On the occasion of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as manager of Manchester United, TSN Producer Shane McNeil looks back on the Scotsman’s success in turning his club into an international talent powerhouse.
Originally published TSN.ca – May 16, 2013.
It is perhaps fitting that between Europe’s two largest club championships – the Europa League Final held Wednesday and the UEFA Champions League Final to be played May 25 – the football world will stop to bid a final farewell to Sir Alex Ferguson as manager of Manchester United.
The European stage, much like that of the English Premier League, has grown both in scale and competition in the years Sir Alex has patrolled the Old Trafford sidelines.
The Scotsman has not always proven successful on Europe’s grandest club stage, but the success he’s enjoyed and the lengths he has gone to in pursuit of both the best talent and the talent most suited to his club have had a truly continental and, in fact, global reach.
When Ferguson took the reins at United there was no such thing as the Champions League yet. The European Cup morphed into the Champions League in 1992-93 (which would then evolve to its current knockout format in 1994-95) and with the stakes upped to see year-long play between the continent’s top clubs, Ferguson took European scouting very seriously.
Upon the announcement of Ferguson’s retirement just over a week ago, many took to the task of assembling an all-time starting XI for the 26 years of Ferguson’s tenure. While those lineups were riddled with standouts from England and the British Isles – names like David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Paul Scholes to name just a few – what immediately leaps out is how Sir Alex was able to assimilate foreign-born talent to thrive in an English system to create a truly global squad.
Missing from many of these all-time squads were players from the other three elite European leagues of the past two decades: Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga.
That’s not to say that Ferguson has not benefited from talented Germans, Italians or Spaniards in his time. One needn’t look any further than the goal line from this past season to see how he has benefited from the emergence of David De Gea.
However, it is the other talented European nations that have provided Ferguson with the biggest boost.
Very conspicuous on those all-time teams were France and the Netherlands, contributing players such as Eric Cantona, Patrice Evra, Jaap Stam, and Edwin van der Sar. This is to say nothing of other compatriots that at one time or another were vital to United’s success such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and yes, even the Fabian Barthez era.
And there is, of course, a certain Portuguese dynamo that may or may not have played his final game as a Red Devil.
But beyond the traditional European powers, Fergie has also been able to reach farther for even greater success. Danish keeper Peter Schmeichel was in many cases the clear choice for Ferguson’s all-time netminder. He would find more success to the north with Norwegian striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, while later tasking Serbia’s Nemanja Vidic with holding the back line firm for seven years.
In its current incarnation, United has reached even farther afield. Much of the secondary scoring behind van Persie in United’s Premiership-winning 2012-13 campaign has been shouldered by Japan’s Shinji Kagawa and Mexico’s Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez.
One of Ferguson’s final gifts may have been to expand the United fan base even further, with the January signing of 20-year-old Ivory Coast-born England international Wilfried Zaha.
By no means was Ferguson the first to look outside Europe, but it seems that when he does it is not always for the biggest names – Fernando Torres comes to mind – he has a knack for finding young talent on the rise like Chicharito and Rooney and buffering it with big-money established transfers like van Persie.
Ferguson’s success on the European stage has been varied.
He has had his two grand successes – a monumental treble in 1999 and an unforgettable 2008 penalty kick triumph over Chelsea in Moscow – but he has also endured failures.
Ferguson’s United crashed out in the group stage in 2006 and 2012 and he probably had a grander European exit envisioned than watching Real Madrid walk away victorious from Old Trafford in this season’s Round of 16.
But there has never been a UEFA Champions League without United on Ferguson’s watch and he remains the only manager to guide an English club to two Champions League trophies, to say nothing of being one of only two clubs to have appeared in three of the last six Champions Finals (Bayern Munich being the other).
Many managers have found success on the continental stage. Many managers have beaten Ferguson in European competition over the past 26 years. Some clubs – Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid – have even been more successful over the lifespan of the current incarnation of the Champions League.
Where Ferguson remains unrivaled, however, is his ability to reach across the continent (and eventually the globe) to find the right pieces to succeed on the European stage and keep an English club in the Champions League every year since its current incarnation began.