Manchester United Football Club was first formed in 1878, albeit under a different name – Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway).
Little suspecting the impact they were about to have on the national, even global game, the workers in the railway yard at Newton Heath indulged their passion for association football with games against other departments of the LYR and other railway companies.
Indeed, when the Football League was formed in 1888, Newton Heath did not consider themselves good enough to become founder members alongside the likes of Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. Instead, they waited until 1892 to make their entrance, joining the league at Division One level but were sadly relegated to Division Two after just two seasons in the top flight.
Financial problems plagued the club and, by the start of the 20th Century, it seemed they were destined for extinction. The team was saved, however, by local brewery owner John Henry Davies. Legend has it that he learned of the club’s plight when he found a dog belonging to captain Harry Stafford.
Davies decided to invest in Newton Heath, in return for some interest in running it. This led to a change of name and, after several alternatives including Manchester Central and Manchester Celtic were rejected, Manchester United was born in April/May of 1902.
The next influential figure to arrive at United was Ernest Mangnall, who was appointed secretary in September 1903 but is widely acknowledged as being the club’s first manager. His side, including new signings like goalkeeper Harry Moger and forward Charlie Sagar, finished third in the Second Division in 1903/04 and again in 1904/05.
The following season, 1905/06, was to prove one of the greatest in the early life of Manchester United. The half-back line of Dick Duckworth, Alex Bell and captain Charlie Roberts were instrumental in the side which reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup but, more importantly, finished as runners-up in the Second Division. Some 12 years after being relegated, United reclaimed their place in the top flight. To celebrate, Mangnall signed Billy Meredith from rivals Manchester City. Nicknamed the Welsh Wizard, Meredith had been implicated in a bribery scandal at City, and was due to be auctioned along with 17 other players. Mangnall shrewdly made his move early, and acquired Meredith’s signature before the bidding began.
The winger’s arrival proved to be inspirational – Meredith set up countless goals for Sandy Turnbull in 1907/08 when United won the Football League title for the first time. As champions, United played in the first-ever Charity Shield in 1908. They duly won the trophy, beating Southern League champions QPR 4-0 thanks largely to a hat-trick from Sandy’s namesake, Jimmy Turnbull. The third trophy to be added to the club’s honours board was the FA Cup, at the end of a tremendous run in 1909. United beat Bristol City 1-0 in the final, thanks to Sandy Turnbull’s winner.
The words Old Trafford entered footballing folklore for the first time during the 1909/10 season. The land on which the stadium was built was bought by the Manchester Brewery Company (through John Henry Davies) and leased to the club.
Davies himself paid for the building work, which commenced in 1908 under the supervision of architect Archibald Leitch. By 1910, the club had moved lock, stock and barrel from their old home of Bank Street. United’s opening fixture at Old Trafford was played on 19 February 1910. The new hosts lost 4-3 to their first visitors Liverpool, but the stadium was successful in accommodating an 80,000 capacity crowd. Two days previously, the old wooden stand at Bank Street had been blown down by strong winds – further evidence, perhaps, that United were suited to and needed their new home.
Indeed, United were crowned League champions for the second time at the end of their first full season at Old Trafford – 1910/1911. The Reds clinched the title at home on the final day of the season, beating Sunderland 5-1 with Harold Halse grabbing two of the goals. Halse also scored six goals as United beat Swindon Town 8-4 to clinch the Charity Shield.
Despite such feats, United could not maintain the winning run and, in 1911/12, the defending champions finished in a disappointing 13th place. Secretary-manager Ernest Mangnall bore the brunt of the criticism, and resigned to join United’s neighbours and rivals Manchester City. The search for Mangnall’s successor finished at the door of JJ Bentley, the president of the Football League. Under his guidance, the Reds claimed fourth place in the League at the end of the 1912/13 season.
The 1913/14 term was a period of transition, while the following campaign was notable for a change of management – in December 1914, the roles of secretary and team manager were separated for the first time. Bentley became full-time secretary and John Robson was appointed to look after and select the team. Robson’s team was a shadow of the one which had performed so well in the previous decade, as only George Stacey, Billy Meredith, Sandy Turnbull and George Wall remained from the 1909 FA Cup-winning side. Not surprisingly, the club struggled, only escaping relegation by a single point.
Before United could form a plan for recovery, the outbreak of the First World War put football firmly to the back of people’s minds. The Football League was suspended, and clubs resorted to playing in regional competitions. United played in the Lancashire Principal and Subsidiary Tournaments for four seasons, but this was a less than successful diversion, the misery compounded by the fact that two of the club’s players were found guilty of match fixing. Enoch West was banned for life, as was Sandy Turnbull, who joined the Footballers’ Battalion to help Britain’s war effort. Tragically, Turnbull was killed during battle in France in May 1917, and another link to the club’s earliest glory years lost.
