Cult Heroes: Ji-Sung Park

From being rejected by clubs in Seoul in his early days due to his lack of physical prowess, to becoming the most successful Asian footballer to ever play in Europe, Park Ji-Sung has had a remarkable career. We take a look at Manchester United’s cult hero, Park Ji-Sung, and the impact he has had at the Theatre of Dreams.

EARLY DAYS (1998-2000)

Park’s ambition of becoming a professional footballer emerged early. In 1998, he led his high school team to a victory in the Korean National Sports Festival. This success prompted him to apply for several professional clubs and universities. Due to his small physical stature, he was rejected several times before finally getting into Myonji University. However, in January 1999, his university team was given a chance to train with the South Korean Olympic team. His performance during these training sessions attracted the attention of the South Korean Olympic team and national team manager Huh Jung-moo. Thereafter, he became a formal member of the Olympic team. His continuingly impressive performances earned him a spot in the national team and he made his debut on 5th April 2000, in an AFC Asian Cup qualification game against Laos. In his early days, Park operated predominantly as an attacking midfielder but could also play on the left-hand side, as well as the right-hand side of midfield. He was known for his tenacity and tremendous work rate which eventually earned him the nickname ‘Three-lunged Park’.

Kyoto Purple Sanga and PSV Eindhoven (2000-2005)

The first professional club that Park signed for was the Kyoto-based J1 league side, Kyoto Purple Sanga. He joined the club in June 2000 and in his first season itself, Sanga was demoted to the J2 league. However, in 2001, Sanga won the J2 league and instantly earned back promotion. Park’s stellar performance in the 2002/03 season led Sanga to their first-ever Emperor’s Cup victory. He ended up scoring the equalizer in the final which they went on to win 2-1. This was Park’s last game for Sanga and he left the club as one of its greats.

After South Korea failed in the 2000 Olympics, Gus Hiddink was appointed as the manager by the Korean national team. During his time with the Korean national team, he made Park a more versatile player by playing him on the wings in a 4-4-2 formation, as well as often playing him as a wide forward in a 4-3-3 system. This led to an increase in Park’s goal tally for the national team and his performances against England and France leading up to the 2002 world cup grabbed international attention. After managing the national team for two years, Hiddink invited Park to play for him at PSV Eindhoven. In January 2003, Park joined PSV. However, the South Korean struggled during his initial days in the Netherlands due to injuries. He underwent an operation to remove his meniscus and this affected his first season at PSV. But the departure of Arjen Robben to Chelsea in 2004 led to increased opportunities at the club for the Korean. He instantly proved his worth to the team by producing stellar performances in a campaign that saw PSV reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. He was a pivotal part of that PSV midfield due to his tremendous burst of pace while breaking on the counter and his crisp and accurate passing. He was the top contributor of goals and assists for PSV that season and even scored against AC Milan in the Champions League semi-final. These world-class performances at the highest level are what grabbed the attention of Manchester United in 2005.
Manchester United (2005-2012)
Impressed by his performances at PSV, Sir Alex Ferguson signed Park in July 2005 for 4 million pounds. In a team full of superstars the Korean’s role was hardly ever well-defined. He was neither a prolific goal-scorer who started regularly nor a physically dominant midfielder. In his early days at United, many were skeptical about Ferguson’s decision; especially in an era when stats like distance covered, progressive carries, etc. weren’t a part of the ‘meta’. But over the years, Ferguson truly utilized Park’s full potential by playing him all across the midfield as well as a wide forward in a front three. While playing in the midfield, he was more of a box-to-box midfielder. Ferguson often turned to Park in big games because of the defensive solidity the Korean brought to the side. 
Park’s first goal for the Red Devils came against Birmingham City in a league cup game in which United won 3-1. In his first season at the club, Park was a regular fixture off the bench in both domestic as well as European competitions, but started sparingly. However, the trust Ferguson had in him was evident, as Park took the armband off Ryan Giggs in a Champions League home game against Lille on 18th October 2005. He thus became the first Asian to captain Manchester United. Park netted his first Premier League goal against Arsenal in a 2-0 home victory on 9th April 2006. This was the first of five goals he scored against Arsenal, making him an arch-nemesis for the gunners over the years.

However, the Korean’s progress was halted in his second season when he injured his ankle in a game against Tottenham Hotspur in September. He recovered from that ankle injury in three months, but was sent to America for surgery in April due to a recurring knee problem. This was a chronic knee problem that would eventually accelerate his retirement. Side-lined with injuries for most of the season, Park said that he wasn’t happy with the Premier League medal he won in 2006/07 and assured the fans that he had much more to offer in the years to come.
Walking the talk, Park ensured he was a pivotal member of the United squad from 2007 to 2011 as United went on to win three league titles and played three Champions League finals while winning one of them. Park was hailed for his performances in the big games, where he always delivered. Multiple goals against big clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and AC Milan during this time soon made him a favorite amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Ferguson mostly deployed him on the left side of the midfield three where his workman-like attitude and intense pressing gave the likes of Paul Scholes, Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez the creative freedom which brought the best out of them. However when played in a front three as a wide forward Park came up with crucial goals and assists as he broke with immense pace on the counter. The goal and assist he got against Arsenal in the 2009 Champions League semi-final or his goal in AC Milan’s 4-0 thumping at Old Trafford in 2010 are a few examples. When it came to dubious Champions League fixtures, Park was a go-to player for Ferguson. He was pivotal in both legs while defending a 1-0 lead against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final. His relentless work rate, off-the-ball movement and a knack for intercepting Barcelona’s quick passing earned him tremendous plaudits in that game. Ferguson later admitted in an interview that leaving Park out of the 2008 Champions League final squad was one of the toughest managerial decisions he has ever had to make. 
Perhaps his best performance in a United shirt came against AC Milan on the 10th of March 2010 at Old Trafford. Ferguson had deployed him in a midfield three with a very specific role. He was assigned to man-mark the Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo to curb the creative flow of that flamboyant AC Milan team. Park executed this role so well in United’s 4-0 thumping of Milan that the Italian later wrote in his autobiography, “The midfielder must have been the first nuclear-powered South Korean in history, in the sense that he rushed about the pitch at the speed of an electron.” Such praise from one of the best midfielders in the world just goes to show how pivotal Park was in that United team from 2007 to 2011.

