Alex Ferguson in Europe

I tweeted this a few days back:

https://twitter.com/KarikadaiBoy/status/666670732743565312

Alex Ferguson became manager of Manchester United on 6th November 1986. He was already a very successful manager with Aberdeen. Fergie’s Aberdeen broke the hegemony of the Old Firm in Scotland. For the uninformed, the Rangers-Celtics stranglehold in Scotland isn’t too dissimilar to the Madrid-Barça hegemony in Spain. Just like how Diego “Cholo” Simeone’s Atletico Madrid broke the Madrid-Barça duopoly for 9 years by winning the La Liga title in 2013-14, Fergie’s Aberdeen won the 1979-80 Scottish First Division and became the first non-Old Firm side to win it in 15 years. Unlike Atletico so far, Aberdeen went to on win two more league titles in 1984 & 1985. They also did well in Europe by winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 beating mighty Real Madrid in the final.

Suffice to say Fergie was in heavy demand in England rejecting among others, Arsenal & Liverpool, to manage the red half of Manchester. He wanted to knock Liverpool off their fucking perch and boy did he do that. Liverpool are yet to win the English league title since P V Narasimha Rao opened up the Indian economy and Manchester United went from the strength to strength in the next quarter century. When Fergie joined United, Liverpool had 15 league titles and United 7. When he retired Liverpool had 18 league titles and United 20!

Fergie is without a doubt the greatest manager in the history of British football. He was rarely great in Europe. Things were hunky dory when Manchester United returned to Europe for the first time in 6 years in 1990 after English teams served a ban in Europe for the Heysel disaster. United defeated Cruijff’s Barcelona to win the Cup Winners’ cup for the first time in their history.

After two years in the lesser European competitions, Manchester United returned to newly formed UEFA Champions league for the first time in 25 years in 1993. They were outsmarted by a street smart Galatasaray on away goals after drawing 3-3 at Old Trafford. This would be a story of Ferguson in Europe. From 1993 to 2006, barring one glorious campaign in 1998-99 where they would famously win the Cup with Big Ears in injury time, Manchester United were repeatedly outclassed and outsmarted in Europe.

Their domestic dominance in those 13 years never translated into Europe. Fergie’s United could not overturn a single unfavourable result in the first leg. My definition of an unfavourable result is: home score draw or away defeat. They even flamed out a few times even after favourable away results. A favourable away result being a 0-0 draw.

1996-97

1st leg: Lost 0-1 in Dortmund

2nd leg: Lost 0-1 at home

1997-98

1st leg: 0-0 draw in Monaco

2nd leg: 1-1 draw at home

1999-2000

1st leg: 0-0 draw in Madrid

2nd leg: 2-3 defeat at home

2000-01

1st leg: 0-1 defeat at home to Bayern Munich

2nd leg: 1-2 defeat in Munich

2001-02

1st leg: 2-2 draw at home to Bayer Leverkusen

2nd leg: 1-1 draw in Leverkusen

2002-03

1st leg: 1-3 defeat in Madrid

2nd leg: 4-3 win in Manchester

2003-04

1st leg: 1-2 defeat in Oporto

2nd leg: 1-1 draw at home

2004-05

1st leg: 0-1 defeat at home against AC Milan

2nd leg: 0-1 defeat in Milan

That is 6 unfavourable results (5 1st leg defeats, 1 score draw at home) and 2 favourable results (2 0-0 draws away) that Fergie let slip out of 10 two legged ties excluding the 2 ties (vs Inter & Juve) in their title winning season. The ties United won were vs Porto in 1997 and a damn good Deportivo La Coruna in 2002. In fact, the only unfavourable result that Manchester United overturned in that whole period from 1993 to 2006 was the 1-1 draw at home to Juventus in 1999. It was also the only season they (barely) won the Champions league.

My personal opinion in this period (93 to 06) was the Fergie was extremely overrated as his results in Europe reflect. Fergietards regularly rationalize that he never had the budget that the Italians in the 90s and Madrid-Barça this century had. This despite Manchester United being the richest club in England for nearly his entire career and in the world this century.

I have changed my opinion about Fergie since then. I now think he is one of the greatest managers of all time but not the greatest. His response to the challenge thrown by Mourinho & Abramovich’s endless purse is nothing short of miraculous. He built probably his most sophisticated United side under Ronaldo & Rooney. They won 3 consecutive league titles.

United’s European performances were vastly improved in this period. The tie against Roma in 2007 was the only time in Fergie’s entire career that his team overturned a first leg defeat. They absolutely thrashed Roma 7-1 in Old Trafford. This was followed by a familiar failure: a loss to Milan after leading 3-2 from the 1st leg. The next season Fergie would win his 2nd Champions league with a win against Chelsea on penalties. Lucky once again thanks to one John Terry slip.

In 2008-09, Manchester United would overturn an unfavourable 1st leg result (2-2 home draw vs Porto) only for the 3rd time under Fergie to reach the final in Rome. They became the 1st team since Juventus in 1997 to reach the final as defending champions. They were taught a lesson by an undermanned Barcelona under a rookie Pep Guardiola.

After United’s talisman in those 3 seasons, Cristiano Ronaldo, left for Real Madrid, they reverted to type in Europe blowing a 3-0 lead in the 2nd leg (4-2 overall lead) to eventual finalists Bayern Munich. A lucky draw (Marseille, Chelse, Schalke) enabled Fergie to reach another final in search for his 3rd Champions league medal and 4th overall European medal. They were taught a 2nd lesson by Guardiola’s Barcelona at Wembley in a 3-1 thrashing.

His subsequent raids in Europe ended in bitter disappointment but his domestic dominance never waned. From 2006-07 to 2012-13, Manchester United were prevented from winning 7 straight league titles by just 1 point (2009-10 Chelsea) and on goal difference (2011-12 Manchester City).

This is Fergie’s record vs the 5 teams that have been multiple Champions League winners/finalists in his career spanning 1993-2013

Team Win Loss Draw
AC Milan 3 3 0
Barcelona 2 3 4
Bayern Munich 2 3 4
Juventus 4 3 1
Real Madrid 1 3 2
Total 12 15 11

Not a bad record by any means but not good enough for a guy claiming to be the greatest manager in the history of the beautiful game so far. When Manchester United were knocked out of the Champions league this season under Louis Van Gaal, many said that Moyes won his group ignoring the Dutchman’s extensive CV. Fergie ended his whole United career with as many first leg deficits overturned as David Moyes did in his United career. 😛

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