Peterborough United have undergone a rapid transformation in three seasons
By Peter Swan
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
Peterborough United in the Championship - just three seasons ago such an achievement was nothing more than a pipe dream for even the most optimistic of Posh fans.
But, with a heady combination of cash and determination, property construction tycoon Darragh Macanthony has changed the football landscape in north Cambridgeshire beyond recognition.
Back in 2006, the club had reached a low ebb when they found fame for featuring in Ron Atkinson's celebrated behind-the-scenes documentary 'Big Ron Manager'.
In an attempt to raise much needed funds, owner Barry Fry opened up the dressing room to Big Ron and his cameras. But the resulting programme was far from the best advert for life at London Road.
Highlights included caretaker boss Steve Bleasdale resigning live on camera just moments before a match and players fighting in the dressing room.
Ironically, however, despite these irregular goings-on, 'Big Ron Manager' had one positive spin-off, proving to be a major catalyst for the Macanthony revolution.
The majority of this team could definitely cope with the Championship
Posh boss Darren Ferguson
"My father rang me and told me to switch on Sky," he recalls. "'Big Ron Manager' was on and we were in stitches about what was going on.
"There were people falling over themselves, rowing and fighting, but what I liked about it was the passion of the club and the fact that Barry Fry is a well-known character in football."
Fry had spent almost a decade as manager of Posh before moving into a director of football role at the start of the 2005/06 season.
In 2003, he took full ownership of the club but, three years later, with money running low, he was actively looking to sell.
Macanthony proved to be the perfect buyer, and, on 18 September 2006, the 30-year-old Irish multi-millionaire was introduced to the media as the new owner of Peterborough United.
"There is potential at this club and in this city, and I fell in love with the place as soon as I got here," Macanthony told the assembled press.
"I have no ulterior motives. I expect to lose money, but I am willing to do that to take the club where I want to go which is the Premiership. That's the ultimate goal, and why shouldn't we all dream?"
Darragh Macanthony has invested millions of his own money into Posh
Whilst legal procedures meant ownership of the Posh would not fully change hands for another year, the Macanthony revolution quickly gained pace with the appointment of Darren Ferguson - son of the legendary Sir Alex - as the club's new manager.
After showing the door to previous boss Keith Alexander, Macanthony met with a number of candidates, but it was Ferguson who made the best impression.
"It was a brilliant interview," said Macanthony. "We were very impressed with him. He was the most enthusiastic person we interviewed and his ideas and his vision were a blueprint for what we want."
Ferguson, 34, arrived with no management experience. But he succeeded in selling Macanthony a football philosophy based on acquiring the best up-and-coming young talent.
This vision became the cornerstone of Peterborough's success over the next two seasons, unproven youngsters representing the bulk of the new signings.
Ferguson arrived at London Road at the end of the January transfer window, eventually leading Posh to a 10th-place finish in League Two.
The first few months in charge were hardly an unqualified success in terms of results, but progress was made in the transfer market.
January saw the arrival of three players who would become synonymous with Peterborough United, non-league hot-shots Aaron Mclean, George Boyd and Craig Mackail-Smith.
Boyd's £260,000 transfer from Stevenage was a non-league record, while Mclean and Mackail-Smith also commanded six-figure fees.
At the time, such a financial outlay appeared a bit of a gamble. But, over the following two seasons, all three players flourished in a Posh side built around their athleticism, dynamism and flair.
Mclean, Boyd and Mackail-Smith have become the backbone of Ferguson's Peterborough United vision, scoring more than a century of goals between them in two-and-a-half seasons.
Ferguson rates all three highly, but always seems to reserve special praise for Boyd - the most maverick of the trio.
"People say he is short of a yard of pace, and that may be the case," he said recently. "But I don't think that would stop him being a success at the highest level because he has all of the other attributes required.
"If I was a Premier League manager, I would not hesitate in buying him."