Park made his 200th appearance for United on 5th February 2012 against Chelsea. During the 2011/12 season, Park had some memorable moments like scoring in the 8-2 victory against Arsenal, but his playing time had drastically reduced due to injuries and a dip in form. This led him to find a move away from Manchester to regain some game time.

Park ended up scoring 27 times for the Red Devils while making 205 appearances for the club. His relentless work ethic, energy and ability to adapt to several positions in a team filled with superstars is what made him special. In May 2020, Rooney said in an interview, “It’s crazy but if you mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo to a 12-year-old, they would immediately say, ‘Yeah, he was a brilliant player for Manchester United.’ But if you said ‘Ji-sung Park’ they may not know who he was. Yet all of us who played with Park know he was almost as important to our success”. This just goes to show how highly valued he was by his team-mates at United and continues to have great relationships with them.

QPR and the return to PSV (2012-14)

Due to the lack of regular playing time at United, Park moved to Queens Park Rangers on 9 July 2012. Park was made captain of the club, but due to his recurring knee problems combined with a lack of form, his time at QPR was quite unpleasant. The Hoops got relegated that season with Park only managing 20 league appearances and no goals.

With QPR playing in the second division of English football, Park returned to PSV during the 2013/14 season on loan. Perhaps the highlight of his return was when he captained PSV in a 4-0 win against Ajax while assisting twice and scoring once. In May 2014, Park announced his retirement due to the persistent knee problems he was facing. Reflecting on his career, he said, “I’m leaving with no regrets, I enjoyed playing football. I have achieved more than I thought I would. I’m truly grateful for all the support I have received and I will live the rest of my life thinking how I can pay it back.”

Legacy and post-retirement work

To this day Park continues to represent Manchester United as a global club ambassador for the club. Park is the founder of the charitable foundation, JS Foundation, set up in 2011, which develop and launch charity programs that will support football infrastructure and also the necessities of life. Park is remembered very fondly by the Old Trafford Faithful due to his contributions to a side that started from scratch and ended up winning everything. The Korean played a pivotal role in the rebuild that was brought about by Ferguson from 2005 to 2010. He was a perfect fit in a squad full of superstars who were raring to reach their prime and galvanized the squad by his hardworking and selfless attitude.

If we were to draw a parallel between Ji-Sung Park and a current member of the squad, the person whose name is most likely to come up in that particular conversation is Daniel James. A reliable, selfless player who would run his heart out for the team and can be used as a great tactical pawn to disrupt opposition, especially in the bigger games as mentioned previously. While James may still not be the final product, he has proven to be very useful in disrupting the opposition play with the help of his intelligent pressing and running. James, currently, may not be as good a player as Park was but their roles in the squad seem to be pretty similar.

Players like Ji-Sung Park don’t come around very often, but when they do, they leave a long lasting legacy behind them. 

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The Path To The Perch, Part 3 : 2000-2013

 

“And Solskjaer has won it”

On 26th May 1999, these words echoed around the world and were forever etched in Manchester United’s rich history. Rightly so, United had just become the first English team to do the treble and they did it with some style. Ryan Giggs’ last gasp winner in the FA cup semi final, a brilliant comeback victory against Juventus in the Champions League semifinal and of course, the two late, late goals against Bayern Munich in the final. 

“Football, bloody hell”, remarked Sir Alex Ferguson, as he would later find out that ‘Sir’ was a permanent prefix added to his name. Alex Ferguson was awarded the Knighthood after his Treble triumph in 1999. A remarkable turnaround from what was shaky start to his life as a Manchester United manager.

After winning the treble, the glory days kept rolling at Old Trafford as Manchester United would go on to win back to back titles in 1999-00 and 2000-01 with most of the treble winning team still donning the Manchester United red. However, the team that won the treble was soon dismantled. 

Peter Schmeichel had already left following the 1999 season and replacing him proved to be difficult. Mark Bosnich, later Fabian Barthez and Tim Howard, all failed to impress at Old Trafford. Following the 2001 title victory, Teddy Sheringham left to join Tottenham Hotspur on a free transfer. Ferguson broke the transfer record to sign Ruud van Nistelrooy from PSV. Later, that record was again broken to sign Juan Sebastian Veron who is still regarded as one of Ferguson’s biggest failed transfers. Jaap Stam left in that summer and Andy Cole also joined Blackburn in December 2001. 

Sir Alex Ferguson announced his intentions to retire at the start of the season. A decision which we all know he reversed and promised to stay on for a minimum of another 3 years. Van Nistelrooy scored an impressive total of 36 goals in his debut season but United failed to win any silverware as that was the year of emergence for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and a rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal that would continue for years and years. 

