Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson celebrates his 80th birthday on New Year’s Eve.
The Scots, who are among the best coaches of all time, saw their former team in action at Old Trafford the day before their milestone birthday and could see a giant banner in his honor unfolded in Stretford End.
Ferguson was honored with a Stretford End banner / OLI SCARFF / GettyImages
Born on December 31, 1941, Fergie grew up in a humble environment in the Govan area of Glasgow. His father worked at the city’s famous shipyards and he himself combined an apprenticeship to follow in those footsteps with a thriving part-time football career.
Ferguson was frustrated with his life at that stage, unable to make a breakthrough as a football player, and at one stage he was close to emigrating to Canada for a fresh start. But a hat-trick for St Johnstone in a shock victory over Scottish giants Rangers in December 1963 changed everything.
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A few months later, he signed a first professional contract with Dunfermline at the age of 22, before later joining Rangers in 1967. His time in his childhood club was only short, and later admitted that he “assumed” that he was a victim of sectarian discrimination on Ibrox after marrying a Catholic woman.
Spells on Falkirk and Ayr United followed, before he hung up his boots in the summer of 1974, 32 years old. He had competed four times for Scotland during a 1967 tour abroad.
Ferguson immediately moved to management and was offered a job at East Stirlingshire. He started making his name for four years at St Mirren, which led the club from the third tier to the top tier, although they are the only side that have ever fired him. At the time, he claimed wrongful termination and took St Mirren to court – many years later, President Willie Todd revealed that the main reason was a breach of contract over agreeing to join Aberdeen.
Prior to Fergie’s arrival in Aberdeen, the club had not won any silver in over 20 years. But over the next eight years, he turned them into regular Scottish title winners and the only Scottish club in the last 49 years to win a European trophy.
Ferguson delivered 10 trophies to Aberdeen between 1978 and 1986, accounting for more than half of the club’s silverware in 118 years of overall history. It included three Scottish titles – no club other than Celtic or Rangers have been crowned champions since then – and at one stage they lifted the Scottish Cup four times in just five seasons. The crowning achievement was perhaps the victory over Real Madrid in 1983 to lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
His success in Scotland resulted in Fergie becoming the man appointed to replace Ron Atkinson at Manchester United in November 1986, the club’s sixth attempt to successfully fill Sir Matt Busby’s huge shoes.
Ferguson struggled in Manchester for the first few years, initially inheriting a team that was just four points from the bottom of the table and ended up in a period of endless obsolete transfer. He did enough to steer the club away from relegation, finishing 11th and even monitoring second place during his first full season as manager, before dropping to 11th and then 13th in 1990.
Frustrating than proving himself in England in difficult circumstances, a notorious fan banner read at the time: “3 years of apologies and it’s still crap … take Fergie.”
But an enormously important work was going on behind the scenes that was not yet to be realized. Ferguson began overseeing a review of United’s youth activities, which were once the lifeblood of the club’s success in the 1950s and 1960s, while sending out almost the entire A-team squad to restore culture and completely rebuild a new team – just Bryan Robson survived the killing.
What eventually followed hardly needs to be repeated. The FA Cup honor in 1990 bought him a little more time and after an almost miss in 1991/92, he finally got the ball rolling with the first Premier League title in 1992/93 – United’s first in 26 years of trying since 1967.
By the time he retired 20 years later, Ferguson had delivered a total of 13 league titles, putting United ahead of Liverpool as England’s most decorated club. There were five FA Cups, four league cups, two Champions League titles – and two other finals, an Intercontinental Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and countless records, as well as individual awards.
Ferguson was knighted for service to football in 1999 a few months after United made a historic treble. He was close to retiring in 2002 at the age of just 60, but decided to extend his career and enjoy his arguably most concentrated period of success after that.
Fergie eventually retired in 2013 after winning his 38th and final trophy with United – his 48th overall in a managerial career that spanned 39 years from start to finish.
He continues to serve United as a board member of the football club’s board, at the same time as he overcame a health fear in 2018 when he needed an emergency operation on a brain haemorrhage. That episode and his life as a whole are addressed in the gripping documentary Alex Ferguson from 2021: Never Give In.
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