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Ferguson's ascent to greatness

By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer

Sir Alex Ferguson
At 66, Ferguson is the second oldest manager to lift the trophy
The first steps on the road to Moscow and Sir Alex Ferguson's ascent into managerial folklore came in the bowels of Benfica's famous Stadium of Light.

It was December 2005 and Manchester United had been sent crashing out of the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in 10 years after defeat against Benfica - even the relative consolation of the Uefa Cup was denied as they were left rooted to the bottom of their group.

Ferguson's critics sensed blood as he was peppered by questions about his future, an interrogation brushed aside with a defiance out of keeping with United's display that night.

He said: "We have a job to do and the rebuilding will carry on. It's a blow and you have to regroup. This club has always risen from difficult situations. We will again."

Only a month earlier, he had poured out doubts about his future to his great friend and fellow managerial survivor Sir Bobby Robson as the row over captain Roy Keane's public criticism of his team-mates and the fall-out from the Glazers' takeover threatened to engulf him.

As ever, the fightback was swift in coming and started on that evening in the Stadium of Light. He had taken a look at the other side when he planned to retire in 2002 - Ferguson reversed that decision, so walking away in failure was not an option.

There was a Manchester United symbolism in the surroundings. The late, great George Best announced his arrival on the world stage at the landmark stadium and it was against Benfica that United lifted the famous old trophy for the first time in 1968.

Profile: Sir Alex Ferguson

Now, with a second Champions League triumph to cement his place among the true legends of the game, the words he uttered that dismal night seemed prophetic as he paraded the trophy in the Moscow rain at the Luzhniki Stadium after a dramatic victory on penalties.

And as an avid, passionate student of United's history, the pleasure of victory in Moscow will stretch well beyond the personal level for Ferguson, coming as it does 50 years after the Munich air crash that claimed the lives of so many players who were pioneers for Old Trafford's love affair with Europe's elite competition.

Ferguson had always regarded a single Champions League trophy as the blot on his glittering Old Trafford landscape - a record he never believed was worthy of Manchester United's stature. Now he has taken another step towards setting the record straight.

From the moment he walked into Old Trafford in November 1986, Ferguson bought in to the tradition and history of Manchester United. It has coursed through his veins even since he made it his mission to add moments like these in Moscow to the club's list of honours.

Sir Bobby Charlton has always been Ferguson's staunchest supporter, even in the uncertain early years when the Scot struggled to impose his winning mentality and culture on a club that had fallen into disrepair.

He has made Manchester United what we always thought it was - number one

Sir Bobby Charlton

Charlton said: "He has given Manchester United fans the most fantastic ride. We have had fantastic players who have come and gone and he has made Manchester United what we always thought it was - number one."

He was at his side again at the final whistle after the Russian roulette of penalties, Charlton among the first to embrace a man who can rightly take his place among the all-time great managers.

Ferguson's magic has been contained in his ability to mix a glorious group of youngsters led by Moscow's heroes Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and mould it on to his purchases of unquestionable talent such as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

He has done it with an unceasing desire for hard work and victory. It is a fire that burns so intensely he is still first in to United's plush Carrington training ground now, as he has been for the last 22 years.

Ferguson took years to build an outstanding Manchester United side, and has repeated the trick several times with a potent mixture of patience, passion and ruthlessness.

He has never been afraid to back his judgement and show a gambler's touch in the market, buying big and shipping out Old Trafford legends like Mark Hughes, Jaap Stam, David Beckham and Roy Keane when they had outlived their usefulness to United.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, who achieved the rare feat of doing the double over Manchester United as manager of rivals City, put it perfectly when he said: "He achieves one thing then moves on to the next mountain, and the next mountain which is higher. He has built four or five successful teams. This proves how great he is."

The first challenge was, in his own words, to "knock Liverpool off their perch" although foreign fields were conquered before he claimed his first title, winning the European Cup Winners' Cup against Barcelona in 1991 before winning the title two years later.

Liverpool have been seen off as title rivals, and while the exchanges with Arsenal met with mixed results, it is perhaps Ferguson's conquest of Chelsea - not just in Moscow - that has been his crowning glory.


Roman Abramovich's vast wealth and ability to attract elite stars presented a huge barrier and for two successive years the title went to Stamford Bridge.

But it was a sign of Ferguson's special drive that at an age when most managers would have called off the chase and headed into retirement, he was galvanised.

It was time to rebuild a fourth great side and Ferguson cleared out the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba, Diego Forlan, Kleberson, Quinton Fortune, Liam Miller and sold the unsettled Ruud van Nistelrooy.

He paired newcomer Nemanja Vidic with Rio Ferdinand to forge United's best central defensive pairing since Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, then strengthened midfield and attack with the arrivals of Owen Hargreaves, Anderson, Nani and the outstanding Carlos Tevez.

The rebuilding Ferguson outlined in the Stadium of Light took on new momentum and purpose - and all the pieces fell into place in Moscow as Chelsea were beaten.

It capped another season of magnificent achievement for Ferguson, who demonstrated his longevity by clinching the title at Wigan 25 years to the day after he guided Aberdeen past Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners' Cup.

And in true Ferguson fashion, the foundations are solid and in a youthful side that stands at the peak of the European game, this unique football man has ensured new chapters will be written in Manchester United's rich history.

see also
Ferguson delight at Euro success
21 May 08 |  Man Utd
Grant can hold his head high
22 May 08 |  Europe
Champions League photos
21 May 08 |  Europe
Pundits on Moscow final
21 May 08 |  Europe
Spot-on Giggs overtakes Charlton
21 May 08 |  Man Utd

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