Manchester United returned to League football on 30 August 1919, following a four-year gap caused by the First World War. The team for that first match back against Derby County included many new faces – in fact only two of the men on duty had played in United’s previous league game at the end of the 1914/15 season.
Billy Meredith was still at Old Trafford, but reaching the end of his illustrious Old Trafford career. He made only 19 appearances in 1919/20 when United finished 12th in the First Division. The new hero of the terraces, Joe Spence, finished the season as the team’s top scorer with 14 League goals. He was joint-top scorer again in 1920/21, but this time with half the tally as United again under-achieved to finish in 13th place.
Manager John Robson then left the club, to be replaced by John Chapman, who reverted to the dual role of secretary/manager last held by JJ Bentley. Meanwhile, former manager Ernest Mangnall continued to make the local headlines with City, as they moved into a new stadium at Maine Road.
Mangnall also re-signed Meredith for City and despite his advancing years, it was perhaps no coincidence that United were relegated in their first season without him, winning only eight of their 42 matches in 1921/22. Chapman’s team managed to climb out of the Second Division at the third attempt, when the on-field leadership of Frank Barson helped ensure promotion at the end of 1924/25. United finished second to Leicester City, after losing only eight games.
United’s top-flight status was cemented with a ninth-place finish in 1925/26. Chapman’s team also went on a great run in the FA Cup, but this came to a halt in the semi-finals when Manchester City beat them 3-0 at Bramall Lane in Sheffield. City’s luck then ran out, as they lost both the final (to Bolton) and their place in the First Division.
Not that United supporters could afford to chuckle at City’s misfortune. Two months into the 1926/27 season, they had troubles of their own when the FA suspended manager Chapman with immediate effect, the reasons for which never became public. Wing-half Clarence Hilditch took over as player-manager while the club looked for a more permanent replacement, but ‘Lal’ was reluctant to pick himself, and the team suffered.
Chapman’s permanent successor, Herbert Bamlett, arrived later that season. He was already known to United fans as the referee who called off the club’s FA Cup quarter-final tie at Burnley in 1909, when their team was trailing 1-0 in the midst of a blizzard. Bamlett, though, was too cold to blow the final whistle, so Charlie Roberts had to do the job and United went on to win the Cup that season!
Sadly, Bamlett had no further impact on United’s success as their manager. The team slowly slipped down the First Division, finishing 15th in 1926/27 and 18th in 1927/28, only to recover slightly to end in 12th in 1928/29. Spence continued to score goals by the bucketload but not even he could stop United’s steady decline…
The decline that had started in the 1920s continued at the outset of the 1930s as United finished 17th in 1929/30, to fill the fans with dread.
Their fears were realised in the next season, when United made the worst start in their history by losing their first 12 league matches in a row. The dozen defeats included back-to-back thrashings at Old Trafford, 6-0 by Huddersfield Town and then 7-4 by Newcastle United. The Reds eventually lost 27 out of 42 league matches in 1930/31, conceding 115 goals. Relegation led to manager Herbert Bamlett bowing out, and secretary Walter Crickmer taking charge of team affairs. The patience of the supporters was being severely tested, and many of them did not hang around – only 3,507 turned up for the opening match of the following season. As the season went on, the situation deteriorated. By December, there was no money to pay the players’ wages. Bankruptcy was a real threat.
The club’s saviour came in the shape of James Gibson, a manufacturer of army uniforms. He invested £30,000, paid the players and got things back on track. He appointed a new manager, Scott Duncan, who was given money to spend. However, he did not make the most of it. A dreadful run under Duncan in 1933/34 took United to the brink of being relegated into the Third Division for the first time in the club’s history. Survival was only secured on the last day of the season, when a 2-0 win, with goals from Tom Manley and Jack Cape, sent opponents Millwall down instead. In that same week, Manchester City won the FA Cup, with a man named Matt Busby in their side.
United finished the 1934/35 season in fifth place and, then in the following term, claimed their first silverware of the decade. Unbeaten during the last 19 games of the campaign, the Reds secured the Second Division championship with a 3-2 win over Bury at Gigg Lane. The end-of-season form in the Second Division suggested United would do well on returning to the top flight but, by Christmas, the side had only won four matches, including one on 25 December itself! Only 10 wins in the whole season led to relegation, with City’s fortunes again proving in stark contrast as they were crowned League champions. The relegated United team included Walter Winterbottom, who would later be knighted after managing England for 16 years.
The yo-yoing continued as United were promoted again the next season, 1937/38, as runners-up to Aston Villa. Manager Duncan could only claim some of the credit, as he left the club in November 1937 to take charge of Ipswich Town. Walter Crickmer again stepped into the breach as United’s caretaker manager. The highlight of Duncan and Crickmer’s season was the discovery of Johnny Carey, who would later be recognised as one of the greatest full-backs in football history. Playing 32 games and scoring six goals in a more advanced role, the Irishman helped United to stay up this time, finishing 14th, while City took their turn to be relegated. There was no time to gloat, however – the outbreak of war put the Football League on hold again, for several years.