Given the money spent, Macanthony had no hesitation in making the League Two title his target for Ferguson's first full season in charge.
Posh were in the mix for promotion from day one, but failed to really hit their stride until the second half of the season, eventually finishing second to Milton Keynes.
Over the summer of 2008, the club faced a different sort of challenge when larger clubs started to show an interest in their young talent.
Wolverhampton Wanderers succeeded in encouraging Mclean to hand in a transfer request. But Macanthony made his intentions clear by slapping a £5m price tag on the former Grays man.
"Aaron Mclean will score a lot of goals next season and taking a couple of million pounds from a Championship club would be the worst bit of business I have ever done," said Macanthony. "Thirty-goals-per-season strikers do not grow on trees.
Darren Ferguson has led Posh from League Two to the Championship
"I will not be bullied by other clubs and the games they play through agents or the media into selling my best players when it does not suit the football club."
Whereas many clubs would have folded and let the player have his way, Macanthony put his foot down and Mclean stayed.
As a result of this single-mindedness, Ferguson has been able to concentrate on moulding his Posh jigsaw without the worry of suddenly losing any of the important pieces.
The League One promotion campaign followed a similar pattern to that from the year before, with excellent form in the final third of the season making the difference.
Posh enter the Championship having won 54 and lost 19 league matches over the past two seasons.
If there has been an Achilles heel, it has been in defence, where injuries and a general lack of depth have proved problematic.
The League Two promotion push was coming off the rails before Craig Morgan and Chris Westwood managed an injury-free run at centre back, whilst poor defending has characterised many of this season's worst moments in League One.
The inconsistency of youth means that Ferguson's policy of signing young, hungry players appears to have been most highly exposed in defence.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with goalkeeper Joe Lewis, who, despite being an England Under-21 regular, has made a number of high-profile errors over his 18 months at the club.
There is potential at this club and in this city and I fell in love with the place as soon as I got here
Posh owner Darragh Macanthony
Lewis became Posh's record signing when he moved from Norwich in January 2008 for a fee of around £400,000.
The 21-year-old replaced club legend Mark Tyler between the sticks and, as a result, has found it harder to win over the London Road faithful than some of Ferguson's other big-money signings.
Posh suffered arguably their worst defeat this season with a 3-1 reverse at home to Yeovil, a game in which Lewis ended any hopes of a comeback by fumbling a weak shot into his own net.
The result left many fans calling for Tyler to return to first-team action, but, as ever, Ferguson stood by his man.
"Don't get me wrong," he said after the game, "he can't keep costing us, but I'm confident he'll get through it.
"You can see the confidence is draining out of him, but he's got to play through it."
Whilst Lewis may drop the odd clanger, to date he has always been able to rely on the backing of both manager and chairman.
Indeed, one of the many strengths of the Posh management structure over the past two seasons has been the unity of purpose shared by Ferguson and Macanthony.
Aaron Mclean has scored 49 goals in 90 appearances for Peterborough
Fry has occasionally alluded to disagreements taking place behind the scenes, but, ultimately, the bond between Macanthony and his manager has proved more than solid, and they always seem to achieve a united front.
With two promotions, an ever-increasing fan base and a squad packed full of valuable assets, the past two seasons have been an unqualified success for Darragh, Darren and Posh.
The people of Peterborough have embraced the rebirth of their football club with a fervour and enthusiasm matched only by Macanthony himself.
Inevitably, every new success brings new challenges, and the step up to the Championship is without doubt a significant one.
It will be interesting to see if Posh choose to adapt their 'young and hungry' philosophy in order to meet the rigours of the second tier, but Ferguson appears to have faith in his lower-league stars.
"The majority of this team could definitely cope with the Championship," he said.
"You get a lot of good players out of non-league football. You have people who want to prove a point."
True to form, Macanthony has already predicted a top-10 finish next year at the very least.
Given the past two seasons, there will be very few people - in Peterborough at least - willing to bet against him.
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