|'The night belonged to Ronaldo, though the glittering array of talent around him (notably Zidane) made the most of United's imbalance and subsequent positional problems.'|
23rd April 2003 - the beginning of a tumultuous era at Old Trafford. What followed included a trophy drought, boardroom battles, in-fighting and, whisper it, a common acceptance that Sir Alex Ferguson should be replaced.
The game itself contained so many sub-plots. There was Beckham, then-England captain, inexplicably on the bench - rumours swirling of a summer move to the Bernabeu. Juan Sebastian Veron was selected to start after seven weeks out with injury - signed so extravagantly almost two years earlier, still stubbornly backed by a manager reluctant to admit an error of judgement. There was a fragility to the United squad, highlighted by the calibre of the opposition - Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo having won 6 FIFA World Player of the Year awards between them at that stage. The home bench featured 36-year old Laurent Blanc, the much-maligned Diego Forlan, two utility players in Phil Neville and Quinton Fortune plus the inexperienced Darren Fletcher. Finally, the selection of Steve McManaman in the Madrid midfield showed that their boss Vincente Del Bosque was (a) mischievous and (b) as adept at mind-games as his counterpart.
The night belonged to Ronaldo, though the glittering array of talent around him (notably Zidane) made the most of United's imbalance and subsequent positional problems. His first goal came from United gambling on a counter-attack and losing possession. The second saw one pass from Zidane take out three flat-footed United players. The third was simply an inspired strike.
For Fergie and United, the game was a water-shed. Despite claiming a 16th league title a few weeks later, Ferguson desperately had craved another European success - the signing of Veron was an attempt to add a calm, creative ball-player as a third central midfielder, having been so badly caught out tactically away to Anderlecht and PSV in 2000. Ruud Van Nistelrooy had been identified as a striker who could easily lead the line and excel with support from deep - a move away from the rigidness of attacking partnerships. But despite the brilliance of the Dutchman (with 10 goals in 11 tournament starts), United's defensive frailties cost them in the first leg of their semi-final with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Ferguson acted swiftly and broke the British record to sign Rio Ferdinand. But, with Wes Brown, Mikael Silvestre and John O'Shea playing in an assortment of defensive positions, United's defence never quite looked secure. Over two legs against Madrid, the deficiencies had come under the microscope. Now, it would be four years before the club would get as far in the Champions League again. The bulk of the squad would be moved on quickly. Barthez, Blanc, Veron, Beckham, Butt, Keane, Forlan, Phil Neville and Fortune all made their exits over the next three seasons. But most worryingly of all, Ferguson was about to enter his 'lost weekend' that lasted until 2006.
He had already made costly mistakes with his squad. The decision to replace Jaap Stam with Blanc had badly misfired. Bringing in Veron was well-intentioned but misguided - his role within the side never properly defined, his presence proving unsettling for others. The deterioration and eventual disintegration of his relationship with Beckham was alarming and unusual - Fergie seemingly allowing other factors motivate his decision to marginalise a player still doing it on the pitch. The heavy presence of model-pro Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as an antithesis to the Beckham 'celebrity circus' surely swayed his decision-making even further. The 1999 side had been ripped apart - Schmeichel, Irwin, Berg, Johnsen, Blomqvist, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham were all gone by the summer of 2002. Big money had been spent on a handful of players but the squad was still desperately short on numbers. The team needed a new goalkeeper, again. Ferguson, so impressed with the recent emergence of American shot-stoppers, signed Tim Howard from Major League Soccer. His first season would end with an FA Cup winner's medal but question marks remained. By the end of his second term, he'd lost his place to Roy Carroll, a back-up keeper signed from Wigan three years earlier. Only with the 2005 purchase of Edwin van der Sar did Ferguson finally land a consistent performer, a born winner, well able to deal with the inevitable, glaring spotlight.
Howard, infamously, had a part to play in United being dumped out of the Champions League by Porto in 2004 but so did Ferguson. With Keane suspended, Eric Djemba-Djemba was handed a start. With another makeshift back-four and Nicky Butt making what would be his final Champions League appearance, United were ill-prepared for the well-drilled, street-smart Portuguese outfit. Ferguson whinged about their antics, about an incorrect offside. Benni McCarthy, scorer of two goals in the first leg, said afterwards, 'United should try and respect their opponents a bit more'. Ouch.