The outbreak of the Second World War forced football to the very back of people’s minds between 1939 and 1946. But even in the absence of League football, Old Trafford was still the focus of attention.
On 11 March 1941, the stadium was bombed during a German air raid. The attack destroyed the main stand, dressing rooms and offices. It was a devastating blow but, within a few years, there would be optimism again around the famous old ground.
It came with a man named Matt Busby, who would prove to be a hugely important figure in the history of Manchester United. A former Manchester City and Liverpool player, Busby served in the Ninth Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, where his leadership qualities shone through. These qualities did not go unnoticed by United.
Busby joined the Reds in 1945, initially on a five-year contract. Little did he know he would still be managing the club 25 years later! The young boss did not waste any time making his mark, altering the positions of several key players. He also founded the ‘Famous Five’ forwards when he brought together Jimmy Delaney, Stan Pearson, Jack Rowley, Charlie Mitten and Johnny Morris.
Perhaps the most important signing Busby made, however, was on the coaching staff. Matt had metJimmy Murphy during the war, and identified him as his perfect right-hand man. The pair formed a partnership that would see United become a power in world football.
Busby and Murphy’s first step on the road to glory was to build a team that was capable of challenging for domestic honours. They succeeded almost at the first attempt, as United finished second to Liverpool in the first Football League campaign after the war, 1946/47. It was the club’s highest placing for 36 years, and there was extra cause for optimism when the Reserves won their (Central) League Championship in the same season.
Busby’s mix of young local lads and established players lifted their first trophy the following year, when beating the Blackpool side of Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen and Harry Johnston in the 1948 FA Cup final. It was 39 years to the day that United had previously won the Cup, in 1909.
The FA Cup was also the club’s first major honour since winning the League Championship in 1911, and recapturing the title would now become the number one target for Busby’s men. During the first five seasons of his post-war reign, United finished second on four occasions, and fourth on the other (1949/50).
The thrill of the chase for honours brought the fans flooding back – more than one million of them passed through the turnstiles in the 1947/48 season, dragging the club out of debt. Surely these fans wouldn’t have to wait long to be rewarded with the prize they all craved…
The 1950s dawned with the break-up of Matt Busby’s first successful United side – the 1948 FA Cup-winning team.
Dressing room dissent led to Johnny Morris departing for Derby and Charlie Mitten exporting his wing wizardry to Colombia. Fans worried by the duo’s departure were soon placated. The great Scot’s plan was to promote the youngsters he’d been recruiting and developing in the late 1940s. Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne were the first to emerge and be labelled ‘Babes’ by the newspapers; in their debut season in 1951/52, United won the elusive League championship for the first time since 1911.
In 1955/56 and 1956/57, Byrne lifted the Division One trophy as skipper of a fabled young side that included several more products of Busby’s youth academy. Eddie Colman, Mark Jones and David Pegg were all first-team regulars, having cut their teeth in the FA Youth Cup, which United won five years in a row from its inception in 1953.
Not all the young talent was home-grown, however. The United manager was equally happy to plunge into the transfer market, as shown by the big money signings of proven internationals Tommy Taylor and goalkeeper Harry Gregg.
Another young man who excelled for club and country was Duncan Edwards. So powerful, talented and mature was the Dudley teenager that Busby could not hold him back from United’s first team. In April 1953, he became the First Division’s youngest-ever player at the age of 16 years and 185 days.
One match that epitomised the new Busby Babes era was against Arsenal at Highbury on 1 February 1958. In front of a crowd of 63,578 the Reds beat the Gunners in a nine-goal thriller with goals from Edwards, Taylor (2), Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet.
Sadly, what was perhaps their greatest game on English soil was destined to be the last for that particular Manchester United team. From Highbury, the Babes headed off into Europe to play the second leg of a tie against Red Star Belgrade. Again they won 5-4, this time on aggregate but, on the way home, the celebrations were cut short by tragedy.
After refuelling in Munich on 6 February 1958, the United aeroplane crashed, killing 22 people, including seven players – Byrne, Colman, Jones, Pegg, Taylor, Geoff Bent and Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards died of his injuries 15 days later in a German hospital. The club, the city of Manchester and the English game entered a long period of mourning. It seemed inconceivable that United could recover from such an appalling loss.
But as Busby defied the medics to recover from his crash wounds, the team bounced back and, patched up by Jimmy Murphy, they reached the FA Cup final in May against all odds. The Reds lost at Wembley to Bolton Wanderers, 12 months after controversially losing the final to Aston Villa.
Despite the appalling devastation inflicted on United’s richly talented first-team squad, Busby and Murphy pulled together a makeshift pool of players and, remarkably, they finished second in the league in 1958/59. After the horrors of Munich, the rebuilding process had begun.
