What if Alex Ferguson had retired in 2001, and Sven-Göran Eriksson had replaced him at Old Trafford?

Sir Alex Ferguson rang Maurice Watkins. He had changed his mind, the Manchester United manager reported. Or rather it had been changed for him. The Ferguson family, corralled by Cathy, his wife, had informed him he was not retiring at the end of the 2001-02 season. He was only about to turn 60, anyway, and his friend Bobby Robson was almost a decade older and still going strong. So could he have a new contract? Three years would take him up to 2005. It would allow him to build a new team.

It was then the conversation turned awkward. Watkins said he and the United board had needed to plan for the future. They had thought a man as decisive as Ferguson would not perform a U-turn. They had identified their preferred candidate, approached him and agreed a deal. Only a select few knew because they were aware there would be a storm when it was revealed United had poached England’s popular manager in a World Cup year, but Sven-Goran Eriksson would succeed Ferguson at Old Trafford.

For once, Ferguson was speechless, defeated by himself and a foe he did not understand. Eriksson, with his bland facade, seemed to lack his iron will but had outmanoeuvred him. Ferguson was further annoyed when the storm broke and some of his least favourite journalists and pundits suggested United had got an upgrade in Eriksson, who had ended the northern giants’ domination of Serie A to make Lazio champions and then had orchestrated historic England’s 5-1 thrashing of Germany. He turned his attention to his final few months at Old Trafford but there was no happy ending. December defeats cost United and they could not catch Arsenal in the Premier League. They came behind Liverpool, leading Gerard Houllier to claim United had been knocked off their perch as cocks of the north. There would be no Champions League final at Hampden Park, the ground Ferguson called home in his days as a Queen’s Park centre forward: Bayer Leverkusen knocked United out in the semi-final; Ferguson’s critics attributed it to his decision to sell Jaap Stam the previous year, interpreting it as a sign of decline.

His mood was not improved as he stewed in Wilmslow during Eriksson’s extended honeymoon period. The Swede had been hounded out of the England job but his reputation was then enhanced when his replacement Steve McClaren was outwitted by Argentina’s Marcelo Bielsa during a wretched group-stage exit from the World Cup and burnished as United reclaimed the Premier League title in 2002-03. Eriksson repeated his England formula and appointed David Beckham captain, leading to record revenues for United’s commercial department as the sponsorship deals flowed in. Beckham had never been more prolific and Juan Sebastian Veron produced his Lazio form for United, leading to further unflattering comparisons with Ferguson. Pele declared Nicky Butt was the best player in the Champions League after watching him combine wonderfully well with Paul Scholes in a holding-midfield duo in Veron’s absence. But when the Argentinian returned, Scholes was soon exiled to the left-wing. Eriksson, some said, could not find a way to resolve his Veron-Scholes conundrum. Eriksson had spent heavily on his Lazio loyalists, capitalising on the financial problems at his former club by bringing in Hernan Crespo, to partner Ruud van Nistelrooy in his preferred 4-4-2 formation, and Alessandro Nesta. The Italian defender’s arrival sent cash-strapped Leeds, who had hoped to sell Rio Ferdinand to another United for £30 million, on a path that led to administration.

The odd man out in Eriksson’s midfield was Roy Keane, who had propelled Ireland to a World Cup final he missed after collecting a self-sacrificial caution in the semi-final. But his mood took a turn for the worse after losing the captaincy. He clashed with Eriksson’s explosive assistant, Roberto Mancini, and struggled to hide his disdain for the Swede. “You can stick your Abba up your bollocks,” he told a bemused Eriksson in one row. “Fucking Dancing Queen.” Keane was dropped for the Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid, came on and scored twice, goals he pointedly did not celebrate, but United went out in a thriller that persuaded a watching Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, to buy a club. He swooped for Chelsea.

Ferguson, who had cabin fever at home, was quick to put feelers out. Abramovich was swift to sack Claudio Ranieri and appoint a serial winner. Ferguson had one aim: to take down Eriksson and United. He started off by outbidding his old club for some young players he had identified before retiring, in Damien Duff, Arjen Robben, Petr Čech, Joe Cole and Glen Johnson. He tried to raid United, making a series of bids the men he deemed his disciples: Keane, Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Ole Gunnar Solskjar, who had been dropped for Crespo. Eriksson was happy to take the opportunity to offload the outspoken Keane, exploiting Lazio’s lack of money by replacing him with Diego Simeone. The notion that United could prosper when one of their star players had got another sent off in a World Cup struck many as anathema. Eriksson wondered what all the fuss was about.

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger picked up a young Portuguese prodigy who had been on his radar. He loaned Cristiano Ronaldo back to Sporting Lisbon for a year and scarcely needed him as Arsenal went through the season unbeaten while  Chelsea and United continued their footballing arms war by staging a bidding war for the 17-year-old Wayne Rooney. Ferguson won. Wenger accused both of “financial doping” which Eriksson shrugged off. Ferguson took particular delight when his Chelsea knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League but the cracks in Eriksson’s United started to show when they were eliminated by Porto: “first half good, second half not so good,” said the Swede, but that had started to feel a theme. His reliance on 4-4-2 left United outnumbered in the middle of midfield, his side felt more of a star vehicle than a genuine team and selling Solskjaer to Ferguson deprived him of a super-sub; Eriksson had instead pursued an expensive reunion with Christian Vieri which few thought had worked. Meanwhile, that unheralded Porto side proceeded to win the Champions League and Liverpool, looking for a successor to Houllier, hired a boyhood Liverpool fan: Jose Mourinho.

