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A Decade On: How Alex Ferguson's Last Speech Foreshadowed The Mess Manchester United Became

By Eoin Harrington Updated
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It's the 12th of May 2013. 'Get Lucky' by Daft Punk tops the Irish charts, Dublin's super team had still only won one All-Ireland football championship, and Giovanni Trapattoni is still manager of the Republic of Ireland national team.

It feels like a world apart, a moment in time - from a simpler time. It was also the last day that Manchester United were definitively on top. And it was the last day - at Old Trafford, at least - for Alex Ferguson.

The rain was absolutely pouring down, as Ferguson took the microphone post-match to address the Old Trafford crowd. After years of standing on the sidelines at the stadium, watching the teams he selected work their magic on the pitch, he was centre stage on this final day.

There was no great sadness visible, per se, but an emotional Fergie acknowledged that the club had been "the most fantastic experience" of his life, in a powerful statement of just how important and central Manchester United had been to the past quarter century of his life.

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Ferguson had just lifted the Premier League trophy for the 13th time in his career, with a title-winning season capped by a 2-1 home win against Swansea and, as the rain pelted down, he implored the crowd in Manchester to stand by the man who would replace him, David Moyes.

Nobody knew it or believed it at the time, but this was the definitive end of the club's most magical era - or, perhaps, they did know, but chose not to believe it. There had been a sense under Ferguson that the good days at Manchester United would simply go on forever. That was all about to change, and the speech made on that dreary day in Manchester stands as the footnote, and as an almost ironic counterpoint to what was about to unfold at the most successful club in English football.


Remembering Alex Ferguson's Old Trafford farewell, 10 years on

This author still remembers sneaking a glance at the sports news on the morning of the 8th of May 2013, midway through a secondary school class. It couldn't be true, could it? Alex Ferguson couldn't actually be leaving Manchester United, could he?

But no, there it was, in black and white. After 26 and a half years, Fergie was to hang up the hairdryer and step into retirement at 71.

For a whole generation of football fans, all they had ever known was a Manchester United under Alex Ferguson. This was unprecedented - nobody in the modern game had lasted so long in a job and, of those who came close, none had had a departure so abrupt and seismic.


Manchester United had sealed the title weeks earlier with a 3-0 win at home over Aston Villa. All three goals had come from Robin van Persie, who had arrived from rivals Arsenal the previous summer. The acquisition of van Persie is arguably the last great chess move of Ferguson's career, filling the gap in the squad which had cost United the title on goal difference to nemeses City the previous season.

As the football world frantically tried to make sense of one of the biggest departures in recent sporting history, there were two key questions on everyone's lips. How would Fergie's reign come to an end - how would the club mark his success? And, more importantly, who on Earth would fill his shoes from 2013 onwards?

So, to the 12th of May 2013, and the final home game of Alex Ferguson's decades-long spell in charge of Manchester United. A dour day saw heavy rain, goals from cult heroes Chicharito and Michu, before Rio Ferdinand popped up with a late winner to bring the curtain down on the Fergie era at Old Trafford.


The Premier League trophy was hoisted into the air - in a first, a league-winning team allowed their manager to lift the trophy, rather than the captain, in a fitting tribute to the greatest to ever do it in the Premier League era. But, almost more significantly, there was the speech.


It's easy to forget, given how pear-shaped everything went in the years following Ferguson's departure, that this was a dominant league title win. Never in doubt from as early as March, when a win against QPR opened up a 15 point lead with over ten games to go. Van Persie was unstoppable, Michael Carrick had his best season in red, Phil Jones was yet to become the stuff of internet meme legend, and Wayne Rooney thrived in a deeper role than he had previously filled.


The squad deserved a special mention, and they got it from Fergie - though nobody at the time could have imagined we would still be waiting for another genuine Manchester United title challenge, ten years later.

This is where things get very interesting.

The early years of Ferguson's time at United were infamously ropey, and there is a widely held belief that a late goal in the 1990 FA Cup quarter-final against Nottingham Forest from Mark Robbins saved Fergie's job. The patience of the board was rewarded when, after four years at the club, Ferguson delivered the first trophy of his reign that season with the FA Cup.


He then followed it with the Cup Winners' Cup in '91, the League Cup in '92, and a first league title in 26 years in 1993. And the rest...


But Manchester United would not have become the imperious force they eventually grew into had it not been for the board sticking by Ferguson when it looked like things were properly going south - a point not lost on the Scot as he addressed the Old Trafford crowd on May 12th 2013:

If you think about, those last minute goals, the comebacks - even the defeats - are all part of this great football club of ours. It's been an unbelievable experience for all of us.