Fergie again broke the transfer record to sign Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United for 29 million pounds which proved to be a fantastic signing. United won the league title again in the 2002-03 season and reached the Champions League semi final. David Beckham was sold to Real Madrid following the title win after a rather public row with Sir Alex Ferguson. Ferguson signed replacements in Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Cristiano Ronaldo. No prizes for guessing which of them was a successful signing. But the 2003-04 season belonged to the Invincibles of Arsenal. In the CL, United lost in the first knockout round to Jose Mourinho’s Porto. 
At the start of the 2004-05 season,United signed a promising teenager from Everton by the name of Wayne Rooney. Rooney scored a hattrick on his CL debut and went on to have a fairly decent career at United but United were devoid of silverware yet again. You see, Mourinho was named the Chelsea manager at the start of the 2004-05 season and he and his Chelsea team went on to dominate the league in that, and the subsequent season. The Red Devils finished 3rd in that season behind Chelsea and Arsenal. At the start of the 2005-06 season, the Glazer family completed the takeover and bought the majority stake in Manchester United leaving the clubs in almost 600m of debt. The financial situation at United was bleak and there are a lot of articles written about this. Although, in the 2005-06 season the red devils did manage to win a piece of silverware in the form of the Carling Cup, or most recently known as the Carabao Cup. 
In 2006-07, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney developed into more mature players and became superstars. Their on field Chemistry and partnership was a joy to watch. United had also finally managed to replace Kasper Schmeichel in the form of Edwin van der Sar and the rebuild was complete. Manchester United won the title and reached the semi finals of the Champions League where they lost to the eventual winners –  AC Milan. The club remained successful on the pitch in spite of the takeover from the Glazer family, a true testament to Ferguson’s managerial abilities. 
The 2007-08 season proved to be one of Ferguson’s best seasons in his outstanding career. United signed Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tevez, Nani and Anderson. Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra settled in at Manchester after a difficult start to their Manchester United careers after coming in January of 2006. Manchester United did the double that season, winning the Champions League and the Premier League. The famous night in Moscow, The match went to a penalty shootout after Cristiano Ronaldo’s opening goal was cancelled out by Frank Lampard’s equaliser.Ronaldo missed his penalty in the shootout but a slip from John Terry and a fantastic save by van der Sar off Nicholas Anelka’s attempt meant United would win the Champions League, Ferguson’s 2nd and United’s 3rd in their history.
The following season, there were strong rumours that Real Madrid wanted to buy Ronaldo after he had won the Balon D’or, but the Portugese stayed for another year in Manchester and helped United win another league title and reach another Champions League final only to lose to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona led by a superb Lionel Messi. 
Following the 2008-09 season, Ronaldo left in the summer to join giants Real Madrid. That season, United recovered from a slow start to win the Premier League title. That title victory made Sir Alex Ferguson the first manager in Premier League history to win the Premier League 3 years in a row, on two separate occasions. This Premier League title victory was Ferguson’s 11th and Manchester United’s 18th, putting them level with Liverpool.
In the 2009-10 season, Manchester United won the League cup after defeating Aston Villa 2-1 in the final. That was the first time United were able to mount a successful knockout cup defence. However, the Red Devils lost the league to Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea on the final day and narrowly bowed out of the Champions League in the quarter finals owing to an away goals defeat to Bayern Munich.
The 2010-11 season marked an end of an era for that Manchester United squad. Gary Neville, Edwin van der Sar and Paul Scholes all retired at the end of that season. Manchester United did manage to win that season meaning they would go ahead of Liverpool as the English team with the most League titles.They also reached the Champions League final, their 3rd in 4 years, where they would again meet Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. United lost the final 3-1 to a brilliant FC Barcelona team and Sir Alex Ferguson’s elusive 3rd Champions League win remained a dream. 
Owing to retirements of key players, Ferguson again spent big in the transfer market. Signing Ashley Young from Aston Villa, Phil Jones from Blackburn and David de Gea from Atletico Madrid. Overall, the 2011-12 campaign was a fairly unsuccessful one for Manchester United. They were relegated to the Europa League after finishing 3rd in the Champions League, where they would meet Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao who would go on to knock the Manchester club out. And of course, who can forget the famous “Agueroooo” moment? Manchester City clinched their first Premier League title in over 44 years after pimping United for the first spot on goal difference. 

That season sparked a reaction in Sir Alex Ferguson and he spent big to bring in Dutch striker Robin van Persie in order to bring the title back to Old Trafford. And he did. Manchester United won their 20th Premier League title, Sir Alex Ferguson’s 13th, with van Persie finishing the season as the golden boot winner. Towards the end of the season, Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, pulling down the curtains on a glorious and illustrious career with Manchester United. 

 “My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch. And you can print that.”

-Sir Alex Ferguson.

And he did. 

 

 

The path to the perch, Part 2: 1992-1999

We continue our series following Sir Alex Ferguson’s journey in bringing Manchester United back to the top with the second leg of this 3-part series. We recount the years from his first title at the club to possibly the greatest moment of his career in 1999.

