Saturday, 18 May 2013

The End Of An Era

The end of the English Premier League season has the real feeling of an end of an era.  Yes the Chelsea job is vacant again (though the strong rumors are of the second coming of Mourinio) and yes the Manchester City job is vacant again.  However, while Wenger is still in his position despite debate a few months ago about his position, the reason for this feeling is the retirements of Michael Owen, David Beckham and above all the departure from Manchester United of their manager Alex Ferguson.

Alex Ferguson joins St Mirren, October 1974
Of all the acres of print devoted to Danny Lennon’s most famous predecessor, surprisingly few words were devoted to his formative years in management.  The twelve years (four at Love Street and eight at Pittodrie) in Scottish Football.

Nowhere is this best illustrated than when Ferguson’s rebuilding work on United’s youth set up is mentioned.  His belief in bringing through your own players has been a hallmark of all of Ferguson’s work from the early days at Love Street.  It was here that Fergie originally set up his formula for the moulding of quality young players, a formula that has since been refined with the high point undoubtedly the 1992 FA Youth Cup winners that now read like a who’s who of Manchester United legends.  The Youth systems that Ferguson put into place had initial success in bringing through Fitzpatrick, Stark and McGarvey.  After Ferguson’s departure, the youth set up still produced players with potential such as Frank McAvennie, Paul Lambert (yes that one) and (ironic given Ferguson’s last opponents as Manchester United manager) Steve Clarke.

One criticism that been made of Ferguson was the siege mentality be brought in to Manchester United.  I think that this facet of his mental toughness was necessary if he was to have had the successes he has had, even more so at Aberdeen.  It is notable that since Ferguson’s last championship at Pittodrie, Hearts (in 1986, in 1998 and arguably in 2005) and Aberdeen themselves in 1991 have all lost championships in the closing weeks of the season.  All suffered from the mental pressure of going for the championship and imploded at key moments.  Ferguson knew that the best teams had to be mentally tough, particularly so if you are going to take on the Old Firm.

Early on in his time Ferguson identified the key to winning silverware in Scottish Football – win in Glasgow.  As it turned out, that’s what his sides did.  His Aberdeen side won a key League game at Parkhead on the way to his first Championship in 1980, while his first three Scottish Cup wins came against the Old Firm.

Ferguson’s achievements have passed into folklore.  However his achievements here in Scotland were not just the foundations for his 26 years at Old Trafford.  They were historic on their own terms.  The peak years of Ferguson’s team (probably 1982-85) saw all manner of barriers come down.  There’s that win in the European Cup Winners cup that saw a quarter final win over Bayern Munch before the final win over Real Madrid on a rainy night thirty years ago in Gotherburg.  Arguably more than that though there’s the hat-trick of Scottish Cup wins – the fourth team to do this (after Queens Park, Vale of Leven & Rangers) and the first since the early sixties.  There’s also the first league and cup double by an non Old Firm team. 

Both of those landmarks came on 19 May 1984 with Aberdeen’s 2-1 cup final win over Celtic, a side they finished 7 points ahead of to secure Ferguson’s second championship.   As if to underline the quality of Scottish Football at that time, Aberdeen lost out on the last day of the season the previous season to a Dundee United side that went on to be cheated out of a place in the European Cup final by Roma.

While tomorrow we should remember his achievements, all of them, we should also remember those moments.  His initial calling card that was Fergies Furies (as the St Mirren side that won promotion to the Premier League were dubbed) dismantling of Dundee United in the Scottish Cup in 1977, his jig across the Easter Road pitch (with echoes of Willie Waddle’s own jig when Kilmarnock beat Hearts to the championship in 1965) when Aberdeen became Champions in 1980, the priceless television interview in the aftermath of Aberdeen’s Scottish Cup win in 1983.  Oh and Aberdeen’s general trophy kleptomania during those peak years.