Manager for all seasons: On 6 November 1986 a new broom arrived at Old Trafford. He's still sweeping

Greatest tribute is that Sir Alex's latest side are improving in style
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The Independent Online

Rupert Murdoch, asked once how he would have run Manchester United had BSkyB's proposed takeover in 1998 succeeded, replied: "You would have left Alex Ferguson there and prayed he lived forever."

Whatever else he may be, Sir Alex, 65 on New Year's Eve, is not immortal, and at times in the three years since United's last League championship there has been an air of fallibility about him not seen since the early days of struggle after replacing Ron Atkinson at Old Trafford. But as one of the indisputably great football managers, it is fitting that he should celebrate his 20th anniversary at the club a week tomorrow in a position of some strength once more.

Unused to fighting for scraps like the Carling Cup, tossed from Jose Mourinho's celebration banquet, Ferguson's team have suggested this season that they might stay in the running rather longer for the game's more significant prizes. Furthermore, they will do so in the expansive attacking style demanded of them not just by supporters and critics but by the club's history and traditions.

The manager, for all that he has learnt in adversity and then success over the past two decades, will also pursue additions to the 17 trophies secured in that time with unwavering belief in qualities first imbued in him much earlier on. From boyhood in the Govan shipbuilding community on the banks of the Clyde, through union membership as a toolmaker, came a faith in the collective that has served him well as a football manager: "Decision-making is not done for me, and not done for you, it's done for the club."

The club, and loyalty to it, are everything; "loyalty has been the anchor of my life" he wrote in the final sentence of his outstanding autobiography. That can mean circling the wagons when any hint of criticism or unfairness is detected from the media, the football authorities, long-standing rivals such as Arsène Wenger, opponents or referees.

It has sometimes led to unnecessarily furious counterattack. Yet those within the appropriately named United community love him for it, even if they may themselves have felt the verbal hairdryer uncomfortably close to their scalp.

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says after 10 years of working with him: "If he can see you're not giving 100 per cent, he'll let you know. But he never rips into you if he can see you trying your best. He's always been a winner. And a great man-manager, with small comments that lift you so much."

Lifting his new players when he first walked into the Cliff training ground on Thursday 6 November 1986 may have been in Ferguson's mind - they were, after all, bottom but one in the table - but he soon found that a greater priority was to bring a few of them down to earth and into closer touch with reality.

He had already been tipped off by a former accomplice at Aberdeen, Gordon Strachan, that training was "a shambles" and heavy drinking was rife. "It wasn't as if they were out on Friday nights," Atkinson has claimed. Which just left the other six days. Another of the squad admitted that awaiting Ferguson's inquest after his reign had begun with a 2-0 defeat by Oxford United felt like "errant schoolboys about to be whipped into shape". That process would take more than three long years.

The 1989-90 season proved the turning point. Much has been made of Ferguson's job being on the line at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round, but what might the board's reaction have been if Oldham Athletic had prevailed, as they deserved to, in either of the classic semi-final meetings? The directors stood by their man and were rewarded with the first of those 17 trophies.

Thus ended the first of Ferguson's three phases. The second, from 1990 to 2003, will go down as one of the most successful of any club manager, bringing a haul of eight League championships, four FA Cups and, in 1999, a first European Cup since 1968. He could see an end in sight, and contentedly set a retirement date in January 2001 for 16 months later, which proved a mistake for himself and the club.

In February 2002 he signed a new contract, but in his final phase, since Roman Abramovich established Chelsea as a force, he has been limited to one more League title and a couple of cups, while becoming caught up in all manner of controversies: David Beckham's celebrity and departure; his son Jason's role as an agent; Rio Ferdinand's drugs test; falling out over a racehorse; having to welcome the Glazer take-over; and the departures of Roy Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Players, of course, come and go at any club. Viv Anderson at £250,000, Brian McClair from Celtic and Steve Bruce were Ferguson's first purchases, which was not a bad start. Paying £1.2m for Eric Cantona "on a hunch", obtaining Peter Schmeichel at half that and stealing Keane from under the nose of a livid Kenny Dalglish also constituted deals any club would have envied.

As with any manager, there were less successful purchases. Ralph Milne, bought on memories of long-gone Dundee United days, cost only £170,000. The goalkeeper Massimo Taibi at £4.5m from Venezia was a more serious mistake, like Juan Seb-astian Veron at £28m, who prompted one of Ferguson's most famous rants, at journalists questioning the Argentinian's abilities: "Youse are all fucking idiots".

Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson also underlined the difficulties in importing lesser- known foreigners, and competing against Chelsea for players like Michael Ballack has proved unrewarding. Then there were those who got away: John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne, for instance.

Trophies have inevitably escaped too. A fierce regret, which could yet be rectified, is to have become European champions only once: "Some years we were unlucky, some years we've thrown it away, some years we weren't good enough. The bottom line is we should have had one more European Cup at least, and hopefully we can do that before I ride into the sunset."

When that will be, no one dare ask. But 20 years in the same saddle is quite a stint, and the tributes will rightly continue over the next week. It is debatable which will please him most, those from his peers or his players.

For an admiring Rafa Benitez, well beaten at Old Trafford last weekend: "The only thing you need to analyse is the amount of titles he's won and the time he has spent in the job." Paul Ince has become the latest old boy to follow him into management, just down the road at Macclesfield but a million miles away in football distance. "You've got to have high standards," Ince said on the day of his appointment. "Alex Ferguson always taught me that." A phone call from the self-styled Guv'nor to his former gaffer would reveal that the job does not get any easier, whether from United's vantage point or Macclesfield's.

As an influential member of the Football Managers' Association committee, Ferguson would wish more directors to show the sort of patience he benefited from with such spectacular results. "Are you talking about here?" he asked when the topic of managers under pressure was raised on Friday. But there was a broad smile on his face.