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In 1996, Alex Ferguson was coming to the most successful part of his tenure at Manchester United. The team was coming together to form one of the most dominant teams of all time, leading to Ferguson later becoming knighted for his services to English football.
1996 – 1997: Title Number Four
1996 – 97 saw Alex Ferguson guide Manchester United to their fourth Premiership title in five seasons. In late October, they suffered three league defeats in a row and conceded 13 goals in the process. In January, they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Wimbledon in the Fourth Round, meaning they would miss the final for the first time since 1993. They also lost their 40-year unbeaten home record in Europe to unfancied Turkish side Fenerbahçe. But they still reached the Champions' League semi final, where they lost to Borussia Dortmund, and fought off competition from Newcastle United, Arsenal and Liverpool to win the league title. At the end of the season, Eric Cantona surprisingly retired from football.
1997 – 1998: Season Of Slow Decline
Ferguson made two new signings to bolster United's challenge for the 1997 - 98 season. He paid Tottenham Hotspur £3.5 million for the 31-year-old England striker Teddy Sheringham and signed Henning Berg from Blackburn Rovers for £5 million. 1997 – 98 ended trophyless but United still finished runners-up to Arsenal (who had trailed them by 11 points at the beginning of March but had taken advantage of games in hand) and reached the Champions' League quarter-final.
In the summer of 1998, Alex Ferguson spent a total of £28 million on three major signings: Aston Villa's striker Dwight Yorke, PSV's Dutch defender Jaap Stam and Parma's Swedish winger Jesper Blomqvist.
1998 – 1999: 'The Treble'1
1998 – 99 is still one of the most successful seasons for any club (alongside Celtic's 1966 - 67 season), with the club winning an unprecedented treble of the Premiership title, FA Cup and Champions' League. The season was characterised by highly dramatic matches. In the Champions' League semi-final, United conceded two early goals away to Juventus in the second leg (after a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in which United scored a last-minute equaliser). Inspired by Roy Keane, who would later miss the final through suspension, United came back to beat Juventus 3-2 and reach their first European Cup final since 1968. In the FA Cup semi-final, United faced close rivals Arsenal and appeared to be heading for defeat when Keane was sent off and, with the score at 1-1, Arsenal were awarded a last-minute penalty. Goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel saved the penalty, and in extra time Ryan Giggs ran the length of the pitch to score a memorable winning goal. They then defeated Newcastle United 2-0 in the FA Cup Final at Wembley, thanks to goals from Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes. The European triumph was the most incredible of all. With 90 minutes on the clock, they were 1-0 down to Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp in Barcelona thanks to a Mario Basler free kick, but in three minutes of injury time allowed by the referee, 'Super-Subs' Teddy Sheringham and Ole Solskjaer scored to make it a night and a season of legend.
On 12 June, 1999, Alex Ferguson received a knighthood in recognition of his services to English football.
1999 - 2000: Title Number Six
Manchester United ended the 1999 - 2000 season as champions with just three Premiership defeats, and with Arsenal in second place. In the last season, the gap at the top had been just one point. This time the gap was 18 points. The dominance of United in this season is comparable to Arsenal's 2003/04 championship (no league defeats) and Chelsea's title triumph in 2004/05 (1 league defeat). However, the massive gap between United and the rest of the Premiership caused some to wonder if the club's financial dominance was developing into a problem for the English game. Ironically, this question was to be answered within four years with the sudden emergence of Chelsea as the new financial superpower in England.
In April, 2000, it was announced that Manchester United had agreed to sign Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy from PSV Eindhoven for a British record fee of £18 million. But the move was put on hold when van Nistelrooy failed a medical, and he then returned to his homeland in a bid to regain fitness, only to suffer a serious knee injury which ruled him out for almost a year.