March to the first titles

As fate would have it, the rebranding of the English league to the Premier League coincided with the class of 1992 – Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham graduating to United’s first team. After a shortage of goals in the second half of the 1991-92 season cost United the league title, Ferguson was intent on signing a new striker. His key target was Southampton striker Alan Shearer, but he lost out to a newly promoted Blackburn Rovers side managed by Kenny Dalglish, who had managed Liverpool to three league titles and was backed by the millions of steel baron Jack Walker to bring similar success to the resurgent Lancashire club. Ferguson then switched his attention to Dion Dublin, the 23-year-old striker who had excelled in the lower divisions with Cambridge United. Dublin completed a £1 million move to Old Trafford to become United’s only summer season signing.

The first victory of the 1992-93 league season came only in the fourth game when a late goal by Dublin provided a 1–0 win at Southampton, but Dublin then broke his leg in the next game against Crystal Palace and was sidelined for six months. By late October United had endured a run of five successive draws and the all too familiar goal shortage was attributed to this once again. United sat at 10th place in the league by November 1992, with one of the lowest goal tallies in the division. United were linked with moves for some of the most highly rated strikers in the English league, including Brian Deane and David Hirst, but on 26 November 1992 United made a £1.1 million move for French striker Eric Cantona, who had helped Leeds United win the previous season’s league title. The arrival of Cantona transformed United, and by the turn of 1993 they were looking like title contenders again. Despite challenges from Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and surprise contenders Norwich City, United went on a storming run during the final weeks of the season to win the title by a 10-point margin and end their 26-year wait (the last title being under Sir Matt Busby in 1967).

United broke the English transfer fee record over the summer of 1993 by paying relegated Nottingham Forest £3.75 million for Irish midfielder Roy Keane. United started the following season beating Arsenal on penalties in the FA Charity Shield. They led the Premier League at the end of August, a lead they maintained all season. By the end of October, they were 11 points ahead and their lead peaked at 16 points in the new year. Despite a second round exit from the UEFA Champions League, United had their sights set on a unique domestic treble. In March 1994, United dropped points against Arsenal and bottom-of-the-table Swindon Town, in which Cantona was sent off in both games and subsequently received a five-match suspension. They then lost the League Cup final to Aston Villa and nearly went out of the FA Cup in the semi-final at Wembley, before Mark Hughes scored a late equaliser to force a Maine Road replay, which United won 4–1. An upturn in results soon followed, and United clinched their title on 1 May 1994 when they won 2–1 at Ipswich Town. In the 1994 FA Cup Final, it was goalless at half time but two Cantona penalties and subsequent goals from Mark Hughes and Brian McClair gave United a comprehensive 4–0 win over Chelsea. Cantona finished the season with 25 goals in all competitions and was voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year. Other players to impress during this campaign included Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Sir Bobby Charlton of Manchester United celebrates in the dressing room with the Premiership Trophy after becoming FA Carling Premiership Winners in the 1993-94 season at Old Trafford on May 8, 1994. Manchester United 0 Coventry City 0 (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“You can’t win anything with kids”

Ferguson felt that his squad were good enough to challenge on all fronts in the season which followed the Double, and made only one signing, paying Blackburn Rovers £1.2 million for defender David May. The 1994–95 season saw United rarely out of the headlines. On 25 January 1995, Eric Cantona kicked a Crystal Palace fan who had taunted him with anti-French racist abuse. Cantona was suspended by the club for the rest of the season, a ban which the FA extended until the end of September. United were also without players like Paul Parker, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis for long periods of time due to injury. 1994–95 also saw the debuts of promising young players Paul Scholes and Phil Neville. Scholes was particularly impressive, scoring five goals in 17 games. Having made a handful of appearances between them in the previous two seasons, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt all made more regular appearances for United during 1994–95.

United broke the English transfer record again on 10 January 1995 by paying £7 million for Newcastle United’s free-scoring striker Andy Cole. He had been signed just two weeks before the Cantona incident as an eventual replacement for 31-year-old Mark Hughes. United almost made it three league titles in a row, but just couldn’t get the better of a West Ham side who held them to a 1–1 draw in East London on the final day of the season. Blackburn, led by Kenny Dalglish, were crowned ­champions. The FA Cup also slipped out of United’s grasp when they lost 1–0 to unfancied Everton in the final.

 

 Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs walks dejectedly off the Wembley pitch after his team lost in the Cup Final, watched by manager Alex Ferguson (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

“Have you taken your eye off the ball?” asked Professor Sir Roland Smith, after Fergie had been summoned to the chairman’s Isle of Man home to discuss his request for a six-year deal. Smith’s suggestion that Ferguson should come back next year was not what the 54-year-old was hoping for. And chief executive Martin ­Edwards added insult to injury by warning Ferguson there would be no cushy boardroom job for him at the end of his tenure. “We don’t want a repeat of the Matt Busby syndrome,” Edwards is reported to have said. It is fair to say that Ferguson was not in a good place. His bid to become the first manager to defend the Double had ended in failure. 

In the desolate dressing room at Wembley, Ferguson warned that any players who had let their team-mates down would not be around much longer. The ­manager shocked his board of directors by announcing that he planned to sell Paul Ince. The England midfielder might have been at the top of his game, but Ferguson felt he had become too big for his boots. Ince had christened himself ‘The Guv’nor’. His nickname was even stitched into his ­Predator boots. As Ferguson explained in his ­autobiography, “I had observed Paul closely for the past five months and decided his attitude and performances had ­altered to a degree that I could not tolerate. This Guv’nor thing should have been left in his toy box.” Ince was sold to Inter Milan for £6million and fan favourites Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis were to follow through the exit door. Ferguson was on holiday in the United States when he was told that Hughes had decided not to sign a new contract and had joined Chelsea instead.

