Man U's favourite son, Ferguson

Stashing away retirement plans, Sir Alex Ferguson enters his 26th straight year as the man in-charge, dwarfing even the achievements of the great Man United supremo Matt Busby who held the club on an iron rein from 1945-69. In terms of titles, achievement and durability Ferguson has surpassed all the other great tacticians of the game and sits at the pinnacle of football glory, writes Ayon Sengupta.

“My greatest challenge is not what's happening at the moment. My greatest challenge is knocking Liverpool right off their perch,” the great Scotsman had said in 2002 after securing the Premier League crown.

His Manchester United team was still three shy of Liverpool's record 18 crowns and despite being at the helm for close to two decades and having won eight championship crowns, which firmly established his team as the new bragging right owners of the British Isles, Sir Alex Ferguson was not ready to rest on those laurels.

Stashing away retirement plans, he enters his 26th straight year as the man in-charge, dwarfing even the achievements of the great Man United supremo Matt Busby who held the club on an iron rein from 1945-69. In terms of titles, achievement and durability Ferguson has surpassed all the other great tacticians of the game and sits at the pinnacle of football glory, his position almost as unchallenged as Sachin Tendulkar's place in the pantheon of cricketing greats.

There is plainly no room for argument. The case has been long dismissed. Under Ferguson, who took charge in 1986, United has enjoyed the most triumphant run in the history of English football, winning 12 League titles. On the international front, too, the club has accounted for two European championships and two World Club Championship trophies (one intercontinental and one club World Cup) along with a European Cup Winners' Cup and a UEFA Super Cup winner's medal. His stint before at the unfancied Aberdeen in Scotland was almost as scintillating, where he led the underdogs to the European Cup-winners' Cup in 1983. The team also won three Scottish Leagues and four Scottish Cups under Ferguson.

If European titles are the Holy Grail for football managers, then the temperamental 69-year-old ranks close to Bob Paisley's three European Cup successes with Liverpool in 1977, 1978 and 1981. In his nine years at the Merseyside club, Paisley had also pocketed six English League crowns, giving him an impressive 57.38 win percentage in his 535 games at the helm.

Other close competitors of the Manchester maverick can be Jock Stein of Celtic, who won the Scottish League title 10 times and also led Celtic to a European Cup in 1967, the first ever by a British manager. The great Busby, the first manager to lead an English club to Europe's greatest prize in 1968, also won five League crowns. Brian Clough, too, had two European winners' medals with the unfashionable Nottingham Forest.

Elsewhere in Europe, Miguel Munoz of Real Madrid (1960-1974) comes closest to Fergie, having won nine League championships and two European Cups. Nereo Rocco, Arrigo Sacchi and Carlo Ancelotti have each won two European Cups with Milan. Helenio Herrera did the same with Internazionale, and Vicente Del Bosque, Bela Guttman and Pep Guardiola won the trophy twice with Real Madrid, Benfica and Barcelona respectively.

Ernst Happel led Feyenoord and Hamburg to the European Cup and won league titles in four different countries. Jose Mourinho with Internazionale and Porto and Swiss Ottmar Hitzfeld won European Cups with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

Yet, Ferguson outruns these greats by a mile. He is right now the undisputed No. 1 and it would take a lot of work from the likes of current challengers, Guardiola or Mourinho, to upstage him.

But rather than the titles, the Knight Bachelor's lasting legacy will be his tenacity to rebuild. Busby did it with aplomb after the Munich air disaster in 1958 took the lives of eight “Busby Babes”. He came to win the European title 10 years later in 1968-69. But Ferguson's long tenure and the money changing number game of today's football has forced the current United manager to destroy and reconstruct many more times.

The nucleus of his team has changed manifold and so have his tactics with the introduction of newer members. His early side at United relied on the pace of Lee Sharpe, Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis, which gave way to a team built around the mercurial flair of Eric Cantona, which was outmoded by a side built around Roy Keane's midfield vitality, ably supported by “Fergie's Fledglings,” Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville brothers being the most notable ones.

In recent years he has successfully jelled a fearsome threesome upfront in Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo only to switch gear after the departure of the Portuguese and the Argentine. He didn't try to keep to the style by replacing Ronaldo and Tevez with similar players but allowed Rooney to play as a lone striker and the Englishman reposed his faith, scoring 34 goals in 44 appearances, enjoying his best season in 2009-10 since turning professional in 2002-03.

But with Rooney terribly out of form in the last campaign, Ferguson trusted Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov to carry the workload at the start of the year, slowly easing in Mexican youngster Javier Hernandez to lead the line towards the end. The two function on completely different geometrics and a switch mid-way through the season would have created mayhem anywhere else.

The addition of young English talent in Ashley Young (Aston Villa) and Phil Jones (Blackburn Rovers) and the replacement of retired goalie Edwin van der Sar with David de Gea from Atletico Madrid has again proved Ferguson's mettle as one of the most astute readers of the game.

In Young, United has a 25-year-old whose goals and assists last season were the only source of joy in an otherwise dismal run for Villa. Finding the back of the net nine times and setting up others to do so on 14 occasions in a less-talented Villa side he has proved himself as a versatile attacking player. Young has indisputable quality with the ball at his feet and has added intelligence to his game that can make him seem almost impossible to defend against at times. The England international's ability from set-pieces would also be unmatched at United. And his consistency from both free-kicks and corners will add more sting to the Red Devils' attack, something they have been missing since the departure of David Beckham.

The 19-year-old Jones is one of the most versatile players in the island nation currently but the chances of him replacing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as the first choice back looks highly unlikely. Providentially for United, Jones isn't a player limited to a single position and has proved himself a vigorous holding midfielder with the ability to break up the rhythm of the opposition, precisely what Ferguson's men were missing at Wembley when Barcelona's well-oiled engine ran at full throttle. David de Gea with outstanding performances at the European under-21 championships with Spain is sure to soothe the frayed nerves at the back that resulted from Van der Sar's retirement.

Bill Shankly, the late Liverpool great and a man who Ferguson has much in common with, had said: “If you are first you are first. If you are second you are nothing.” Sir Alex knows this all too well and detractors and compatriots should keep in mind that he is not going to take it easy even though Liverpool's 18 titles have been surpassed.

* * * Fergie's roll of honour

Manchester United's titles and trophies under Sir Alex Ferguson's stewardship:

Premier League (12): 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11.

FA Cup (5): 1989-90, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1998-99, 2003-04.

League Cup (4): 1991-92, 2005-06, 2008-09, 2009-10.

FA Charity/Community Shield (9): 1990*, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2010 (* shared).

UEFA Champions League (2): 1998-99, 2007-08. UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (1): 1990-91. UEFA Super Cup (1): 1991. Intercontinental Cup (1): 1999. FIFA Club World Cup (1): 2008.

Premier League Manager of the Year (10): 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11.

Manchester United Games: 1,392; Won: 824; Draw: 322; Loss: 246; Win%: 59.20