2000 - 01: Title Number Seven
The major change to the Manchester United side for the 2000-01 season was the acquisition of 29-year-old French maverick goalkeeper Fabien Barthez from Monaco for £7.8 million - making him the most expensive goalkeeper to be signed by a British club. Another change to the line-up was Teddy Sheringham winning his first team place back after two seasons of mainly substitute appearances. By the end of the season, the 35-year-old Sheringham was Manchester United's leading scorer in all competitions and had been presented with both the PFA Player of the Year Award and the Football Writers' Player of the Year Award.
During the 2001 close season Ruud van Nistelrooy was finally acquired, for £18 million, and soon after Manchester United again broke the British transfer record - this time paying Lazio £28.1 million for Argentine attacking midfielder Juan Sebastiàn Verón. Veron showed sparks of brilliance in the Champions' League and he had his fair share of first team appearances, but he ultimately failed to adapt to English league football, and live up to the high expectations his transfer fee suggested. He was sold to Chelsea for £15 million only two years later. Veron proved to be Ferguson's most expensive transfer mistake, and this explains his willingness to sell the player to rivals Chelsea in order to halve his substantial losses. Veron's career failed to recover at Chelsea, and his international career with Argentina also soon floundered2.
2001-02: Trophyless Season
Two games into the 2001-02 season, Manchester United fans were shocked when Dutch central defender Jaap Stam was suddenly sold to Lazio in a £16 million deal. The reason for Stam's departure was believed to have been claims in his autobiography Head to Head that he had been illegally spoken to about a move to Manchester United by Alex Ferguson, before his previous club PSV Eindhoven had been informed. The club's supporters were even more shocked when Sir Alex Ferguson replaced Stam with Inter Milan's 36-year-old central defender Laurent Blanc.
During November and early December in 2001, Manchester United endured their worst league form in over a decade - six defeats in seven Premiership fixtures, three defeats at each side of a win. On 8 December, 2001, Manchester United were ninth in the Premiership - 11 points behind leaders Liverpool who had a game in hand. Sir Alex Ferguson had already written off his side's chances of claiming a unique fourth successive Premiership title.
But then came a dramatic turn-around in form. Between mid-December and late January, nine successive wins saw Manchester United climb to the top of the Premiership and put their title challenge back on track.
In the end, United finished third in the Premiership (their first finish outside the top two since they finished sixth in the 1990 - 91 old First Division), lost on away goals to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League Semi Finals, were knocked out of the FA Cup in the Fourth Round by Middlesbrough, and were knocked out of the League Cup in the Third Round by Arsenal. This meant that Manchester United had failed to finish winners or runners-up of a major competition for the first time since the 1988 - 89 season. United's misery was compounded as Arsenal clinched the Premiership Title at Old Trafford with a 1-0 win in the penultimate game of the season.
The 2001 - 02 season was to have been Sir Alex Ferguson's last as Manchester United manager, and the looming date of his retirement was cited by many as a reason for the team's loss of form. Ferguson himself admitted that the decision to pre-announce his retirement had resulted in a negative effect on the players and on his ability to impose discipline. But in February, 2002 he agreed to stay in charge for at least another three years.
The close season saw Manchester United break the British transfer record yet again when they paid Leeds United a reported £30 million for 24-year-old central defender Rio Ferdinand.3
2002-03: Title Number Eight
Manchester United won their eighth Premiership title in 11 seasons at the end of 2002 - 03, yet just over two months before the end of the season they had lost to Liverpool4 in the League Cup final and slipped eight points behind leaders Arsenal on the same day. But an improvement in form for United, and a decline for Arsenal, saw the Premiership trophy gradually slip out of the Londoners' grasp and push it back in the direction of Old Trafford.
On 4 May, 2003, Manchester United's title success was confirmed when Arsenal lost 3-2 at home to Leeds United - a result which ended Arsenal's title hopes and secured Leeds's survival. It was to be Arsenal's last Premiership defeat for 49 games - a run which was ended in October 2004 by Manchester United, a run which included Arsenal completing the 2003-04 season as unbeaten Premiership champions.
