IT is a sporting life set apart from even the best of the rest.
Alex Ferguson’s journey to Old Trafford legend yielded 38 pieces of silver, ceaseless adventures and established Manchester United as the shining house on the Premier League hill.
Today, in the first of a series that borrows its title from John Buchan’s novel adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, we charter The 39 Steps that carried the Glaswegian to football’s mountain top.
In the coming weeks, the series will expand to cover Dublin’s journey to five-in-a-row kingpins, Liverpool’s rebirth under Jurgen Klopp, Brian Cody’s hurling supremacy, Irish football’s days of summer thunder, Mayo’s search for Sam and how Irish golfers became major kings.
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It begins, Alex Ferguson’s epic journey toward Theatre of Dreams imperium, with the fall of a chintzy, bejewelled, perma-tanned half-Harry Enfield caricature, half-elite manager nicknamed Mr Bojangles. AKA Big Fat Ron.
By the winter of 1986, Ron Atkinson is in his sixth season as Manchester United capo. Two FA Cups combined with five top-four finishes make him the club’s most successful commander since the revered father of Old Trafford, Matt Busby. Bryan Robson, Frank Stapleton and Paul McGrath are among those who have joined on his watch.
After a hypersonic 1985/86 launch yields ten straight wins, United’s engine spluttered, stalled. Atkinson, wounded and increasingly forlorn, requires immediate new season fluency. Instead, a hopelessly inarticulate start, bottom four in Division One, a 4-1 League Cup loss to Southampton, spells out a managerial death sentence.
With the Stretford End in angry ferment, the guillotine falls on November 4th. The consensus is that the vacant throne rests between Terry Venables and Ferguson.
The future knight of the realm first walks the football road as a snarling, route one centre-forward. His Glasgow Rangers career ebbs after he is scapegoated for a 1969 Scottish Cup Final loss to Celtic. His marriage to a catholic, Cathy Holding, obliterates any hope of Ibrox redemption.
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Appointed East Stirling manager at 32, sacked by St. Mirren in 1978 (a termination that stands alone in his godlike, 39-year dugout supremacy), he kindles a first unforgettable fire in a town enriched by the North Sea oilfields.
At Aberdeen, Ferguson is the brilliantly subversive commander of the Revolution Years. A William Wallace of the sporting fields. Ransacking the Old Firm’s aristocratic houses, he leads an uprising that yields three SPL titles, four Scottish Cups and, in May 1983, a seismic take down of Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final.
Ferguson, acutely aware of his sky-rocketing stature and armed with an unshakeable sense of destiny, turns down offers from Spurs and Arsenal. But when United present a residency at Broadway’s most storied theatre, all be it a playhouse fallen into disrepair, the flinty Glaswegian ball of fire sensed he had found the stage to match his ambition.
On November 6th 1986, Manchester United appoint Alex Ferguson as manager. At the time, nobody suggests that Old Trafford kingmaker Martin Edwards has fired a shot that will be heard around the world.
Ferguson walks into a crumbling, careworn palace. If their back-story is a rich tapestry, one into which the legends of Best, Charlton and Edwards are spun, their recent past is threadbare. The House of Busby has been debilitated by mismanagement, negligence, ill-discipline. Without a league title since 1967, they are mere bond-servants in an age of Anfield dominion.
A bacchanalian dressing-room culture – in his autobiography Ferguson would title the chapter on his first months at the club as "Drinking to Failure" – is an affront to Ferguson’s Presbyterian work ethic and his competitive craving. Alcohol is a pathogen he is determined to crush. He resolves to end regular Four Seasons Hotel booze-ups.
Ferguson introduces an unwritten Volstead Act. Atkinson had allowed drinking up to 48 hours before a game, prompting his successor to bemoan his inheriting of "almost as much a social club as a football club". A new age of prohibition begins. McGrath and Norman Whiteside will be among those to eventually exit in a ruthless cull. Even the club’s North Star, Robson, is made aware that he was no longer untouchable.
The messiah does not immediately turn on the miracle tap. Rather, he endures an ignominious start. A 2-0 loss to Oxford followed by a goalless draw at Norwich. The first win comes at QPR. Twelve years before his imperishable Champions League night at the Nou Camp, Ferguson concludes his first season 11th in Division One, seven points behind Coventry City, ten adrift of Luton and Wimbledon.
In his second season, one of striking progress, here comes the first compelling evidence that the Scot might have the strength of character and visionary DNA to carry United beyond their Great Depression.
Steve Bruce, Brian McClair, Viv Anderson and Jim Leighton are recruited. The Red Devils finish the season in second spot, nine points behind Liverpool.
Still, as the 1980s end, the master/serf relationship between the two heavyweights of the North West brings to mind Neil Leifer’s iconic 1965 shot of a triumphant, statuesque, elysian, Muhammad Ali towering over a prone, vanquished, routed Sonny Liston. The Mersey titans are Ali, radiating strength, heroic; United the subjugated, semi-conscious, derailed Night Train.
A ninth title standard in 12 years is unfurled at Anfield. Four times in just over a decade Europe has succumbed to the spirit of Shankly.
And yet, facing such stark, unpromising odds, still Ferguson’s every waking hour is invaded by the challenge of knocking Liverpool – "that mob" – off their f***ing perch.
In 1988, fully five years before he would shepherd United back to football’s promised land, Ferguson says this: "This isn’t just a job to me. It’s a mission. I am deadly serious about it; some people would reckon too serious… we will get there and believe me, when it happens, life will change for Liverpool and everybody else… dramatically."