United had lost three key players, and the club’s directors weren’t the only ones who felt Ferguson had lost the plot. When the opening game of the season was lost 3-1 at Aston Villa and Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen famously declared United would win nothing with kids, thousands of fans voted in a poll run by the Manchester Evening News asking whether Ferguson should be sacked. The pressure mounted on Ferguson as the new season began without a major signing, with Ferguson instead putting his faith in young members of the squad such as David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. This was seen as a big gamble, especially as the likes of Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal had spent heavily, but Ferguson stuck to his decision. He mentioned in his autobiography, “It was clear I now had youngsters equipped to play at the highest level.” In September 1994, when United travelled to Port Vale in the League Cup, ­Ferguson unleashed the rest of the club’s 1992 FA Youth Cup winners. Ferguson recalled: “After that night at Port Vale there were ­protests in the House of Commons. One woman MP said I should be banned for life for not playing my strongest team when people had paid their £10 to get in.” United prevailed 2-1 at Vale Park, thanks to two goals by Scholes.

Aside from a New Year’s Day defeat at Tottenham Hotspur and a goalless draw at home to Aston Villa, United regained their winning touch after Christmas and reached the top of the Premier League in mid-March. Cantona was instrumental in many victories, and United remained firmly in control at the top and sealed the title on the last day of the season with a 3–0 win at Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough. A week later, Manchester United beat Liverpool 1–0 in the FA Cup final to become the first ever English club to win the Double twice. Eric Cantona, who scored 19 goals in 1995–96 (including the FA Cup final winner), was voted FWA Footballer of the Year by football journalists and was made team captain following the departure of Steve Bruce to Birmingham City.  Ferguson once again crossed the Irish Sea to speak to Professor Sir Roland Smith.

 

 Eric Cantona and manager Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United with the FA Cup and Premiership Trophy at Victoria Station, Manchester on May 12, 1996 after completing The Double. (Photo by John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“Football, bloody hell”

In the summer of 1996, United once again tried to sign Alan Shearer, but were beaten to his signature by Newcastle United for a then world record fee of £15 million. A new striker did arrive at Old Trafford that summer – Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a little-known 23-year-old Norwegian striker. Another Norwegian, defender Ronny Johnsen, was also signed to fill the gap left by veteran Steve Bruce’s departure. Manchester United won their fourth league title in five seasons in 1996–97, helped by 18 goals from Solskjær. Hopes of winning the European Cup for the first time since 1968 were dashed, however, as they were defeated in the semi-finals by the eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund. At the end of the season, Eric Cantona announced his shock retirement from football just a few days before his 31st birthday. He was replaced by England international Teddy Sheringham, a £3.5 million signing from Tottenham.

A new adversary loomed in the form of Arsenal and their new boss Arsene Wenger. Although the pair would often have a fiery relationship in the press, Ferguson was full of praise for the Frenchman guiding the Gunners to the 1997-98 title, stating: “I think it’s good for my young players to lose on this occasion.” Shortly after this disappointment, Ferguson broke the club’s transfer record twice by signing Dutch defender Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven and Trinidadian striker Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa.

Ferguson’s words would ring true as in the following 1998-99 season United rose to the occasion and gained a reputation for not conceding defeat even in what seemed the most hopeless of circumstances, winning and drawing several matches with late goals. Ferguson himself called it ‘Squeaky Bum time’. Some of their more notable comebacks were the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Liverpool, which Liverpool led from the third to the 85th minute, both legs of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals against Juventus and the FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, won by a Ryan Giggs goal deep into extra time, forced by a last-gasp Peter Schmeichel penalty save in the last of his eight seasons at the club. However, the most dramatic comeback came in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored a goal each in stoppage time to give United a 2–1 win in stoppage time. After the game, Ferguson uttered one of his most famous phrases: “Football, bloody hell.” United lost just five times in the entire season; three times in the league, the Charity Shield at the start of the season, and the League Cup quarter-final to eventual winners, Tottenham Hotspur. They defeated every other Premier League team at least once in all competitions and were undefeated in the Champions League.

Fans and writers regard the treble haul as manager Alex Ferguson’s finest hour, although he dismissed that assertion in later years. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets of Manchester to welcome the team as the season drew to a close. In recognition of his achievements Ferguson was awarded a knighthood, and handed the Freedom of the City of Glasgow in November 1999. By the end of the season, Manchester United had become the world’s richest football club and the most valuable sporting brand worldwide. Sir Alex Ferguson had well and truly converted United into a global force.

 

 Raimond van der Gouw, Wes Brown, Jaap Stam, Jonathan Greening, Andy Cole, David Beckham, David May, Alex Ferguson head coach, Ryan Giggs, Denis Irwin, Teddy Sheringham and Gary Neville celebrate his victory with the trophy during the UEFA Champions league final match between Manchester United and Bayern Munich on May 26, 1999 in Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain. (photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport via Getty Images)

The path to the perch, Part 1: 1986-1991

8th May 2013 – the date when Sir Alex Ferguson pulled down the curtains on his glorious 26 year adventure with Manchester United and football. During his time at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson managed to win a total of 28 major trophies including 13 Premier Leagues, 5 FA Cups and 2 Champions League. He also got Manchester United the distinction of being the only English side to ever complete the treble when current Manchester United manager scored the famous late winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final. ‘The greatest manager ever’, as they say about Ferguson and although it’s up for debate you wouldn’t have a conversation about it without mentioning Sir Alex. 

