When Alex Ferguson took over at Manchester United in 1986, he took over a club that had under-achieved for years. Despite being one of the world’s biggest clubs in terms of reputation and support, Manchester United hadn’t won a domestic league title since 1966-1967. What Ferguson discovered, on arrival, was an institution in need of significant rebuilding.
The squad of players he inherited wasn’t strong enough. By the end of 1989-1990, when the club won its first trophy under Ferguson, only four members of the original squad remained: nineteen players had left and twenty new players had made debuts.
The routine training programme needed an overhaul. The Ron Atkinson regime had been too relaxed and the players weren’t fit enough. Supported by his assistant, Archie Knox, Ferguson reorganised the training programme: it began earlier, went on longer and was more demanding. Players diets were also addressed.
There was far too much alcohol being consumed by the players. Bryan Robson, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside were the leading culprits. Ferguson rewrote the club’s rules on alcohol consumption (there was to be no drinking while players were ‘in training’) and generally tightened levels of discipline within the squad.
There wasn’t the right winning mentality among the players. As well as ability, fitness and discipline, those who played for the new manager had to be mentally strong. They needed to share his obsession with success. One of Ferguson’s methods was to develop an ‘us-against-everyone-else’ mentality that generated togetherness, loyalty and determination.
The club’s youth programme was significantly under-developed. The club hadn’t won the FA Youth Cup since 1963-1964, there were too few scouts and insufficient coaching. Ferguson invested in the youth programme, built centres of excellence and substantially increased staffing levels.
Ferguson believed in a common sense of purpose in every part of the club. The success of the institution wasn’t just dependent on the efforts of the first team. Ferguson wanted to meet all members of staff and encourage all to share his vision.
Old Trafford needed improving too. The ground required development to become a stadium fit for Manchester United. The post-Hillsborough Taylor Report, the Premier League BSkyB sponsorship and the commercialising of merchandise were all influential in gradually developing Old Trafford into the leading stadium it eventually became.
The Ferguson revolution took time. Knowing the essentials were being put in place encouraged the Manchester United board to give Alex Ferguson the time he required. In other settings, the manager would have been sacked before the job was complete. The Ferguson revolution led to unprecedented success over the following twenty years.