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Ferguson's in 'fantastic fairytale'

A QUARTER of a century ago, Margaret Thatcher was having a spin on the newly completed M25, the Pet Shop Boys were hanging around with West End girls, Ferris Bueller was taking the day off - and Alex Ferguson was clocking on at Manchester United for the first time. A footballing title, let alone a knighthood, seemed a distant dream. How times change.

Twenty-five years and 37 trophies later, Alex Ferguson is acclaimed across the world as the manager for all seasons, the recipient of countless tributes as he celebrates a remarkable landmark, including a glittering dinner in Manchester last night.

Sunday heralds the anniversary of his accession at Old Trafford and United fans from Salford to Singapore give up thanks for the empire a charismatic Scot built.

Even Ferguson, a man not given easily to wistful reflection on his myriad feats, a manager who focuses on the challenges ahead not the chalices collected, was moved to observe yesterday that his 25 years constitute a "fairytale".

Ferguson possesses an extensive vocabulary, often pithy during the match-day maelstrom, but frequently eloquent.

For those who regularly listen to United's manager, his use of "fairytale" at Carrington yesterday stirred considerable surprise. The 69 year-old rarely permits himself any moments of self-indulgence, any offering up of self-congratulatory headlines.

Usually when invited to take a stroll down memory lane, Ferguson focuses on the contributions of his players or bouts of frustration that have never left him. This is key to understanding why Ferguson has led United for 25 years.

The thrill of victory rarely lasts much longer than the final whistle but the pain of defeat remains, rubbing at him like a piece of flint in tight shoes.

Hunger has made Ferguson one of the managerial greats, carved into the Mount Rushmore of the English game alongside the illustrious European Cup-winning likes of Matt Busby, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough.

It is the nightmares that have driven Ferguson across these 25 years.

Usually, when in reflective mood, he talks about the sleepless nights after European losses in places such as Turin, the breakaway goals of an Alen Boksic or the missed chances against Borussia Dortmund in 1997.

He always sought to turn these negatives into a positive, most notably introducing a defensive midfielder to guard against counter-attacks like Boksic's or ensuring he had sufficient firepower.

That is how his first European Cup was won. Lessons were learned, Nicky Butt slotted into midfield, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came off the bench in the 1999 final and the rest is hysteria.

But Ferguson was not sated. He wanted another European Cup, a trophy that has glinted in his eyes since watching Real Madrid vanquish Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park in 1960. Moscow in 2008 reacquainted him with the trophy. He keeps going, chasing a third.

"It is a bit of a fairytale to last so long," Ferguson said. "It has been a fantastic spell for me. It is something you don't think is going to happen and I appreciate that."

He appreciates it, and craves more.

"I will continue as long as I feel healthy enough to do it,'' he added.

"The list is incredible, going back to the very start with Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Brian McClair, (Mark) Hughes, (Paul) Ince, (Roy) Keane and (Eric) Cantona.

"What a collection of players. They were fantastic players. It is hard to think I controlled all these players for so long. Now to the present era of players we see today, different personalities and different cultures."