Why Fergie's class of 2009 are special
Go back 20 years to when Sir Alex Ferguson was arguably at his lowest ebb at Manchester United: in January 1989, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside did an interview on Granada TV before an FA Cup tie in which they were clearly drunk. Squad discipline was falling apart, the manager was close to the sack.
His two errant players, Ferguson would say later, "were on Planet Zigzag". It was in those days that he longed for what he had previously at Aberdeen: good players that he could control, a squad mentally strong enough to win trophies season after season. Planet Zigzag must seem a long way away these days as Ferguson presides over what is the best group of players he has ever managed in almost 23 years at Manchester United.
That is a bold claim to make, but two days after they landed Ferguson's 11th Premier League title there can be no doubt that the class of 2009 is the greatest yet. The core of the squad that won the title this season is realistically 19 players, from Cristiano Ronaldo to Federico Macheda. Outside that, Owen Hargreaves, Wes Brown, Darron Gibson, Danny Welbeck, Ben Foster and Rodrigo Possebon have all played at least one league game. They are a formidable collection of players.
The only other United team to win three successive titles, in 2001, did so by 10 points but for an idea of the relative merits of that league, it should be remembered that Ipswich Town finished fifth. In 2001, United went out of the Champions League to Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and Ferguson's subsequent actions suggested that an overhaul was in order. He bought Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron that summer.
This current team is in no such need of an expensive refit, perhaps a new striker to replace Carlos Tevez but by no means a major rebuilding job. And there is one key reason behind United's success, their dominant position in the English game: Ferguson has bought brilliantly over the last five years. Not cheaply, but brilliantly and, as Veron's signing proved, even when you have money to spend that is not always a guarantee of success.
The defining point for the Ferguson era after the 1999 treble team came to the end of their cycle in 2001 was the summer of 2003. That summer Ferguson sold David Beckham, bought a virtually unknown Cristiano Ronaldo for a record price for a teenager and missed out on Ronaldinho. At Chelsea, Roman Abramovich had just taken over and prices were going through the roof. Ferguson responded with arguably his best and then his worst signings of recent times.
Any manager who signed Ronaldo for as little as £12.25m has a joker card to play for life but that summer of 2003 Ferguson also signed the hopelessly under-qualified David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson. He bought Tim Howard as well, who was at least a respectable acquisition even if he did not make the grade at United. But as far as the dreadful aforementioned trio, Ferguson has never made the same mistakes again.
In fact, his record since then in signing the right players has been remarkable: Wayne Rooney (2004), Park Ji-Sung, Edwin van der Sar (2005), Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick (2006), Luis Anderson, Luis Nani, Tevez (2007) and Dimitar Berbatov (2008). A lot of money but then so was Andrei Shevchenko. Nani's future may still be borderline but he has shown flashes of brilliance. For such a divisive signing Berbatov has still scored 14 goals. Manucho and Zoran Tosic are unproven. The only dodgy one has been Tomasz Kuszczak.
United's great team from August 2006 to the present day that has won three league titles, one Champions League and the Fifa Club World Cup has been built upon a transfer record that is unmatched among any of United's fellow "big four" clubs. While some of those players – Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov for instance – have been obvious choices, others such as Vidic, Evra and Anderson have not.
Ferguson will probably never tell us how he finds these players ahead of everyone else, or who it is that has revamped his scouting system from those disasters in 2003. For scouting he is still understood to rely on his brother Martin and Jim Lawler, an Irish scout who rarely travels abroad. But it is obviously no coincidence that United have become ever more dominant the fewer mistakes that they have made in the transfer market.
They missed out to Arsenal on Theo Walcott in 2006 and Aaron Ramsey last summer but you could hardly argue that either have proved crucial. Fernando Torres is the most coveted player in the Premier League outside of United to switch clubs in the last two years. But, Ferguson will reflect, you can't have them all.
