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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 May, 2003, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Ferguson's best yet
By Howard Nurse
Football editor

Sir Alex Ferguson
Success is sweet for Ferguson

Manchester United's eighth title win in 11 years must surely rank as the greatest achievement in Sir Alex Ferguson's glittering 17-year reign at Old Trafford.

Ferguson has vindicated his decision to carry on in the job. After United's sticky start to the campaign, his critics said he should retire.

They claimed Ferguson was past it. How he must have scoffed at such ludicrous claims.

Finishing last season trophyless hurt everybody at the Theatre of Dreams - but Ferguson took it personally and appointed ex-Portugal and South Africa coach Carlos Queiroz as his number two to shake things up.

But the season started badly and the autumn was littered with negatives for the Old Trafford giants. Just about everything appeared to conspire against the club.

Eight points from the opening 18 was the worst return since 1989-90. United were treading water while arch-rivals Arsenal and Liverpool were flying.

Roy Keane had a valid point; United's players were dangerously entrenched in the comfort zone.

More trouble followed when Ferguson faced false allegations of sexual harassment in South Africa and three days later Keane was given a five-match ban and a 150,000 fine for comments in his autobiography.

The Irishman also needed a hip operation which meant a long-term absence. Nicky Butt - England's bright light at the 2002 World Cup finals - was injured too.

Ferguson's biggest masterstroke was to put seven players under the surgeon's knife. It was a high-risk strategy which would eventually pay handsome dividends.

The low point of the season was the 3-1 derby defeat at Manchester City in November. Ferguson read the riot act and the hairdryer was so hot it almost melted.

Rio Ferdinand
Ferdinand has taken time to settle in at Man Utd

But it was hard for Ferguson to legislate for the loss of form from the likes of Fabien Barthez, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Even David Beckham temporarily lost his ability to deliver a killer cross.

By Christmas, Arsenal were odds-on to win a second successive title. Arsene Wenger's fanciful claim that Arsenal could go the entire season without losing enraged Ferguson.

The transfer window came and went but there was no new striker that Ferguson craved so badly.

He refused to buckle under the growing pressure, insisting nobody good enough was available and he would wait until the summer to bolster his squad.

Crucially, Ferguson never wrote his side off - even after the 2-0 FA Cup defeat at home to Arsenal in February.

Ferguson was big enough to admit to United's deficiencies and where improvements were required - but he always remained totally focused on the positive points.

The first day of December was a turning point as the much-maligned Diego Forlan twice took advantage of some comedy goalkeeping from Jerzy Dudek to inspire United to a win 2-1 at Liverpool.

MAN UTD'S GLORY RUN
1992-3: Champions
1993-4: Champions
1994-5: Runners-up
1995-6: Champions
1996-7: Champions
1997-8: Runners-up
1998-9: Champions
1999-00: Champions
2000-01: Champions
2001-02: Third
2002-03: Champions

The Worthington Cup win at Burnley and the 2-0 defeat of Arsenal proved that United were indeed back on track.

The appetite was back and United were hungrier than ever to satisfy the craving of their manager.

Ferguson kept telling his players they were good enough to win the Premiership, that Arsenal had overdone talk about how good they were and that his team were still a force.

Arsenal looked certainties when they went eight points clear at the top on the day United lost the Worthington Cup final 2-0 to Liverpool.

United were fit and firing on all cylinders and embarked on a 17-match unbeaten run from Boxing Day to 3 May, which saw the Reds erode Arsenal's seemingly impregnable lead and then overtake their title rivals.

Ruud van Nistelrooy's phenomenal 43 goals, including 12 in seven crucial matches during the run-in, helped seal United's championship prize.

Even the palaver surrounding David Beckham's rumoured transfer to Real Madrid failed to distract rampant United from finishing the job.

Ferguson's Old Trafford dynasty is now the greatest in English football history. They have equalled Liverpool's run of eight titles in 11 years between 1975-76 and 1985-86, taking the manager's trophy tally to 27 in the process.

The goal now for Ferguson will be to break that record next season, plus the small matter of out-gunning Madrid in the Champions League.

Ferguson will strengthen his squad this summer as he looks to raise the stakes even further next season in his relentless bid for more silverware.

While planning his team's next assault for honours, the Scot will retreat to his villa on the Cote D'Azur and sit down with a glass of best vintage red and reflect on a Premiership campaign which for his team matured to perfection.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Man Utd manager Alex Ferguson
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Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger
"We lost to a team who spend 50% more than we do"



MANCHESTER UNITED

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