Sir Alex’s Reign: 2001-2006
With the manager’s impending retirement casting a cloud over the season, it was perhaps inevitable that the Reds would struggle to hit the heights in 2001/02. The solution was provided by Sir Alex himself as, in February, he reversed his decision to quit following consultation with his wife Cathy.
The manager had designs on what could have been a glorious swansong in the Champions League final in Glasgow and, although his team came agonisingly close to fulfilling that wish, the campaign was a trophyless one with Arsenal claiming the title as United lost nine times in the league. Although some memorable games were played out (including a 4-3 defeat at Newcastle, 4-3 success at Leeds and amazing 5-3 wins at Spurs and West Ham), the season as a whole was not one of Ferguson’s finest even if the best news possible came with his decision to stay on and sign a new contract. Injuries to Roy Keane and David Beckham proved crucial as, despite Ruud van Nistelrooy’s explosive debut term, United had to settle for third place behind the Gunners and old foes Liverpool.
Bayer Leverkusen put paid to dreams of a Real Madrid-United Champions League final with their surprise semi-final aggregate win and it clearly haunted the boss. “While I was disappointed personally that the chance to win the European Cup in my native city had passed, the fact that we as a club had failed narrowly to reach our own goal was even more distressing,” he stated.
The manager’s retirement U-turn began to reap dividends the following season – even if some critics were writing him off in the first half of the campaign. Defending champions Arsenal were eight points clear of the Reds at one point with defeats to Leeds and Manchester City proving particularly painful. Typically, United dug in – Diego Forlan’s double at Liverpool, a 2-0 win against Arsenal and, an incredible last-gasp New Year’s Day victory against Sunderland warmed all the Red Army’s hearts. A Worthington Cup final defeat to Liverpool in Cardiff was followed a month later by a European exit to Real Madrid, even if it was in exhilirating circumstances. A spellbinding 4-3 triumph at Old Trafford wasn’t enough to overturn the 3-1 first-leg deficit and the visitors’ Brazilian hat-trick hero Ronaldo was afforded a standing ovation which said much about the true nature of the home fans.
Those supporters were rewarded with immense joy and satisfaction in the league as van Nistelrooy struck in a vital draw at Arsenal and again to wrap up a 2-0 victory against the Gunners’ rivals Spurs that took United to the brink of glory. “I have got to be honest and say that the success was extra sweet and satisfying because it was achieved against all the odds,” crowed the boss. Van Nistelrooy hit a treble against Charlton to race to 79 goals in his first 100 appearances and the Dutchman scored again at Everton, even if the final match was more memorable for being Beckham’s last in a Red shirt.
So the 2003/2004 started without the homegrown midfield talent, who was allowed to join Real Madrid after much speculation that the boss had grown tired of his increasing celebrity status. Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in his place as a raw, exciting prodigy but this was the season of the so-called ‘Invincibles’ as Arsenal went the whole league programme unbeaten to emerge as worthy champions. Arsene Wenger’s Gunners may not have beaten United (0-0 and 1-1) but there was to be no customary surge in the second half of the campaign as Rio Ferdinand’s lengthy suspension for missing a drugs test ripped the heart out of the defence. Van Nistelrooy continued to score goals aplenty and Tim Howard earned a place in the PFA Team of the Season, even though he was at fault for Porto’s last-minute winner in the Champions League that would ultimately change the course of history.
Jose Mourinho’s shock European triumph catapulted the charismatic Portuguese coach into wealthy owner Roman Abramovich’s thoughts at Chelsea and new title rivals were to emerge. For now, Arsenal were unbeatable in the league and third-placed United had to settle for a slice of success in the FA Cup, for the first time in five years. Much of the hard work was done at the semi-final stage when inflicting a rare reverse on Wenger’s team thanks to Paul Scholes’ winner at Villa Park as Millwall were swept aside in the Millennium Stadium final with Ronaldo showing an obvious thirst for the big stage with a fine display.
