By Jim Wirth
Tuesday's UEFA Champions League home game against Olympique Lyonnais will see Sir Alex Ferguson take charge of his 1,000th game with Manchester United FC. "I could have never imagined being here 18 years spanning 1,000 games," Ferguson said. "That is a surprise. I had no timescale about the job when I started."
"Reaching 1,000 games anywhere would be astonishing, at a club the size of United, it is virtually unthinkable," said United defender Gary Neville. Former Liverpool FC captain and football pundit Alan Hansen said: "United would not be the global brand that they have become if they did not have Ferguson."
A former shipyard shop steward, Sir Alex made a modest impact as a striker with Queens Park FC, Saint Johnstone FC, Dunfermline AFC, Rangers FC, Falkirk FC and Ayr United FC, before moving into football management, via a brief spell in pub management - he was the publican of the Burns Cottage.
Saint Mirren FC were his first major club before he joined Aberdeen FC in 1978. He spent eight years at Pittodrie, winning three Scottish titles and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup before briefly managing Scotland and then moving to United in November 1986.
His tenure at Old Trafford started with a 2-0 cup defeat against Oxford United FC, and in his early years, it seemed that he would not be able to arrest years of decline at the club. Indeed, when United lost 5-1 to neighbours Manchester City FC in 1989, most thought that the manager was on his way out.
However, to their credit, United kept faith in the Scot and he in turn helped to change the club. The result was the nurturing of a rash of superb homegrown players and the development of a genuinely outstanding team which won eight English titles and the UEFA Champions League in 1998/99.
Throughout his 999 games in charge, Ferguson has gained a reputation for his coolness in front of camera and his allegedly ferocious temper in private. As Hansen put it: "He has a style that is unique, one that I recognise as Scottish and working-class, which will not accept anything but the greatest effort from his players. In return he takes the public pressure away from that team."
Certainly, as the public face of United, Sir Alex has often antagonised reporters and other coaches by refusing to criticise his team and indulging in the kind of managerial mind games which proved a major factor in his team's most successful years in the mid-1990s.
While United continue to challenge in Europe, more recently there has been a slight decline in their fortunes. Sir Alex briefly pondered retirement and with his one-time wonder boy David Beckham leaving for Real Madrid CF, some doubted whether Sir Alex had the energy to build a whole new team.
However, with striker Wayne Rooney, mercurial winger Cristiano Ronaldo and Scottish midfield player Darren Fletcher, he has arguably already laid the foundations for another great United side of the future. And it is a side that he may yet lead to further glory.
"It is difficult to say how much longer I will be here," said the 62-year-old. "I start a one-year rolling contract at the end of this season and that suits all parties. When l leave, I want to be sure that I have done my best and not slackened off. I don't want to give someone else headaches or dilemmas to solve."
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