I'd like to remind you that when we had bad times here, the club stood by me. All my staff stood by me, the players stood by me - your job now is to stand by our new manager.

At this stage, Ferguson's fellow Scotsman David Moyes had already been announced as the man taking the hotseat at Old Trafford for the 2013-14 season.

Initially, the fans stood by him, but things quickly began to unravel. The aftermath of the 4-1 win at Swansea on the opening day was the only time all season Manchester United were top of the table, and they would go on to collect just seven points from their first five games, and alarm bells began to ring when they fell 4-1 to Manchester City in September.

I wish the players every success in future. You know how good you are. You know the jersey you're wearing. You know what it means to everyone here. Don't ever let yourself down. The expectation is always there.

Here's the thing. Alex Ferguson had undoubtedly left on a high, with one of the more decisive title wins of his entire reign - but, aside from the strengths of the 2012-13 team mentioned above, there was ample cause for concern that the squad was in decline.

Veteran defenders Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, and Nemanja Vidic were all nearing the end of their careers (all would only last one more season at the club after Ferguson's departure), while the midfield of the squad was left light and severely lacking in quality by the retirement of Paul Scholes.

The signing of Marouane Fellaini for a far higher fee than initially hoped on a desperate transfer deadline day in the summer of 2013 was a sign of things to come. It was the kind of signing Ferguson would never have sanctioned - he brought no obvious improvement to the squad, despite his quality, and there were no other significant arrivals during a summer in which United desperately needed to rebuild.

Moyes would ultimately only last until late April. A 2-0 defeat to Everton confirmed Manchester United would be without European football for the following season - the first time that had happened since that 1990 season in which Ferguson won his first honour. Sure, we could have expected a drop in quality from Manchester United after his departure but this? This was beyond anyone's expectations.

And what of that famous "stand by our new manager" comment? Well, a large section of the fans had turned on Moyes quite early on. These were the halcyon days of "fan channels" and it was clear that he was not popular among those who frequented those channels following United.


It wasn't just the fans, either. Moyes had become unpopular with the players after making some drastic changes to the day-to-day running of the club, with senior players feeling uninspired by his leadership (or lack thereof).

Moyes is a fine manager, and has proven as much during his spells with Everton and West Ham. Manchester United was not the job for him, that was plain to see - but it was the atmosphere at the club, less than a year on from Alex Ferguson's departure, that left a sense of the place being in tatters, rather than the on-pitch form.

In the near-27 year spell between November 1986 and May 2013, United had had one manager. In the ten years since, they have had eight, including interims. Moyes, Ryan Giggs, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, and Ralf Rangnick have all had a go at reviving the club's fortunes in the years since, with only three trophies won up to the beginning of this season.

The latest recruitment, Erik Ten Hag, looks to have made significant progress in only his first season in charge, delivering the League Cup in February and setting the team up for Champions League qualification - but even that may fall through, with a battered and exhausted United team underperforming in recent weeks with Liverpool suddenly breathing down their necks.

One line from Ferguson's farewell speech sticks out, ten years on: "My retirement doesn't mean the end of my life at the club. I'll be able to now enjoy watching them, rather than suffer with them!"

There have been long periods in the ten years since when "enjoyable" would be the last adjective you'd associate with Manchester United's football - not to mention the off-field atmosphere. Even the successes have come with "asterisks."

The FA Cup was won under van Gaal - but the football was dire, and the decision making erratic. Mourinho brought the most success - but the atmosphere behind the scenes appeared toxic and hostile, to a self-destructive degree. Solskjaer brought the feel-good factor and attractive football - but it crumbled when his United team finally got to challenging for major honours.

Every time a new coach has arrived, the "stand by our new manager" line is wheeled out and referenced - and, until this season, it has seemed time and time again to ironically sum up the situation when things inevitably go wrong.

Ten Hag appears to be the first who has combined a degree of success with a good atmosphere and attractive football, but it remains to be seen just how far he can push this group of players, without substantial investment.

A lot has changed in the last ten years at Manchester United, and the words of Alex Ferguson as he departed in 2013 now feel like something from a bygone era. The Manchester United of 2013, in all honesty, feels like a different club to that of 2023.

The figure of Fergie looms large - he has remained at the club at board level, to a degree which some would argue has undermined his successors, particularly Solskjaer. Until the club returns to winning ways, they will continue to be thought of for their failings since his departure, and just how much they have strayed from the values which made them a dominant force for so long.

12th of May, 2013. Fergie's speech, a title win at Old Trafford, and a feel-good factor at Manchester United. Time in a bottle, and all that...

SEE ALSO: "The Biggest F*** Up Of My Life As A Coach," Why Real Madrid Is A Personal Conquest For Guardiola

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