of Wayne Rooney, fresh from his stunning exploits for England at the European championships. The next season brought even better news: Edwin van der Sar arrived from Fulham to finally solve the problematic goalkeeping situation, as did Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and the South Korean Park Ji-Sung. England midfielder Michael Carrick completed the set in 2006 and United were back on track.
What followed was a five year period of domination that would yield Premier League titles in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011; a Champions League win in 2008, and two League Cups, in 2009 and 2010. Ronaldo’s emergence as a goal scoring machine was key – he was top scorer for the next three seasons and – and his finishing prowess alongside Rooney provided cutting edge to the solidity of Vidic and Ferdinand at the back. Old hands Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs added creative nous alongside Carrick in midfield. United attacked with verve and invention, and defended with resolve and steel.
The smart transfer picks continued too as Ferguson made his squad even stronger: Owen Hargreaves signed from Bayern and Carlos Tevez joined, on loan from West Ham, in 2007. Dimitar Berbatov came in from Tottenham in 2008, Ashley Young from Aston Villa in 2009.
Big names aside, Ferguson also got the most out of his unsung troops, the likes of Park, Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Nani, Rafael and Fábio all playing a part in the team’s success.
United’s consistent success in Europe during this period is one thing that sets it apart from their earlier dominant era in the nineties. In addition to the Champions League win in 2008, Ferguson’s team reached another Champions League semi-final in 2007, when they lost to Kaka-inspired eventual champions AC Milan.
They also reached finals in 2009 and 2011; losing on both occasions to Pep Guardiola’s all conquering Barcelona side. United were at the peak of their powers in 2008 – Ronaldo was top scorer in Europe – and went into the Rome final as favourites, but they couldn’t recover from conceding early and were eventually done in by Lionel Messi’s late header. It was a missed opportunity.
By the time they faced Barça again at Wembley two years later, it was the Catalans that were at their peak and United, now without Ronaldo, were well beaten. Still, that’s three Champions League finals in five years. They could only dream of that in the nineties, let alone today.
The other thing that sets this era apart is the quality of opposition that United had to see off to exert their dominance. Chelsea’s early Mourinho-led surge had waned somewhat but they still remained a force both domestically and in Europe – but for a John Terry slip in the Champions League final shoot out, it would have been the Blues, not the Reds that left Moscow with the Cup in 2008.
Wenger’s Arsenal were not the force of the early noughties either, but they were still capable of putting up the semblance of a campaign – at least up till around February every season. There were a couple of new threats too: Manchester City, now with rich benefactors of their own had started flexing their muscles in the transfer market – and on the league table – prompting Ferguson to brand them “noisy neighbours”.
And there was Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool, two-time Champions League finalists in this period, whose four year rebuild culminated in a credible title challenge in 2009, when they lost just twice all season but still lost out to Fergie’s finest. In contrast, only Blackburn – for a bit – and Newcastle -for a bit – offered United any serious opposition in the early-to-mid nineties, before Arsenal’s surge from 1997.
That they were able to see off these multiple threats and remain so dominant is only testament to the team building, organizational and inspirational talents of perhaps the greatest manager in English football history.
All good things eventually end though and by the time Barça was done with them at Wembley in 2011, Fergie’s most glorious era had all but run its course. The man hung around for two more years though, losing a tight title race to Man City on goal difference in 2012, before dipping decisively into the market one last time – to scoop Robin van Persie from Arsenal – and walking away victorious, a 13th Premier League title in tow, in May 2013.
Man United’s steady decline in his wake – they’ve finished in the top two just once in the seven years since he left – is only further testament to the enormity of his legacy.
His record in the Premier League era shines distinctly bright. But that glorious spell between 2006 and 2011 shines ever brighter than the rest.