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Retiring Sir Alex Ferguson leaves huge legacy at Manchester United

When Alex Ferguson took over at Old Trafford on Nov. 6, 1986, Manchester United was next-to-last in England's old first division and in need of a major shake-up.

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — When Alex Ferguson took over at Old Trafford on Nov. 6, 1986, Manchester United was next-to-last in England's old first division and in need of a major shake-up.

Ferguson's great ambition was to unseat local rival Liverpool as the country's top team and re-establish United as a force in Europe. It was a task many thought beyond him and the club.

Twenty-six seasons and 38 trophies later, Ferguson leaves as British football's most successful manager ever and with United as the world's second richest club, with an estimated worth of $3.17 billion.

What a journey it's been.

Jose Mourinho calls him "The Boss." United great Bobby Charlton regularly labels him a "genius." His impact has transcended sport — he is one of Britain's most famous personalities. To many, he's the greatest manager ever.

Who else could have harnessed the talents — and temperaments — of United greats David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Bryan Robson, Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo?

Who else could rule with such an iron fist, yet be such a good man-manager that even Beckham, after his acrimonious departure to Real Madrid in 2003, still sees him as a father figure?

And in an era of unprecedented numbers of managerial departures and coaching upheaval, who else could hang around — and flourish — so long at the top? And at the same club, too.

When Ferguson replaced the fired Ron Atkinson as United manager, the Champions League was still called the European Cup. The Premier League was called the First Division. Margaret Thatcher was British Prime Minister.

Few could have guessed how Ferguson would rip up the landscape, not just of British football but the game around the world. Old Trafford has changed too — a statue of the great man, arms crossed and with that determined look on his face, stands proudly outside the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand.

A son of a ship-builder from Govan in Scotland and a top player in his native country from 1957-74, Ferguson began his managerial career with East Stirlingshire in 1974, moved to St. Mirren later that year and was hired by Aberdeen in 1978.

Ferguson led Aberdeen to the 1980 Scottish league title, its first since 1955. United sat up and took notice when Ferguson's squad — tiny by European standards — beat Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on the way to capturing the 1983 European Cup Winners' Cup. He brought an end to the domination by Celtic and Rangers of Scottish football, a major feat in itself.

Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford — fresh from managing Scotland at the 1986 World Cup after the sudden death of Jock Stein — unhappy with the fitness levels of the club's players, some of whom were reportedly big drinkers. He got rid of several senior players and overhauled a youth system that would eventually produce all-time United greats such as Giggs, Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville.

United had not finished outside the top 10 since returning to the topflight in 1975, but failed to make it that high in three of Ferguson's first four seasons.

"We cleared the decks," he said. "There was no structure of winning anything. It was a baseless team in the sense there were no trophies to tell players about and nothing to defend."

How that would change.

The first trophy came in 1990 after an FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace. It bought Ferguson time to continue the rebuilding job. United beat Barcelona in the European Cup Winners' Cup final the following season, and then came the signing that would really spark United's surge into the big time.

The chairman of then-English champion Leeds called United to inquire about the availability of fullback Denis Irwin. Ferguson turned down the approach and instead made a speculative inquiry about Leeds' brooding French forward, Eric Cantona.

Cantona joined United, became a talismanic player and an instant fans' favorite and, in 1993, United won its first league title since 1967. The club hasn't gone longer than three years without lifting the trophy, most recently only two weeks ago. That was Ferguson's 13th Premier League title. He also won five FA Cups, four League Cups and lifted the Charity/Community Shield 10 times.

In between, Ferguson has won the Champions League twice, in 1999 and 2008, but that is a paltry total in his eyes. It may be his one true regret that United never dominated Europe the way it did England, and he has always said it should have won more continental titles.

No one will ever forget the way United sealed a historic treble in '99 by beating Bayern in the Champions League final with late goals by Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

What makes Ferguson stand out is his ability to keep reproducing winning teams. For him, there was never a "transitional period," a buzz phrase in modern-day football used by coaches who fail to achieve instant success.

Tactically, he was flexible and dropped big-name players if he felt the situation demanded it. Wayne Rooney didn't start in the decisive second leg of United's Champions League match against Real Madrid in March. It was the right call, even though United lost the game.

Beckham, Van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane have all learned the lesson the hard way — don't cross Ferguson or you will be out the door.

British football is unlikely to see another manager like Ferguson again.