2003 - 04: FA Cup Glory
Sir Alex Ferguson guided Manchester United to their eleventh FA Cup at the end of the 2003 - 04 season, but it only partly compensated for a relatively disappointing season which had seen them finish third in the Premiership and suffer Champions League elimination at the hands of eventual winners FC Porto, and a League Cup defeat by Aston Villa. This was partly caused by the absence of Rio Ferdinand for the final four months of the season, as he served the beginning of an eight-month ban for missing a drugs test. New signings like Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson were disappointing, but there was at least one productive signing - 19-year-old Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been signed from Sporting Lisbon for £12.24 million. However, United failed to land their primary transfer targer - Brazilian star Ronaldinho, who turned his back on a move to United and instead joined Barcelona. Managing director Peter Kenyon was blamed by many for failing to secure Ronaldinho's signing, after several months of negotiations, and Kenyon later departed United to join rivals Chelsea.
Fabien Barthez spent the season on loan at Marseille and was then sold permanently, and his place in the United goal was filled by American goalkeeper Tim Howard5.
2004 - 05: Trophyless Season
At the beginning of the 2004 - 05 season, Manchester United paid an initial fee of £20 million for 19-year-old Everton and England striker Wayne Rooney, whose performances led to him being voted PFA Young Player of the Year at the end of the season. Argentine defender Gabriel Heinze also proved to be a successful new signing, while Cristiano Ronaldo continued where he had left off the previous season by putting in more match-winning performances.
United were never favourites to win the 2004 - 05 Premiership title; again, their failure could be put down to a player's absence - high-scoring striker Ruud van Nistelrooy was unavailable for almost half of the season due to injury and his deputy Alan Smith suffered from a long dip in form. Ferguson guided the club to a third-place finish for the third time in four seasons; in the FA Cup they lost on penalties to Arsenal after a completely dominant United failed to break the Gunners' tight defence down in the FA Cup final after a goalless draw. Ferguson compared the setback to losing the league title to Leeds in 1991/92, and hoped the experience would galvanize his squad into a successful 2005/06 campaign.
2005-06: League Cup Triumph, European Disaster
Ferguson's preparations for the season were disrupted by off-field drama at Manchester United. Ferguson had been involved in a high-profile dispute with major shareholder John Magnier, over the ownership of a racehorse. When Magnier and business partner JP McManus agreed to sell their shares to American business tycoon Malcolm Glazer, it cleared the way for Glazer to acquire full control of the club. This sparked violent protests from United fans, and disrupted Ferguson's plans to strengthen the team in the transfer market. In spite of this, United looked to solve their goalkeeping and midfield problems. For this, they signed the Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar from Fulham and Korean star Park Ji-Sung from PSV. United made a poor start to the 2005 – 06 season, Ferguson's 32nd consecutive season in football management and his 20th at United. Sidelined due to injuries were many senior players like Gary Neville, Gabriel Heinze and their captain Roy Keane. In an MUTV interview Keane was very critical about some of his fellow players. The interview was not aired subsequently. It is said that Keane was critical about the performances of Rio Ferdinand, Darren Fletcher, John O'Shea and Alan Smith. Despite this, United bounced back with a thrilling 1-0 victory over Premiership leaders Chelsea. The game was famous for the goal from the under-fire Darren Fletcher and a stunning holding role played by Alan Smith, who was named the Man of the Match.
On 18 November, Roy Keane officially left the club. His contract ended by mutual consent. He returned for a testimonial at the end of the season, but infamously prevented Ferguson from delivering a tribute to the crowd. The two did shake hands, however, and Ferguson described Keane as the best player he had ever managed at Manchester United.
For the first time in over a decade United failed to qualify for the knock-out phase of the UEFA Champions' League. United lost to Benfica 2-1 in the decider. With just one win in the entire group matches, United also failed to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Signings during January, 2006 of Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic and French full-back Patrice Evra were made, as the side reached second place in the league, behind runaway leaders Chelsea. Yet a defeat to Manchester City led to more question marks over the team and the suitability of the manager. But United were able to claw their way back from a trophyless season by winning the League Cup. They hammered Wigan Athletic (the surprise package of the tournament) 4-0. Wayne Rooney scored two goals while Cristiano Ronaldo and Louis Saha got the other two. It marked the first League Cup for Manchester United since 1992. Ruud Van Nistelrooy's future at Old Trafford seems to be in doubt after not starting in the Carling Cup final, and recent FA Premier League games.