After building one of the greatest teams seen in England, Matt Busby had to start all over again at the start of the 1960s. The Munich Air Disaster had robbed him, and football, of some of the era’s greatest players. But once the great manager had recovered from his own injuries, he set about forging another side to take the world by storm.
Dennis Viollet was one of the leading names within this team. In 1959/60, the Munich survivor broke Jack Rowley’s club record by scoring 32 goals league goals in one season, a record that still stands to this day.
By 1962 Viollet had left the club as Busby reshaped his side once more. This next great team still retained a link to the Busby Babes in the shape of Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton, the latter coming through the ranks to break goalscoring records for both club and country. Nobby Stiles also rose through the ranks, while Denis Law came via a record £115,000 transfer from Torino.
United’s form was erratic at the start of the decade, while new names settled in, but then everything came together with a run to Wembley for the 1963 FA Cup Final. Busby’s new-look team beat Leicester 3-1, with two goals from David Herd and one by Law.
The next season saw United build on the foundations of FA Cup success to challenge for the title – finishing second, only four points behind the champions Liverpool. The 1962/63 season was also notable for the signing and debut of George Best, the young man from Belfast who would become football’s first superstar. His incredible skill, pace and control left opponents in knots, making him a hit with the fans, while his film-star looks helped elevate his fame to celebrity status.
In 1964/65, the famous Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton took United to new heights. They won the League championship, pipping Leeds on goal difference, and reached the semi-finals of the European Fairs Cup and the FA Cup. Law plundered goals galore and was named the European Footballer of the Year.
The title-winning team seemed to be the finished article, but they finished a disappointing fourth the following season, and exited both the FA and European Cups in the semi-finals. The season’s highlight had been the 5-1 away thrashing of Benfica in the European Cup quarter-finals, when Best had been in blistering form and earned the tag the ‘El Beatle’.
In 1966/67, United were crowned League champions again and another season of European Cup football was guaranteed. This time, United would go all the way, beating Benfica in the final at Wembley. Jaime Graca equalised Charlton’s headed goal to take the game into extra-time, but further goals from Best, Brian Kidd – on his 19th birthday – and Charlton gave United their first European Cup. Just 10 years after Sir Matt had seen his dream team destroyed, he had delivered the ultimate prize. He was knighted soon afterwards.
The following season saw the European champions finish 11th in the league and fail to win a trophy. The Reds also lost the World Club Championship 2-1 on aggregate to Estudiantes in a match marred by on-field violence. Despite the anti-climatic end to the decade, United had achieved incredible things in the 1960s and few could begrudge Sir Matt’s retirement in 1969, after all he’d achieved.
With memories of the European Cup triumph beginning to fade, Manchester United’s attentions turned to their managerial vacancy. Sir Matt Busby had led the club to the promised land but had now retired, leaving big boots to fill.
Their decision was to appoint from within, by promoting one of Busby’s coaches and former players, Wilf McGuinness, to the senior position. A combination of ageing stars and the lack of overall control in team affairs meant that McGuinness struggled to impose his authority. Putting popular figures like Denis Law and Shay Brennan on the transfer list didn’t help matters, neither did George Best’s distracting off-field behaviour.
Wilf wasn’t allowed to struggle for too long. On Boxing Day 1970, he was relieved of his duties and Sir Matt was put back in temporary charge. Frank O’Farrell was the next man to take over in June 1971 but, despite a promising start, United’s 5-0 defeat by Crystal Palace on 16 December 1972 was the Irishman’s last match in charge.
Although O’Farrell’s tenure was short, he still left his mark by signing Martin Buchan for a record fee of £125,000. The former Aberdeen captain was to become a key player for O’Farrell’s successor, Tommy Docherty, who was appointed around Christmas in 1972.
The Doc’s first challenge was to keep the team in the top flight, while gradually replacing the legends of the 1960s. Bobby Charlton had announced he would retire at the end of the 1972/73 season, Best was frequently veering off the rails once again and Law had passed his peak. Law, in fact, was given a free transfer in July 1973, a move which later came back to haunt Docherty. The striker joined Manchester City and scored at Old Trafford in April 1974, on a day when United’s relegation to the Second Division was confirmed.
To Docherty’s credit, the Reds bounced back very quickly. They won the Second Division championship in style in 1974/75, with top scorer Stuart ‘Pancho’ Pearson contirbuting 17 league goals. Lou Macari scored the goal that clinched promotion, at Southampton on 5 April 1975.
United then reached successive FA Cup finals, losing to Southampton in 1976, but beating Liverpool 2-1 a year later. The Doc’s men rose perfectly to the task of destroying Liverpool’s Treble hopes – the Merseyside club won the League Championship and the European Cup on either side of United’s triumph. The joy of that win didn’t last very long for the Doc, however. Just 44 days later, he was sacked following off-field revelations.