Starting the 2004/05 season with a 1-0 defeat in Mourinho’s first game in charge of Chelsea, this was one game of catch-up the team were unable to ever look capable of pulling off. A new Stretford End idol was purchased on deadline day, Wayne Rooney signing from Everton after shining at Euro 2004, and the teenager introduced himself to his new fans with a stunning debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce. With Ronaldo starting to mature, the two youngsters offered a glimpse of a bright future but Chelsea simply proved too powerful, not only romping the league by 12 points with United a further six points adrift of runners-up Arsenal, but also winning twice at Old Trafford – including in the Carling Cup semi-finals. AC Milan put paid to any European aspirations so it was left to the FA Cup to provide some solace again. After a barnstorming run, during which the only semi-scare came against non-league minnows Exeter, United dominated the final against Arsenal but were beaten on penalties with Jens Lehmann decisively saving Scholes’ spot-kick.
There was plenty to ponder for the boss, who had overseen his 1,000th game in charge of the club during a Champions League tie against Lyon, but, unfortunately, Chelsea proved impossible to peg back the following season, which was hardly surprising considering Mourinho’s team won 15 of their first 16 matches en route to retaining the title. Mourinho, backed by Abramovich’s millions, had laid down a taxing challenge and the consistency of his side led to the doom-mongers prophesising that United would never be able to regain any dominance of the English game. The Reds were good enough to finish second but were still eight points away from the West Londoners and a 3-0 loss at Stamford Bridge at the champions’ coronation was made even more painful by a serious injury to Rooney that threatened his involvement in the World Cup.
It felt like the end of an era in many respects. George Best, the iconic Old Trafford legend, passed away in November 2005 to prompt emotional scenes and inspirational captain Keane left the club in sudden circumstances. With a group-stage exit in the Champions League and FA Cup loss at Liverpool to deal with, perhaps it is possible to almost understand why some people were writing off the most successful manager in the club’s history.
One of the many reasons to always back the boss is because he is usually proved right. The Carling Cup was secured with a 4-0 walloping of Wigan that not only illustrated Rooney’s growing influence but signalled the end of van Nistelrooy’s goal-laden United career. Many fans wouldn’t have been shouting from the rafters but one man knew it carried greater significance – providing the younger players with a vital taste of success. “I have always argued that no season is a total write-off if you can point to a piece of silverware,” he contested. “Yes, I know the League Cup doesn’t compare with the Champions League but I see it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.” Once again, Sir Alex was spot on his judgement. It was, indeed, to prove a stepping stone to greater success with Rooney and Ronaldo ready to become world-class talents.
Sir Alex Timeline
2001-02: Reverses retirement decision in February
2001-02: Bayer Leverkusen deny Sir Alex a dream Glasgow date with Real Madrid
2002-03: Real Madrid knock United out in a classic European tie
2002-03: Arsenal are reeled in as the Reds make it eight titles in 11 years
2003-04: United win the FA Cup by beating Millwall 3-0
2003-04: Arsenal’s Invincibles win the title, Porto knock Reds out of Europe
2004-05: Wayne Rooney arrives
2004-05: 1,000th game, against Lyon
2004-05: FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal on penalties ends hopes of silverware
2005-06: Roy Keane leaves United
2005-06: A 4-0 romp against Wigan delivers the Carling Cup
Ryan Giggs shows his dismay as Bayer Leverkusen knock United out
David Beckham celebrates sealing the mother of all comebacks at Spurs
Ronaldo is swamped after scoring a hat-trick for Real Madrid
Paul Scholes has all but clinched another title by heading in at Spurs
Raw ralent Cristiano Ronaldo is welcomed by Sir Alex
The banner says it all as Sir Alex salutes the fans before Lyon
Jose Mourinho sees his Porto side knock United out of Europe
The FA Cup is secured with Ronaldo and van Nistelrooy showing it off
Sir Alex lands his man – Everton’s exciting teenager Wayne Rooney
Sir Alex pays his respects after the death of George Best
Paul Scholes’ penalty is saved and Arsenal win the FA Cup
Sir Alex has a formidable foe in the shape of Jose Mourinho
The boss with his backroom team after the Carling Cup triumph