After the League Cup victory, United managed to close the gap on leaders Chelsea to seven points at one point. Talks of an amazing comeback were building but hopes eventually faded away following a 0-0 draw at home against Sunderland. On 29 April, Manchester United faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in what turned out to be the title decider for Chelsea, as the reigning champions comfortably won 3-0 and retained their title. There was to be more bad news for Manchester United with star player Wayne Rooney breaking a metatarsal for the second time in two years after falling awkwardly from a benign tackle by Paulo Ferreira. It not only ended Rooney's league season but put his involvement in the 2006 World Cup in doubt; however Rooney returned in England's second game against Trinidad and Tobago. Nevertheless, after their highest league finish in four years and closing the gap on Chelsea, United's hopes for the 2006/07 season were raised. Ferguson hoped to end his illustrious managerial career on a high, by halting the dominance of financially-powerful Chelsea and delivering a final championship trophy to Old Trafford.
2006-07 Title Number Nine
Michael Carrick was signed as a replacement for Roy Keane for £14 million, although the figure may rise in the future to £18.6 million depending on appearances and results. United started the season well, and for the first time ever won the first four Premiership games. They set the early pace in the Premiership and never relinquished top spot from the tenth match of the 38-game season. The January, 2006 signings had a huge impact on United's performances; Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic came in to form a solid back line along with already existing players Rio Ferdinand and skipper Gary Neville. Vidic proved himself the natural successor to Steve Bruce as a goal-scoring centre back, contributing four goals in the season. The signing of Michael Carrick, which was questioned and criticised by a large portion of the media, brought stability and further creativity in the United midfield, forming an effective partnership with Paul Scholes. Park Ji-Sung and Kieran Richardson both underlined their value to the first team squad by adding significant pace and incisiveness in attack with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ferguson celebrated his 20th anniversary in charge of Manchester United on 6 November, 2006. Tributes also came from Ferguson's players, both past and present,as well as his old foe, Arsène Wenger, his old captain, Roy Keane, and current players. The party was spoiled the following day when United endured a single-goal defeat at the hands of Southend in the fourth round of the Carling Cup. However, on 1 December it was announced that Manchester United had signed 35-year-old Henrik Larsson, a player that Alex Ferguson had admired for many years, and attempted to capture previously. On 23 December, 2006, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the club's 2000th goal under the helm of Sir Alex.
On 28 April, 2007, Manchester United were three points ahead of Chelsea at the top of the Premiership. Both sides were playing at the same time and at half time Manchester United were 2-0 down to Everton at Goodison Park. Chelsea on the other hand were 2-1 up at Stamford Bridge; it looked as though Chelsea were on the verge of catching Manchester United. However, a sensational turnaround of events saw Manchester United launch another trademark comeback to win 4-2, with Chelsea being pegged back to 2-2, and thus handing United a 5 point lead with 3 games to go. The points on the table meant that if the Red Devils could win away in their derby against Manchester City, and Chelsea failed to beat Arsenal the following Sunday at the Emirates, then Sir Alex Ferguson's men would clinch the title.
United were 1-0 ahead via a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty. Late drama ensued when Manchester City won a penalty, courtesy of a much-debated 'challenge' by Wes Brown on Michael Ball (replays showed Brown had pulled out of the tackle, only for Ball to launch himself into Brown) in the 80th minute. However, Edwin van der Sar came to Manchester United's rescue and saved Darius Vassell's penalty to give the Red Devils victory and put United within touching distance of their 16th league title. On 6 May, 2007, Chelsea drew with Arsenal and subsequently handed Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United their ninth Premiership title.
2 weeks later however, he missed out on a sixth FA Cup when Chelsea pipped his side 1-06 at the new Wembley Stadium