QPR manager Dave Sexton stepped into the breach, and although he finished no higher than 10th in the table in his first two seasons 1977/78 and 1978/79, he again guided the side to Wembley in 1979. Unfortunately the Reds lost there, 3-2 to Arsenal in one of the most memorable finishes to an FA Cup final. Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy scored in the last five minutes to bring United back from 2-0 down, only for Alan Sunderland to grab Arsenal’s winner on the brink of extra-time.
Those frenetic last few moments at Wembley summed up the 1970s for United, a decade of high drama when great highs and lows were never far apart.
United made a poor start to the 1980s but Dave Sexton and his team recovered to win eight of their last ten league games in the 1979/80 campaign, finishing just two points behind Liverpool in the title race.
The Reds produced another blistering finish at the end of the following season, 1980/81, when they won their last seven league games in a row. This time, however, only an eighth-placed finish in the table was secured – a position which the club’s board could not tolerate. Sexton was sacked on 30 April 1981, after four seasons in the hot-seat.
Sexton’s replacement Ron Atkinson brought in Mick Brown as assistant manager and Eric Harrison as youth coach. But it was his on-field acquisitions that really excited the fans. He broke the British transfer record to recruit Bryan Robson from his old club West Bromwich Albion for £1.5million and spent around a third of that to add another ex-Albion man, Remi Moses, to the United squad.
In midfield, the new arrivals wonderfully complemented the finesse of Ray Wilkins, the ball-playing England star. But still there was something missing. United needed a forward who could match the strike-rate of Ian Rush at Liverpool, with the Merseysiders winning the title again in 1982, 1983 and 1984. Atkinson’s men were never far behind, finishing third or fourth in every season of his reign. That elusive league title remained agonisingly out of reach, however.
The domestic cups offered United their best chances of silverware, and in 1983, Wembley was reached in both competitions. Liverpool triumphed 2-1 after extra-time to win the League Cup, while little-fancied Brighton and Hove Albion were beaten in two attempts in the FA Cup final. A 2-2 draw was followed up by a thumping 4-0 replay win for United through goals from Robson (2), Arnold Muhren and Norman Whiteside.
Whiteside’s habit of rising to the big occasion was never more gratefully received than in 1985, when he curled in the only goal of the FA Cup final to beat Everton 1-0. United had earlier been reduced to 10 men by the dismissal of Kevin Moran, who formed a great defensive partnership with Paul McGrath.
It was Atkinson’s second FA Cup success in three seasons but, 18 months later, he was sacked for his inability to break Merseyside’s monopoly of the League title. Not even 10 straight wins at the start of 1985/86 term could lead him to the Holy Grail.
In November 1986, United at last appointed a proven winner. At Aberdeen, Alex Ferguson had claimed every prize that Scotland had to offer, not to mention the added bonus of the European Cup Winners’ Cup when his team defied the odds to beat Real Madrid in the final.
Ferguson clearly had the talent for the job, but he also needed time to turn United round. The club remained patient as the Reds finished eleventh in 1986/87 and again in 1988/89. After all, the season in between, 1987/88, had offered encouraging signs as United finished second to Liverpool by winning eight and drawing two of their last 10 games.
The promise of that season, and some of the signings made, would soon be fulfilled.
The dawn of the 1990s saw Alex Ferguson collect his first silverware as Manchester United manager, and Liverpool winning their last League title with an ageing team. The tide was turning…
Ferguson’s first FA Cup, achieved after a replay against Crystal Palace, at the time seemed to be a stand-alone success, one that possibly saved his job after another poor season in the League. But nine years later, it seemed that Lee Martin’s winning goal against Palace lit the fuse for an explosion of unprecedented success.
First and foremost, winning the FA Cup in 1990 allowed United to make a return to European competition after an absence of five years following the Heysel disaster. Far from being rusty, the Reds went all the way to the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in Rotterdam where the opponents were Barcelona, the former club of United striker Mark Hughes. Two goals by Hughes sealed the match 2-1 in United’s favour in May 1991, 23 years after the club’s previous triumph in Europe.
The other long wait, for that elusive League championship, very nearly ended in 1992. The Reds had already won the manager’s third trophy in March, the League Cup, and were in a two-horse race with Leeds. Liverpool were out of the running, but still had a say in the destiny of the title, beating United 2-0 at Anfield to end their arch rival’s challenge.
The 1991/92 title would be remembered in Manchester as the title that United lost, rather than the one that Leeds actually won. Leeds, after all, were not the greatest of football powers in the 1990s and their star quality was further reduced when they allowed one of their best players to cross the Pennines in December 1992.
In selling Eric Cantona to Old Trafford, the Yorkshire club practically handed over the keys to the League championship. The Frenchman brought the little extra bit of magic and confidence that had been missing from United’s previous campaigns and was an instant hit with the Mancunian faithful, scoring nine goals to help the Reds win their first title in 26 years.