Famous last words but the overwhelming feature of the United of 2009 is that they are more refined, more ruthless and – the Glazer debt aside – better-run from a football point of view than ever before. They have not simply been dominant in the last five years when it has come to buying players but also when it has come to keeping players as the Ronaldo/Real Madrid affair has demonstrated.
Even now, if Ferguson was to sell his Fifa world player of the year, Real Madrid would be advised to be suspicious of his motives so well has his hand been played over the last five years. The old flip comment about United that no player is ever bigger than the club has never been so resoundingly true. And what player, these days, would even want to leave?
As the head of the great United empire, Ferguson needs to keep winning trophies to generate the fees and the incentives to lure the big signings and to keep winning he needs to keep picking the best players. There is, of course, a lot more to winning than just overseeing this virtuous circle but never before have United felt like such a relentless, unstoppable machine programmed to win.
Of course, there will be obstacles thrown in their way. What if Arsène Wenger is right and his Arsenal team start challenging next year? What if Carlo Ancelotti's a genius? What if Rafael Benitez gets it together? Whatever happens, Ferguson has built something United never thought possible 20 years hence when McGrath was drunk on the telly and Gordon Strachan thought Lens would be a better option than Old Trafford. What a legacy.
Perfect 10: United's other Premier League titles
92/3 A 26-year wait for the league title was ended as Sir Alex Ferguson's side held off challenges from Aston Villa and Norwich. Ron Atkinson's Villa pushed hard, sitting four points behind with two games to go. A loss at Oldham and United's win against Blackburn sealed the first of many title successes for Fergie.
93/4 United were cruising to a second consecutive title until Kenny Dalglish's Blackburn beat them 2-0 in early April thanks to an Alan Shearer brace. An unexpected Rovers defeat at Coventry ensured the title would remain at Old Trafford, the title confirmed with a goalless final day draw with Coventry.
95/6 Surprising summer departures led many, including a certain Alan Hansen, to query United's chances of reclaiming the title from Blackburn. Ferguson had cards up his sleeve, his "fledglings" helping United overhaul Newcastle's 12-point lead. Kevin Keegan's infamous televised outburst aided Ferguson's cause.
96/7 For parts of the season it seemed United would struggle to retain the title, heavy losses at Newcastle and Southampton showcasing their troubles. Fergie's side eventually reached the summit in January, remaining there for the rest of the season. Liverpool's defeat at Wimbledon ensured a fourth title in five seasons.
98/9 An ultimately historic season for the Red Devils saw United pushed to the wire by an impressive Arsenal. Poor late form handed the initiative to Ferguson's side and a final-day victory against Tottenham wrapped up the first of three trophies, they added the FA Cup and Champions League to secure an unprecedented treble.
99/0 A campaign memorable for United's decision to pull out of the FA Cup in favour of the World Club Championship saw the Old Trafford side stroll home. The inability of their rivals to capitalise on United's Brazilian trip allowed Ferguson's men to wrap up the title at Southampton with four games to spare.
00/1 Ferguson sets another record, becoming the first manager to win three successive titles as United again finish ahead of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal. Awesome foursome Teddy Sheringham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke lead the way, the title again secured by mid-April.
02/3 United reclaim the title from an Arsenal side that led by eight points in early March. An invaluable point at Highbury in mid-April helped swing the title back toward Old Trafford as Ferguson put aside differences with his star midfielder David Beckham to lift an eighth Premier League in 11 seasons.
06/7 Three barren seasons at Old Trafford were brought to an end as Jose Mourinho's Chelsea failed to emulate Fergie's Premier League hat-trick and surrendered the title. Top at Christmas, a free-scoring United romped home in style, the title secured when Chelsea could only draw with Arsenal.
07/8 A superlative 42-goal season from midfielder Cristiano Ronaldo drove United over the finishing line. The Gunners set the early pace, holding a one-point lead over United at Christmas, before another late-season dip in form and costly draws for Chelsea meant a 10th title win in 16 seasons for the Reds.