It is a window to the soul of an obsessive insurgent. A state of the union address from a salivating, unbending, avid and ambitious stargazer who, even now, is certain English football’s seat of power would be his.
But first there are the near-death experiences. Over the next two seasons, United finish 11th and 13th. The days are dotted with humiliating landmarks: A 5-1 hammering by Manchester City in September 1989; at Christmas, a Stretford End banner delivers the damning verdict "three years of excuses and it is still crap… ta-ra Fergie".
In January 1990, with the Sword of Damocles perched above Ferguson’s head, Mark Robins scores the goal to beat Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup 3rd Round. United go on to win the competition, Lee Martin scoring the only goal of a replayed final against Crystal Palace.
The following season sees them gallop past further mileposts: A Cup Winner’s Cup final victory over Barcelona; the debut of a 17-year-old Ryan Giggs. And, later, in July 1991, a Viking longship docks in Manchester. Its sole passenger, a blond colossus named Peter Schmeichel.
Now, the Eureka moment. In November 1992, the Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby phones Edwards to see if Denis Irwin might be lured back to Elland Road. Ferguson vetoes any deal, but having earlier missed out on Alan Shearer, mischievously suggests Leeds might sell him Eric Cantona. To his surprise and delight the Yorkshire club agree.
At last, and at a cost of just £1.2m, United have their lodestar, their infinity stone, a starch-collared Gallic beacon.
On April 10 1993, United trail Sheffield Wednesday entering the 87th minute. Bruce equalises, then seven minutes into injury time, scores the winner. Ferguson dances a celebratory jig on the touchline, his assistant Brian Kidd runs onto the pitch and falls to his knees in rejoicing. Fergie Time is born. It is the decisive flourish, the one that breaks challengers Aston Villa.
United are champions for the first time in 26 years. It is the dawning of a new world order.
In the summer of 1993, Roy Keane, having agreed a deal with Kenny Dalglish to sign for Blackburn, wakes, hungover, in his family house at Cork to be told Ferguson was on the phone. They agree to meet the following day, the manager driving a player he has obsessed about for three years, back to his home for a frame of snooker. As kindred, driven spirits they bond. A British record £3.75m transfer with Nottingham Forest is agreed. Fergie has located his commander-in-chief.
Trophies arrive in an unstoppable gush, the sluice gates overpowered by a crimson tide, a surge that creates a new high-water mark of six additional titles in seven seasons.
Amid all the glory, there is controversy: Cantona, the Gallic James Dean, indulges his inner insubordinate rebel, kung-fu kicking Crystal Palace fan, Matthew Simmons. The Frenchman is banned for eight months. Ferguson stands by his man.
In August, after Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis are offloaded by Ferguson, Alan Hansen, sees a coltish Beckham, Scholes, Butt and two Nevilles succumb to Aston Villa and infamously announces, "You can’t win anything with kids." United finish the season as double winners.
Arsene Wenger lands a jolting blow in the spring of 1998, winning the double in his first full season, but Ferguson, who twice breaks United’s transfer record in the summer to sign Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke, makes the Champions League his holy grail.
1999 is the year tattooed deepest to Ferguson’s heart. The Treble; that slaloming Ryan Giggs FA Cup wonder-goal against Arsenal; his tribute to Roy Keane’s electrifying taking down of Juventus – "I did not think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio Delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final, he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."
And then, the Camp Nou uproots to the Hollywood Hills. The preposterous 100 Second final. Teddy Sheringham’s equaliser timed at 90:36, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner at 92.17 breaking Bayern Munich. Nirvana.
A hat-trick of titles is completed in 2001. Ferguson announces he will retire at 60, but as the empty void reality of life away from Old Trafford dawns on a workaholic enslaved by competition, he is malleable to his wife Cathy urging him to abandon departure plans.
And now came the age of Ronaldo and Rooney. CR7 arrives in the summer of 2003, Wayne the following summer. But with Wenger’s Invincibles at their peak, the upstart Jose Mourinho breezing in from Porto, Keane’s body slowly breaking down, Rio Ferdinand serving an eight-month drugs ban, and Fergie involved in a dispute with major United shareholder John Magnier over the ownership of the horse, Rock of Gibraltar, three seasons in relative shadow crawl by. There are even Stretford End rumblings that Fergie has passed his sell-by date.
Fergie rages against the obituaries and advances further into the territories of immortality. He signs Michael Carrick, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. Ruddy-faced, angry, uncontainable, he rises up like a king returning from exile to again seize the English throne.
With first Ronaldo then Rooney soaring to Himalayan heights, United seize a second title three-in-a-row and, on a May night in Moscow 2008 (ten days after securing his 10th title), courtesy of a penalty shoot-out against Chelsea, a second shot of Champions League euphoria.
The late Fergie era brings a 2011 sunburst: His 12th and United’s 19th title means the ambition to which he had devoted his professional life – the unseating of Liverpool from their perch – is made glorious reality.
And finally, a last triumphant aria in an unparalleled and gilded 27-year symphony. At the end of his 1,500th and final game (11 days after confirming his retirement, a 13th title secured with four games to spare) the departing manager delivers a rousing and emotional farewell speech from the heart of the Old Trafford pitch.
The circle is complete. Fulfilment radiates from the scarlet cheeks of a prince for whom the world itself was never enough. The last paragraph in a Homeric epic is scripted. Old Trafford rises to acknowledge a departing monarch and the last hour of the The Ferguson Imperium.
Don’t miss next week – Dublin: 39 steps from startled earwigs to 5-in-a-row kings