However, it wasn’t always the case for Ferguson. His first 4 years as Manchester United weren’t all about trophies but rather marred with inconsistencies and a lot of doubts. There is a famous newspaper clipping with the title ‘Fergie must go’ signifying the fact that fans weren’t happy with Ferguson’s first 3 and a half seasons as Manchester United manager. In fact, it is widely noted that the FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace in 1990 which saved Ferguson’s job as Manchester United manager. 

Today, we take a look at his lesser known years as Manchester United manager. 


Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in his office, circa December 1986. (Photo by Harry Goodwin/Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Early Career

Sir Alex Ferguson or just Alex Ferguson at the time, began his manager career in Scotland with St. Mirren in the Scottish second division. He was their manager from 1974 to 1978 and took them from lower table obscurity in the second division to league champions in 1977. The average age of that St.Mirren squad was 19 and their captain, Tony Fitzpatrick, was 20. A superb achievement for Ferguson who himself could be considered young for a manager at just 36. In 1978, Ferguson jumped ships to go and manage Aberdeen. There was a lot of speculation and rumours that Ferguson had already taken the Aberdeen job and owing to that St.Mirren decided to sack Ferguson becoming the only club ever to sack Alex Ferguson. 

At Aberdeen, the Scottishman managed to win the league title in the 1979-80 season. This was the first time a team rather than the Glasgow clubs (Celtic and Rangers) had won the Scottish Premiership in 15 years. Ferguson created a siege mentality at Aberdeen accusing the media of being biased towards Celtic and Rangers and used that to motivate his own team. ‘Furious Fergie’ was the nickname given to him by the Aberdeen players. The success at Aberdeen continued, with him winning the Scottish cup in 1982. 

The following season, he led Aberdeen to even more success by winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup, knocking out the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. Aberdeen won the league for a further 2 seasons under Fergie. In 1986, he made his intentions clear that he wanted to leave Aberdeen. He managed Scotland in the 1986 World cup but after a group stage exit, he decided to step down as Scotland manager. 

After rejecting job offers from Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed as the Manchester United manager on 6th November 1986, taking over from Ron Atkinson. 


Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson pictured in an office at Old Trafford circa 1986 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Rusty Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images)

An inconsistent start

There is a challenge called the “Sir Alex Ferguson challenge” popular among Football Manager players where you take over the team which is 19th in the Premier League on 6th November and try to replicate the success SAF had. That was the situation Ferguson was tasked with. Manchester United were 19th after finishing 2nd last season and were struggling. Ferguson guided them to an 11th placed finish and brought back some long needed stability to the club. 

The following season was great for Ferguson. He made his first signings at the club, Viv Andersen from Arsenal and striker Brian McClair from Celtic.He guided the red devils to a first second placed finish in 7 years but United were way off the standards of Liverpool and Fergie knew it. A home defeat in the FA Cup quarter finals against Nottingham forest was a bitter mark at a rather optimistic campaign. 

The optimism among the Manchester United faithful grew at the start of the 1988-89 as Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes returned to the club. Ferguson also signed a 17 year old Lee Sharpe from Torquay United and goalkeeper Jim Leighton from Ferguson’s former club Aberdeen. A 6-game winning run in January saw the red devils climb upto 3rd in the league table but a drastic collapse in form saw them go down the table and eventually finish 11th. 

Fergie was ruthless and responded to this by making new signings such as Mike Phelan, Neil Webb, Danny Wallace, Paul Ince and a club record signing in Gary Pallister. This saw fan favourites and stalwarts of the Atkinson era, Gordon Strachan, Jesper Olsen, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside leaving the club. 


Alex Ferguson (centre) flanked by his new signings, Viv Anderson (left) form Arsenal and Brian McClair from Celtic at Old Trafford. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Silencing the Critics

The clearing out of fan favourites was met with a lot of backlash from fans but the fans from the outside still believed in the rebuild project at Old Trafford. A 4-1 win over champions Arsenal on the opening day fuelled some optimism among the Old Trafford faithfuls but a dip in form and the new signings failing to impress led to many reports in November that Ferguson’s time could be up. 

“3 YEARS OF EXCUSES AND IT’S STILL C**P – TA RA FERGIE”. This was the famous banner floated around Manchester. A heavy 5-1 defeat against local rivals Manchester City and being booed off the pitch against Spurs made things worse and it wasn’t hard to see why. United’s form in the league was awful which was showcased by the fact that they finished only 13th in the league. Fans were not happy, the media was on Fergie’s back and it looked like the inevitable might happen after all.

“We were hearing things the night before we went to play Nottingham Forest. You hear these rumours – ‘If we don’t win today the gaffer could go.’ We were struggling in the league. Mark Robins scores and people say that saved his job,” Paul Ince recounted. 

The 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup quarter final was what, many say, saved Ferguson’s job at Old Trafford. But the board during the time constantly reassured that his job was never under threat at the time but if the team didn’t show any improvements towards the end of the season then they would’ve been forced to take a call. 

To be fair to Manchester United, they were doing quite well in the cups. They got all the draws away from home in the cup competitions and did well to win them and reach the final against Crystal Place. This was it, the defining moment of the season, a match that would make or break Ferguson’s legacy at Manchester United. And it’s moments like this that force a manager to make the tough calls and Fergie was prepared to make one. 