It is of course all fictional. And yet the pertinent element is how much of what happened between Christmas 2001 and the summer of 2004 set the direction of the Premier League for the next decade, if not longer. Most obviously, Ferguson remained at Old Trafford for a further 11 years, winning six more Premier Leagues, reaching a further three Champions League finals and lifting his second European Cup in 2013. He defied predictions of his decline. In his own way, he outlasted everyone: even Wenger, in the sense that his last league title, in 2013, came nine years after the Frenchman’s. It was Ferguson who emerged as the major rival to Abramovich’s Chelsea; as his family suggested, he could build another great team, and indeed began to do so soon after reversing his decision to retire. A four-year wave of significant signings began: Ferdinand, Ronaldo, Rooney, Ji-sung Park, Edwin van der Sar, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidić and Michael Carrick were all to start the 2009 Champions League final.

Ronaldo was one of many on Wenger’s radar who eluded him; perhaps, otherwise, the Portuguese could have formed a very different successor to Dennis Bergkamp or Robert Pires. It is certainly possible to bracket Ronaldo and Thierry Henry as the two best ever Premier League players. Had Arsenal secured both, they surely would not have gone nine years without a trophy. They probably would have won the Champions League. They might now be seen as English football’s real superpower; maybe Wenger would even have Ferguson’s status as arguably its best-ever manager.

Without Ferguson’s last 11 years, he may rank behind Sir Matt Busby, the builder of three great teams, at Old Trafford. Without the post-2002 Ferguson, too, would Scholes and Giggs have retired as one-club men, even if they came closest to leaving in the time after the Scot rescinded his retirement? It feels implausible to suggest that, without Ferguson’s influence or his time as his reserve-team manager, Solskjaer would be in charge today or, indeed, that his recommendation David Moyes would ever have been given the United job.

It may strike some as fanciful to suggest Eriksson could, like Ferguson, have piloted United to the 2003 title. After all, it remains the case that only Ernest Mangnall, Busby and Ferguson have made United champions. Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have arrived with more silverware-studded CVs than the Swede and not even staged a proper title challenge. There is a temptation to date Eriksson’s decline from the 5-1 in Munich, or perhaps the 1-0 World Cup win over Bielsa’s Argentina, but he was at the peak of his powers when Ferguson contemplated standing down. Perhaps an Eriksson-Mancini double act would have been formidable and the Italian had gone from being the on-field manager to the Swede’s No.2 at Lazio.

Maybe Ferguson’s on-field legacy would have been better had he quit in 2002. By 2013, his aura and winning habit had compensated for other deficiencies and he bequeathed an ageing defence and a substandard midfield. In 2002, the Class of 92 were all in their prime; so were Van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer and Veron and it is tempting to wonder if Eriksson, either at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, could have turned the Argentinian he twice signed into a success in England. And yet, especially considering the 2006 World Cup, it is hard to escape the sense that United’s descent into celebrity culture would have come sooner had he replaced Ferguson. The Scot lacked the damaging big-name fixation United exhibited after his eventual retirement. Certainly, Beckham may not have decamped to Real Madrid in 2003, when Ferguson was far-sighted enough to make the young Ronaldo his replacement.

Ferguson was implacable in some respects, flexible in others. A tactical chameleon adapted to the era of Mourinho and to the changing demands of the Champions League: while Eriksson was stuck in his 4-4-2 straitjacket, Ferguson would usually field three in the centre of midfield against elite European opponents (and erred, as in the 2011 Champions League final, when he did not), and that shift accounted for United’s most consistent spell as a continental force in their history.

Most damagingly, Ferguson’s second coming brought the row with United investors John Magnier and JP McManus over Rock of Gibraltar. Without that, they might not have sold their shares to the Glazers and United would not have been loaded with debt and laboured with repayments. The more amenable Eriksson, who seemed to glide through life without amassing enemies or bothering with grudges, presumably wouldn’t have had any sort of fallout. The Swede sometimes stood his ground against Ferguson, but the animosity felt one-sided.

Perhaps anger drove Ferguson. Certainly relentlessness did and, as his family recognised, retiring at 60 would have been too early for a man of his incessant drive. It would have rendered him the preeminent candidate for any ambitious club once hints emerged he regretted his departure. That he succeeded at clubs as different as East Stirlingshire and Manchester United, over times as distant as 1974 and 2013, suggests his methods were sufficiently transferable and his personality so forceful that he could have flourished anywhere. And yet part of his strength stemmed from control; the most important person at United, he said proudly more than once, was the manager.

The last great dictator would not have been afforded the same authority elsewhere and an owner as impatient as Abramovich might not have stuck with him during United’s awful autumn of 2005, for instance. Ferguson can be called a genius, but it took time to bring trophies to both Aberdeen and United. It took time to develop a winning mentality. Once he did, United benefited for two decades but that seemingly permanent domination ended with his departure. Probably United would have fallen away sooner without him and without his extraordinary Indian summer; maybe, though, an early successor would have been better positioned to become the fourth United manager to win the league. Ferguson could have facilitated Eriksson’s triumph, though the younger man surely would not have sustained success into his seventies.

This article first appeared in Issue Three of The Squall, a monthly magazine we produced for six months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. You can read all six issues, for a recommended donation of £3 each, here.

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