In the following season, 1993/94, the team virtually picked itself en route to an historic League and FA Cup Double, with Cantona sporting the number seven shirt that had been Bryan Robson’s property for so long. The number one, meanwhile, was undoubtedly Peter Schmeichel, arguably the best goalkeeper ever seen in the English game.
Cantona’s eight-month absence from January 1995, following his clash with a fan at Crystal Palace, proved to be United’s undoing as they tried to defend their Double. The Reds surrendered the title by one point to Blackburn Rovers and then lost the FA Cup final by one goal to Everton. The former champions were hampered at Wembley by an injury to Steve Bruce, the brave captain who was a defensive rock in the early 1990s, and his replacement at half-time, Ryan Giggs, was also not fully fit.
Bruce also missed the following year’s FA Cup Final, at the end of the 1995/96 season, but this time the result was rather different. Liverpool stood between United and a first-ever ‘Double Double’ and were holding out for extra-time, when Cantona struck home a sublime shot in the 86th minute. The French skipper had throughout the season been an inspiration to the talented young players in the team, including David Beckham and Gary Neville.
In May 1997, Cantona helped the club to its fourth League title of the decade. It was to be his last, as he surprisingly retired from football later that same month. The shock waves of Eric’s decision seemed to last for a whole year, as the Reds went empty-handed in 1997/98 while Arsenal won the Double. Again, injuries to key players, especially Giggs and Roy Keane, were cited for United’s downfall.
The influence that Giggs could have on results was never more apparent than in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay, when he scored perhaps the goal of the decade – a solo run and finish that left Arsenal’s defenders grasping at thin air. It booked United’s place in their fifth FA Cup final of the 1990s, and this time Ferguson’s men won it, beating Newcastle United 2-0 with goals by Paul Scholes and substitute Teddy Sheringham.
That result clinched United’s third Double, six days after the Premiership title had been wrapped up by Andy Cole’s goal against Tottenham at Old Trafford. But still there was more to come from a remarkable campaign. After an epic Champions League semi-final against Juventus, when Keane inspired the team to fight back from 2-0 down in the second leg, United marched into an epic final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
United’s attempts to win the European Cup for the first time since 1968 looked to be doomed when Bayern took an early lead through Mario Basler and defended it with typical German resilience. But then, in injury time, the Reds produced one of the most stunning revivals in sporting history – Sheringham equalised and, moments later, his fellow substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer fired in the winner to make the score 2-1. United clinched an unprecedented, historic Treble and Ferguson was subsequently knighted as fans around the globe basked in the glory.
The Treble became a Quadruple later in the year when Sir Alex’s men travelled to Tokyo to compete for the Inter-Continental Cup. Keane’s goal against Palmeiras of Brazil bestowed upon United the title of World Club Champions. Officially, at the end of the Millennium, the biggest football club in the world had also become the best in the world!
United started the new decade, century and millennium in typical pioneering fashion, entering a brand new competition – the FIFA Club World Championship in Brazil – but at the expense of participation in the FA Cup, of which the Reds were the holders.
The January jaunt to South America didn’t result in any silverware but it gave the players valuable relaxation time in the sun. Rejuvenated by this, United raced ahead of the rivals in the title race on return to England, after they had failed to capitalise at the start of the year. Sir Alex’s men achieved their sixth Premiership title early, in April, and still without a convincing replacement for Peter Schmeichel.
A host of goalkeepers, including Mark Bosnich, tried and failed to establish themselves during the 1999/2000 season. So it was hardly surprising when World Cup and European Championship winner Fabien Barthez joined United in July 2000.
The eccentric but formidable French goalkeeper helped United to win a third successive title in 2000/01, a feat that had previously been achieved by only a handful of clubs in England. Liverpool had been the last team to do it, in 1982, 1983 and 1984, but this was under the supervision of two different managers – Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan.
Sir Alex had been at the helm for all three of United’s back-to-back titles, and was the first manager in English football to achieve the hat-trick. On the back of this latest trophy, he announced his impending retirement, only to thankfully change his mind and decide to stay.
Ferguson’s major signing in the summer of 2002 was Rio Ferdinand, one of England’s best performers at the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea. The £30m acquisition from Leeds added the steel that had arguably been missing from United’s defence since the departure of Jaap Stam to Lazio.
Ferdinand helped the Reds to recapture the Premiership title in May 2003, a season that marked the departure of one of United’s favourite sons. David Beckham left his longtime home by signing for Real Madrid but his career as a Red ended on a high, scoring a trademark free-kick against Everton in his final game.
