Sir Alex Ferguson: 25 years not out.

It’s difficult to know what Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest achievement is, such are the options.

Ending Manchester United’s 26 year title drought? Introducing many youngsters to a team which would go on to dominate for years? Becoming the first British manager to lift the Champions League? Ripping up successful, championship winning sides in order to rebuild for continued future success? Overcoming the ever increasing tests presented by rivals desperate to topple his team?

The list could go on.

Or is it simply that he has remained manager of Manchester United for a quarter of a century, spanning four decades and two very different eras of football? For me, that is what stands out most of all.

As Sir Alex reaches a landmark moment in his time at United, there is bound to be a plethora of columns and features discussing and debating the issue of who is Britain’s greatest ever football manager, a topic which is always going to be impossible to answer due to the varied nature of each candidate’s achievements.

Would Ferguson have been as successful as Busby if he had spent his managerial career in the 1950s and 1960s? If in charge of Liverpool during the same era, could he have completely transformed not only the team but the entire club, from one which sat half way down the second tier of English football to one on the brink of a decade of European domination, as Bill Shankly achieved?

Could he have fared any better with Nottingham Forest than Bryan Clough, or Don Revie at Leeds? Or matched Herbert Chapman’s achievements of leading both Huddersfield and Arsenal to multiple titles within the space of a decade?

Even if the answer is no to all of the above it’s just as likely that none of those named above, all of them managerial greats, could have matched Ferguson’s success at Man United over the last two decades.

There have been favourable factors involved in the success of United. The club’s commercial exploits have always seen them financially better placed than most of their rivals since the Premier League’s inception in 1992, and the club’s off-the-pitch fortunes have mirrored its success on it. The funds which have been available to Ferguson are a consequence of that, and rarely has there been any reluctance to spend it, with the United having smashed the British transfer record no less than six times with Ferguson at the helm.

But the last of those records was more than nine years ago, less than 12 months prior to the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, an arrival which marked a new type of challenge to Ferguson. Chelsea’s seemingly limitless supply of resources allowed for spending on a scale never before seen, and was repeated for three consecutive summers. As a result of a squad brimming with quality, success came quickly and raised the bar for the rest of the league.

Despite being written off, Ferguson and United rose to the challenge, and were back on top by 2007 after three years without a league title win. The team bore little resemblance to that which had lifted titles earlier in the decade and was perhaps Ferguson’s finest.

Overcoming the threat of Chelsea was only the latest in a series of victories over rivals looking to end Man United’s dominance.

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal earned plaudits for the manner of their title wins in 1998, 2002 and 2004, though the Gunners never quite managed to secure back-to-back Premier League titles or truly replace United at the top of the English game.

United’s dismissal of the challenges posed by fast improving Leeds United and Liverpool teams at the turn of the century was even more swift. Much was expected from both sides but little materialised.

The hundreds of millions invested by Chelsea earned only a brief stay at the top, and it remains to be seen what Man City are capable of achieving after an unprecedented spending spree. Condemning United to a 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford marks a serious statement of intent and also confirms the size of challenge ahead for Ferguson if he is to see his side remain the best in the land.

Staying one step ahead of the neighbours may well be his biggest challenge to date, though if there’s anyone up to the task, it’s Sir Alex Ferguson.

A born winner, whatever the era, and whatever the opposition. That’s what makes him so special.

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