Jim Leighton, the goalkeeper who brought so much success for Ferguson at Aberdeen was underperforming and not justifying his place. Ferguson would have smashed the Guillotine over Leighton’s head long before he actually did if his assistant, Archie Knox, had not intervened. But after being caught in no man’s land for the first Crystal Palace goal in the 3-3 draw, Ferguson was left with no choice for the replay.

On loan Luton Town goalkeeper Les Sealey would be the first choice for the replay. Ferguson described him as ‘arrogant’ and ‘cocky’. He wrote: “Was he a better goalkeeper than Jim? No, but he thought he was, and that can sometimes be important in a Cup final.” 

It proved to be the right decision. United won 2-1 in the replay claiming the first trophy of the Ferguson era and the floodgates then began. The ban for English teams playing in the European competitions was lifted and United qualified and won the Cup Winners’ Cup next season. They finished 2nd in the league in the 1990/91 season behind rivals Leeds United. That season was then followed by the first league win under Sir Alex Ferguson in the 1991/92 season, thanks to two dramatic late goals by Steve Bruce against Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the season. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. 

Nicky Butt’s Youth Revolution

Whenever there exists a big institution in any field of life, it is associated with something. It has its own identity, its own uniqueness. Being a part of that institution means something, it holds some value in someone’s life, in someone’s heart. In football, it’s no different. Every club has its own identity, their own traditions. That’s what makes playing for a club special, maybe that’s what makes fans fall in love with a club. 

Ajax and Barcelona are known for their youth development and brand of football, Borussia Dortmund’s loud and spectacular atmosphere at the stadium is revered all over the world, Athletic Bilbao pride themselves in only using Basque origin players to give a few examples. Almost every club in this world has their own identity. Manchester United are no different. Known for their ability for producing some of the finest footballers in English and world football, their youth academy is widely considered as one of the best in the world. Their continued trust in giving youth a chance hasn’t gone unnoticed either with the club having named an academy player in their matchday squad for more than 81 years. 

Although, United’s academy went through a bad phase in the last decade. Having won the FA youth cup 10 times, and priding themselves in their homegrown players making the first team, United neglected the academy for a while. When Louis van Gaal came in, the academy for underfunded and more focus was shifted towards improving the first team rather than improving the academy. At the same time, 4 miles away from Old Trafford, the ones wearing blue were improving and strengthening their academy each and every day. 

From guaranteed education till 18 to better and bigger training facilities, Manchester City were attracting talents from under Manchester United’s nose and United were doing nothing about it. They thought their reputation was enough to attract these players – it wasn’t. The most talented 11,12, 13 year olds were all choosing to go to blue half rather than the red. Even United’s ex players such as Robin van Persie and Phil Neville chose to put their sons in Manchester City’s academy. Manchester United were not the best academy in the city anymore, let alone the country and this was emphasised by the 9-0 loss that Manchester United’s u14s suffered at the hands of their neighbours in 2015. 

That was until Nicky Butt came in as the head of academy in 2016 and the powers at the top decided to invest in the academy once again. These figures aren’t revealed but the chatter around the training complex in Manchester suggests that the investment in the academy has skyrocketed since. United’s recent recruitments do nothing but confirm that. Hannibal Mejbri, touted as one of France’s biggest prospects, was bought in from AS Monaco for 10m pounds. Charlie McNeil, who scored over 600 goals at the u16s level, was poached from the rivals Manchester City. Marc Jurado ditched the world famous La Masia to join Manchester United, same with Alvaro Fernandez and Alejandro Garnaco who came in from Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid respectively. 

 

 

(VALENCIA, SPAIN – DECEMBER 12: Manager Nicky Butt of Manchester United U19s watches from the touchline during the UEFA Youth League match between Valencia U19s and Manchester United U19s at Paterna Training Centre on December 12, 2018 in Valencia, Spain.)

Even though they were announced by the club like a first team signing, the general consensus is that Facundo Pellstri and Amad Diallo would first be training with the reserves instead of the first team. Large sums of money to buy these guys as well, something which again points at how much the investment at the youth level has increased since practically being ignored at one point in the last decade. 

Large part of the credit goes to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The United boss may always find himself under the microscope whenever the first team plays bad and his reign as the first team manager has been a roller coaster ride, but one thing that the Norwegian has changed since coming in is the focus put on the academy. In 2019, the Manchester United backroom staff went through a complete restructuring with Nicky Butt being made head of first team development and Nick Cox replacing him as the head of the academy. Butt reports directly to Solskjaer about which players are ready to step up into the first team and also oversees their transition. 

This has already benefited two players – Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams, who have gone through seemingly flawless transitions into the first team. James Garner, Tahith Chong and Teden Mengi have all been knocking on the doors of first team football as well. Marcus Rashford is already one of England’s best players, Dean Henderson has impressed whilst being on loan at Sheffield United and Axel Tuanzebe, who has captained the side at every level (including the first team) has shown that he can be a reliable option at the back. United have a lot of homegrown talent representing the first team and that’s a testament to Solskjaer’s CV of trusting youth time and again. 

 

 

(MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – AUGUST 10: Nicky Butt, Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Coach Michael Carrick of Manchester United watch from the touchline during the U18 Premier League match between Manchester United U18s and Sunderland U18s at Aon Training Complex on August 10, 2019 in Manchester, England.)

