Nobody present at the homely Manor Ground, Oxford on 8 November 1986 would have dared foresee the success that then plain-old Alex Ferguson would bring his new club Manchester United FC. Goals from Oxford United FC's John Aldridge and Neil Slatter meant an ignominious start that afternoon for the man brought down from Aberdeen FC to replace Ron Atkinson. Here five members of the United team that afternoon recall Sir Alex's early days at Old Trafford.
It was a really tight ground and all the press were there for his first game. Oxford United playing Manchester United was like David against Goliath. The photographers were taking pictures of him in the dugout and I think they wanted us to lose for the story – which of course we did. We were going through a bad time and Ron Atkinson had just got the sack. Ferguson was unlucky that day because some of our best players were injured – Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, John Sivebæk and Norman Whiteside were all missing. When he took over we were about fourth from bottom but by the end of that season we were eleventh. He needed time to change things round.
He came in on the Friday morning and spoke to everybody on the training ground. He didn't try and tell us what to do - it was just a question of 'Look, let's get on with this and try and get the three points and win the match'. He didn't even pick the team, the reserve team coach did that. Managers know that overnight you can't just change people's habits – you have to do it gradually and that's what he did. Training wasn't any different although he did mould the players to play in a certain way: build up from the back, play across the back, keep possession of the ball, a very European style. He imposed himself slowly rather than making a quick fix and that's why the success came. At first, though, I think the size of the job probably surprised him. I don't think he realised quite how huge it was.
We knew quite a bit about him because Gordon Strachan had played under him before and had warned us a wee bit about what he was like and the things he got up to when he was manager of Aberdeen. He'd done really well there and had split the Rangers-Celtic domination in Scotland. We didn't know if it was the team or the manager but at the end of the day he's the one that picks the team. Strachan said he was a very strict disciplinarian and to be fair we were all a little bit worried about him coming down. He had a reputation and he backed it up. He was setting the rules early on. He was very strict, but he was fair – that's the big thing that came over to me. If you're playing well, he'll keep you in the team.
He was a bit nervous to begin with. He'd broken the Rangers-Celtic stranglehold in Scotland and I think he thought that if he could break the Everton-Liverpool domination of the time then United would be successful. They were the main rivals but I think he was a bit surprised that there were a lot of other teams around who were capable of beating anybody. It took him a while to get it right but you could see he had his ideas and he was pretty straight in what he wanted to do. The United team were short of confidence – we had world-class players and were capable of beating anyone but it just wasn't happening. He was looking to stamp his own mark and that took time but you could tell he had a burning desire to succeed. His training methods were similar to Brian Clough's in some ways. There were five-a-sides, a lot of short and sharp stuff, high-tempo games. Tactically he would tell you a little bit about the opposition but he was mainly set on how he wanted us to play.
I joined United in 1984 at the same time Gordon Strachan signed from Aberdeen. When Sir Alex was appointed manager, Gordon joked, 'I left Aberdeen to get away from him and now he's going to be my manager again'. Sir Alex impressed me immediately. He had a clear plan and knew how to realise it to take United back to the top in England and Europe. He was a fantastic personality, a great man and very honest. For Sir Alex everyone in the club was important – the tea lady, the laundry lady, the people at reception, and so on. He treated all of them with huge respect. He demonstrated excellent leadership. He had his ideas and principles but you could talk to him whenever you wanted. He was a very good listener but at the end, he took the decision and the responsibility for it.
United team v Oxford United: Chris Turner, Mike Duxbury, Arthur Albiston, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath, Graeme Hogg, Clayton Blackmore, Remi Moses, Frank Stapleton, Peter Davenport, Peter Barnes. Substitute: Jesper Olsen.
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