From riling Rafa to wasting Wenger – how Sir Alex Ferguson saw off a succession of rivals

The Scot has called time on his 26-year Old Trafford reign, and there is not a Premier League manager who can say they have surpassed the most successful boss in English football

By Sam Lee

“It wasn’t a rant!” argue the Liverpool fans and various Rafa Benitez apologists. “He was making some good points”, “he was trying to divide the Manchester United camp,” they’ll add. Whatever they say, Benitez looked a fool and Sir Alex Ferguson won in the end. He usually did.

Sir Alex and Arsene Wenger now talk amicably both in public and in private. The two discussed the Robin van Persie transfer over the phone last summer, and have been on good terms for years. It was not always that way, but that was when Wenger was a threat.

The United manager, who will step down at the end of this season after almost 27 years in charge, has chewed up and spat out as many managers as he has packets of Wrigley’s.

Wenger and Liverpool-version Benitez were seen to long ago, the former ushered into battles just to finish in the top four, the latter into semi-retirement.

For United fans it is a shame Sir Alex cannot go on forever, for neutrals it is a pity he won’t be around next season to lock horns with Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho, who Goal exclusively revealed will rejoin Chelsea over the summer.

Both Chelsea and Manchester City have threatened dominance in recent years, but every time Sir Alex has warded them off. Mancini has spent this season pleading for his job – he may only keep it by virtue of United becoming weaker without the Scot – while Mourinho left Stamford Bridge under a cloud in 2007, with United in the midst of a run of three successive titles.

Benitez was the man swept aside for the third of those league crowns. Liverpool had run United close for much of the 2008-09 season and were genuine contenders. These were scary times for United fans. But whatever his supporters say, Rafa’s rant backfired spectacularly. Sir Alex had got under his skin, United quickly went top of the table thanks to a breathtaking run of form, and the 18th league title was wrapped up.

Wenger was a worthy sparring partner when Arsenal used to go toe-to-toe with United on the pitch. When Sir Alex suggested he had the best side in England, Wenger replied “Everybody thinks they have the prettiest wife at home.” It was a classic line in the heat of a fierce rivalry, probably the best of the Premier League era.

But the fire died out and so did the rivalry between the managers. Arsenal are seen as a harmless club in United’s eyes these days; the Gunners have won once in the last 12 meetings and their manager is – sorry, was, (that will take some getting used to) – no longer on Sir Alex’s radar.

The Frenchman’s blinking green dot first came into sight around 1998, shortly after Newcastle and Kevin Keegan had been consigned to the list of also-rans.

During a tense run-in to the 1995-96 season – Newcastle were 12 points clear at one stage – the Scot suggested that teams might try harder against the Red Devils than against the Magpies. Keegan was furious.

“When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce…” he raged on live television.

“I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimations when he said that. We have not resorted to that. You can tell him now, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something.

“And I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.

“But it really has got to me. I’ve voiced it live, not in front of the press or anywhere. I’m not even going to the press conference. But the battle is still on and Man United have not won this yet.”

Needless to say, Sir Alex had the last laugh.

And he often did. Including caretakers, there have been 18 Chelsea managers, 18 City managers and 10 Liverpool managers in the 26 years Ferguson has ruled Old Trafford. None can say they have bested him.

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