Nicky Butt has also been a large influence on the academy since coming back to the club in 2016 and spearheading the academy overhaul. Having been part of the famous Class of 92 and also coaching the reserve side in 2012 and a short interim spell in 2016 due to reshuffling of the staff, the former Manchester United midfielder knows what it takes to transition an academy prospect into a first team regular. Butt was quick to install a transfer strategy and a clear plan for the academy in terms of recruitment, which is still being used to this day. An extensive scouting network and cash influx helped with the Red Devils signing players from all across England and Europe. 

“You can judge me and the people who develop for the first team in hopefully two or three years when we’re challenging for titles. If you’re challenging for titles and getting players in the first team, that’s when you know you’re doing an unbelievable job.”

-Nicky Butt, February 2020.

Manchester United have signed 19 players between the ages of 15 and 18 since 2019. Many of them leaving a few of Europe’s best academies while others snubbing United’s main rivals and joining the red devils. 

“I have made the decision to leave this great club – I wanted to thank all my teammates, and the coaching staff at Real Madrid for making me a better person and footballer,”

-Alvaro Fernandez on leaving Real Madrid. 

All the 19 players weren’t cheap. Marc Jurado cost 400,000 pounds from Barcelona. Charlie McNeil cost 600,000 pounds from Manchester City. Logan Pye and Joe Hugill cost a combined 300,000 pounds from Sunderland. Wily Kambwala, the latest recruit from France, cost upwards of 3m pounds and Hannibal Mejbri was brought in for approximately 8m pounds to be made as the poster boy of the academy. Pellestri and Diallo who were both brought in at a combined cost of roughly 40m pounds. 

Since 2019, Manchester United have spent large sums of money on securing the signatures of some of the finest prospects in Europe. This is a testament to the scouting and recruitment strategy mapped out by Nicky Butt and how much Solskjaer is trusting the youth academy of this club. Hardballing negotiations and the supposedly smaller clubs refusing to be bullied by the financial muscle of the bigger clubs has meant that Solskjaer may turn to youth prospects sooner rather than later. 

Let’s have a look at the u23s and u18s academy players who we might be seeing play for the first team in the near future.

Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have followed in the footsteps of Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe in establishing themselves as first team regulars. Tahith Chong and James Garner have made a few first team appearances but have been loaned out to Werder Bremen and Watford respectively this season to gather more first team experience. And Even though these are early stages of the season, both have been excelling whilst on loan. 

Looking at the u23s led by Neil Wood, Hannibal Mejbri is the player that stands out. Still only 17 years old and Mejbri is one of the most important players for the u23s and is regarded as the next big thing by many French scouts and journalists. His signature made a lot of headlines in the last year and he might be on the verge of playing for the first team this season. 

 

 

(BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 30: The Manchester United team (Back Row L-R: Will Fish, Lukasz Bejger, Ondrej Mastny Teden Mengi, Hannibal Mejbri, Anthony Elanga. Front Row L-R: Martin Svidersky, Shola Shoretire, Charlie McCann, Mark Helm, Reece Devine) ahead of the FA Youth Cup semi-final match between Manchester United U18s and Chelsea U18s at St Georges Park on October 30, 2020 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.)

Ethan Laird, Teden Mengi and Ethan Galbraith have all impressed at the u23s level as well. Laird and Mengi have already made their debuts for the first team with Laird featuring in the 2-1 loss to Astana in the Europa League last season while Mengi came on to play a little cameo against LASK last season. Brandon Williams had to change positions in order to accommodate Ethan Laird at right back and it was said that Laird would have even made his debut before Williams before suffering a horrible injury sidelining him for almost a year. Mengi has really impressed Solskjaer and there is a high possibility that we might see him play in a few cup games this season. Ethan Galbraith recently signed a new long term contract with the club and has made steady strides in his development. 

Looking further into the reserve teams, Dilon Hoogewerf is another foreign talent poached by United in the last year – this time from Ajax. Ajax were unhappy that he left but the 17 year old said United’s vision and plan for him did the trick in convincing him to move. Anthony Elanga and Noam Emeran are two 17 year old wingers who have shown promise. 16 year old Zidane Iqbal is another talented attacking midfielder who has roots in England and Pakistan. Alvaro Fernandez and Joe Hugill, who were acquired this summer have hit the ground running and are already playing for the u23s. Hugill was brought in from Sunderland and the 17 year old has already netted 4 times in 5 games. Pellestri had a promising debut and there is a lot of excitement among the Red Devils faithful about the arrival of Amad Diallo who is touted to be one of the biggest prospects coming out of Italy.  

Signings of midfielder Isak Hansen-Aaroen from Norwegian second tier club Tromso and goalkeeper Radek Vitek from Czech club Olomouc show exactly how vast United’s scouting network is. Manchester United have totally revamped their academy in the last few years and have laid a solid foundation for the first team manager to build upon. If a situation arrives for the first team manager to turn to academy, he has a vast array of promising players to choose from.

Manchester United have always held the reputation of giving youth players a chance to play in the first team but in the recent past, it has taken a bit of a hit. Young players didn’t find the Manchester United academy attractive enough and would consider their other options. The total revamp of the academy has meant that promising young players may turn to Manchester United to learn, grow and develop.

“Youth. Courage. Success” is the Manchester United motto, the Manchester United way. From the ‘Busby Babes’ to the ‘Class of 92’ and their stunning record of having at least one homegrown player in their matchday squad for 81 consecutive years is what the club is all about. This is their identity, their philosophy, something which was lost for a while. For all their other struggles, they are getting their identity, their philosophy back. Playing for the Manchester United academy has again started to mean something.