Arsenal reclaimed the League title in 2004 but the Reds won the FA Cup for an 11th time, beating Millwall 3-0 in the 2004 final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. A year later, United were back in Wales to face Arsenal for the trophy. Chelsea had taken the Premiership and League Cup, and it was the Gunners who triumphed on penalties despite a dominant display from United – for whom Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were outstanding. The following season brought maiden silverware for the pair as the Reds beat Wigan Athletic in the League Cup final.
For Sir Alex and his players, the main aim remained Premier League glory, which was duly snared the following season as United notched a 16th League title, finishing six points clear of reigning champions Chelsea. While the whole squad performed admirably to snatch the title back from Stamford Bridge, the man who took most of the plaudits was Ronaldo, who collected 13 personal honours during the campaign – including the PFA Player and Young Player of the Year award.
While it seemed improbable that the winger could top his 2006/07 heroics, he did just that the following season. Ronaldo played a major part – scoring 42 goals – as the Reds saw off the challenge of Chelsea in the two biggest competitions going. Strengthened by the summer signings of Owen Hargreaves, Carlos Tevez, Anderson and Nani, United recovered from a slow start to the season to head the table for almost the entire campaign. Despite a late charge from Chelsea, a final-day victory at Wigan (in which Ryan Giggs scored the clinching goal on the day he equalled the club’s all-time appearances record) secured a 17th league title for United.
Ten days later, in Moscow, the Reds and Blues duked it out for silverware again as two English clubs met in the final of the Champions League or European Cup for the first time. Ronaldo’s opener was cancelled out by Frank Lampard and, after 120 tense minutes, the match went to penalties. Ronaldo’s miss gave John Terry the chance to take the trophy, but the Chelsea skipper slipped and smacked his effort against a post. Reprieved, United went on to win the shootout when Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka’s effort, ensuring that Europe’s biggest competition had been won by the men from Manchester for a third time.
How do you top a season like 2007/08? Well, Sir Alex’s men did their very best and only defeat at the very last hurdle – against Barcelona in the Champions League final – prevented the Reds from a historic trophy haul. Despite ultimate disappointment in Europe, United dominated almost every other competition. In December, the Reds flew to Japan to compete in the FIFA Club World Cup and a solitary Rooney goal against Ecuador’s Liga de Quito in the final was enough to crown United world champions.
But what sort of effect would a gruelling mid-season trip to the Far East have on the Reds’ domestic aspirations? As it turned out, it only made United stronger: Sir Alex’s men reeled in Liverpool (seven points clear when the Reds returned from Japan) before going on to win a record-equalling 18th League title. But even before Gary Neville lifted the Barclays Premier League trophy, the Reds had tasted success against Tottenham in the League Cup. On that occasion, goalkeeper Ben Foster was the penalty shootout hero after the scores remained level after 120 minutes. The Reds ended the decade having lifted a remarkable 14 trophies.
Despite a solid start to the campaign, United’s 2009/10 term contained a sting in the tail as Chelsea’s late surge for the line ended the Reds’ chances of winning a fourth successive title by a single point in a race which ran until the final day of the season.
There was some solace to be found in the retention of the League Cup, achieved at Aston Villa’s expense and secured by a late winner from Wayne Rooney, whose individual excellence was rewarded with both the PFA Player’s Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Player of the Year awards.
Despite that single piece of silverware, the 2009/10 campaign was most notable for the heightened stakes of the Manchester derby, with a club takeover inflating the ambition of Manchester City and putting them in the frame for honours. United’s local authority was exerted, however, with home and away Premier League wins and a League Cup semi-final triumph, with each victory dramatically procured in injury-time.
Both Manchester clubs were intent on bringing the Premier League trophy back to the North-West as the 2010/11 season began, and United’s squad was bolstered by the low-key captures of promising youngsters Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling.
Though largely unknown, the duo quickly gelled with the squad and, despite a season of largely unconvincing away form, United reclaimed the title for a record 19th domestic rule. While Rooney had powered the 2009/10 campaign with his prolific form in front of goal, 2010/11 was notably more of a squad success.
From the goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar – in his last season at the club – through to the ageless influence of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, up to a revitalised Rooney, all hands were at the pump as Chelsea were dethroned.
A remarkable home record was the cornerstone of the success but, in Europe, it was miserly away form that helped propel the Reds into another Champions League final against Barcelona, this time at Wembley. For the second time in three years, Lionel Messi and co were ultimately too strong for United on the night, but it was that record 19th league title that made it another season to remember at Old Trafford.
The bid to quickly usher number 20 into the record books looked strong in the early stages of 2011/12. Sir Alex Ferguson strengthened his squad with the signings of David De Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young, while homegrown talents Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck made the step up to senior regularity.
Despite a breathtaking start to the campaign, the Reds were rocked by a spate of injuries and a thumping home defeat to City, who had emerged as the only genuine challengers for the title. Having fought on admirably against adversity – and welcomed Scholes back in a shock retirement U-turn, United gradually reeled in Roberto Mancini’s side and, with a month of the season remaining, had built an eight-point lead.