The Champions League exit, the third-place league finish, the invincible Arsenal side under Wenger were all enough to give Ferguson plenty of restless nights. But what pushed him closest to the edge wasn't football-related at all. His biggest distraction were the legal proceedings he had begun in the Dublin High Court against John Magnier over ownership rights to the race-horse 'Rock Of Gibraltar'. At the time however, Magnier's company Cubic Expressions, owned over 25% of Manchester United. Magnier, a deeply private person, was secretly seething at Ferguson dragging their dealings into the public domain. In January 2004, Magnier and his business partner JP McManus sent letters to then-chairman Roy Gardner and CEO David Gill questioning Ferguson's transfer dealings and probing the amount of commission received by his then-agent son Jason from 13 different deals. Later that same year, a BBC3 documentary, 'Fergie And Son', delved deeper into the story (the same programme that resulted in Fergie Snr refusing to speak with the BBC until 2011). The letters also questioned why Ferdinand was still being paid his weekly wage of £70,000 despite serving an 8-month suspension for missing a drugs test. They questioned Ferguson's morals. They questioned his values. The most important question of all, perhaps most significantly, was left off the list. Though everyone with the ability to read between the lines knew what it was. Manchester United's biggest shareholders were questioning Sir Alex Ferguson's position as manager.
Ferguson was floored but was backed by hardcore supporters. Some formed United4Action and threatened to protest at that year's Gold Cup against what they viewed as Magnier and McManus's attempts to de-stabilise the club. A desperate Ferguson pleaded with fans not to go through with it. They honoured the request and a compromise was finally reached between Ferguson and Magnier later in the year.
But off-field battles were complemented by continued on-field troubles. The arrival of Mourinho at Stamford Bridge and the speed with which his newly-assembled side gelled stumped Ferguson. The unlimited cash, the brazenness, the brashness and most annoyingly of all, the results to back it all up. United offered little in response - the signing of Wayne Rooney offered plenty but injuries to Van Nistelrooy and Saha plus the relative ineffectiveness of Alan Smith saw him carry a heavy burden in his first campaign. Come March 2005, United were out of the title race again, out of Europe again (this time to AC Milan). They were flat-lining. The season petered out with a limp 3-1 home defeat to the title-winners Chelsea (which came complete with a humiliating guard of honour before kick-off) and an FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. David Gill spoke of Ferguson, once the most untouchable man in European football, as 'sackable'. Blasphemy, surely? The man himself pondered if he had the energy to continue. The club's profits had more-than halved. Fergie was doing more bad than good.
In May 2005, John Magnier and JP McManus netted about an £80 million profit as they sold their share of the club to Malcolm Glazer. Shortly after, Glazer had full control. In July, the family pledged to stand by Ferguson and revealed there would be significant funds available to strengthen the squad. But the internal problems persisted. Keane was sacked by the club, his criticisms of younger players and of Ferguson's management seen as a bridge too far. Two and a half weeks later, United suffered the humiliation of being knocked out at the Champions League group stage. By the end of the campaign, Van Nistelrooy had gone too, sold to Madrid after Ferguson grew tired of what he perceived as a major drop in attitude, especially showcased in a 1-0 Cup defeat to Liverpool at Anfield. The season ended with another three goals shipped to Chelsea who eased to a second successive championship. In between, Ferguson incurred the wrath of the hardcore supporters when he described Glazer as being 'excellent for the club'. An editorial in the influential fanzine United We Stand said the comments smacked of "a struggling employee attempting to ingratiate himself with his new bosses. They are sickening, inflammatory but, above all, sad. Yes, Ferguson would be a fool to criticise the Glazers and hope to hang on to his increasingly tenuous position, but did he need to say anything?" Struggling, tenuous. The crown had slipped. The once loyal subjects were openly discussing anointing a new king.
But Fergie's lost weekend was over. He went back to basics but also borrowed from unusual sources. Nemanja Vidic was the powerful, commanding, physical centre-back not seen at Old Trafford since Stam. Patrice Evra was a converted attacker who could provide pace, skill and determination on the left-flank - in much the same way Ashley Cole did at both Arsenal and Chelsea. With Cristiano Ronaldo now less of a p ock-marked, flashy kid and more of an explosive, consistent revelation, Rooney also shone with extra responsibility. There was a solidity to the United side - in comparison to the softness witnessed so often in the years previous. The swagger was back, superbly demonstrated in the 7-1 demolition of Roma at Old Trafford in their Champions League quarter-final second leg. Though there was eventual defeat to a magnificent Milan in the semis, Ferguson knew a major foundation had been laid. Wrestling the league from Chelsea and seeing off a younger, aggressive, progressive rival manager proved many things - his critics were wrong to right him off. He never backed down from a challenge. He had the energy, will and desire to continue. He hadn't been faced with such relentless debate and argument about his credentials for a long time but he'd survived his toughest ever period at Old Trafford. He prepared himself for arguably his most successful.