However, a quickfire run of poor results allowed City to retake the lead on the home straight, and they secured their first title in 44 years in heartbreaking fashion, scoring twice in injury-time on the final day of the season to beat Queens Park Rangers and top the table on goal difference.
Inevitably, Sir Alex remained defiant, congratulating the new champions while warning: “We’re disappointed about losing the eight-point lead, but I’m not going to have any recriminations for any of my players. They’re a solid bunch of lads and they’ll be fine. Don’t worry about that.”
Sir Alex’s prophecy proved right less than 12 months later when his squad, fired by the aforementioned bitter disappointment and bolstered by the signings of Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, romped to a record 20th league title. The triumph was sealed early on 22 April 2013, with top scorer van Persie appropriately netting a hat-trick in a glorious 3-0 home victory over Aston Villa.
The end of that 2012/13 season brought the news that millions of Reds had been dreading for a long time: Sir Alex Ferguson was to step down as manager of Manchester United. His retirement was announced on 8 May 2013 and his selection as successor was named the very next day. David Moyes arrived from Everton, tasked with following in the footsteps of British football’s most successful manager.
It proved to be too tall an order for the Scot, despite his impressive if trophy-less track record at Goodison Park. Towards the end of a disappointing 2013/14 season, with United unable to win any of the cup competitions and lying in seventh place, it was announced that Moyes had left the club. On the same day, 22 April 2014, the Reds’ longest serving and most-decorated player Ryan Giggs was placed in temporary charge until the end of the season.
Louis van Gaal’s appointmentas the permanent new manager – and the club’s first boss from outside the UK and Ireland – was announced on 19 May 2014 and he started work in July after guiding his native Netherlands to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Brazil. Giggs, who had retired in May at the end of a long and glorious one-club playing career, was retained by van Gaal in the role of assistant manager.
By the close of his first transfer window as United manager, van Gaal had acquired six new players – club record signing Angel Di Maria for £59.7m, Radamel Falcao on loan from Monaco, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw – and had allowed many other players to leave, resulting in a much-changed squad for 2014/15.
With no European fixtures to play, van Gaal’s debut season was a purely domestic affair. In the Barclays Premier League, the first objective was achieved as the Reds finished the campaign in the top four and therefore qualified for a return to the Champions League. Further reinforcements for van Gaal’s squad came in the summer transfer window of 2015, with the most exciting of the lot arriving in the shape of Anthony Martial, the young French forward from Monaco. But perhaps the most important deal was the new one signed by first-choice keeper David De Gea, who had been pursued by Real Madrid for months prior to his move falling through at the eleventh hour on deadline day.
Despite a decent start to 2015/16 – United navigated a Champions League qualifying round by beating Bruges home and away and overcoming Liverpool 3-1 at Old Trafford in the league with a debut goal by Martial – it became a difficult campaign with multiple injuries disrupting van Gaal’s plans. Luke Shaw’s leg fracture was the most serious of these, ruling him out for the rest of the season from September. That blow occurred away to PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League and the Reds later bowed out by finishing third in the group behind the Dutch side and Wolfsburg. A descent into the Europa League led to elimination by Liverpool over two legs in the last-16 round.
An early exit in the League Cup, at home to Middlesbrough on penalties, was more than compensated for by a stirring run in the FA Cup as van Gaal’s men brought the trophy back to Old Trafford for a record-equalling 12th time overall and the first time since 2004. But with United’s sometimes patchy league form not good enough to secure a top-four position and a place in the Champions League, media speculation about the manager’s future was rife. Forty-eight hours after his team won the cup final at Wembley, van Gaal and the club parted company – his tenure was over, two years into a three-year contract.
Intense speculation that Jose Mourinho would be appointed as United’s new manager proved to be accurate on Friday 27 May 2016 when the club announced his arrival in a statement on ManUtd.com. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward commented: “José is quite simply the best manager in the game today… his track record of success is ideal to take the club forward.”
Mourinho himself said: “To become Manchester United manager is a special honour in the game. It is a club known and admired throughout the world. There is a mystique and a romance about it which no other club can match.”
By the time the new 2016/17 Premier League season kicked off, the new boss had already collected his first piece of silverware – the Community Shield, secured with a 2-1 win over league champions Leicester City at Wembley – and he had acquired four exciting new players in Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahmovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and club record signing Paul Pogba. The latter embarked on his second spell with United, having previously made seven first-team appearances in 2011/12 after rising through the Academy and Reserves ranks.
By the end of Mourinho’s debut season at Old Trafford he had added two more trophies, the League Cup sealed with victory over Southampton thanks to Zlatan’s late Wembley winner and, thrillingly, the Europa League, that trophy completing United’s full set of honours after a cup final triumph over Ajax in Stockholm.