“My greatest challenge is not what is happening right at this moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their [insert swear word] perch. And you can print that.”
So said Sir Alex Ferguson when questioned about his Manchester United future in 2002 and, in capturing a remarkable 12th Premier League trophy – the club’s 19th title overall – with a draw at Blackburn on Saturday, he did just that. Liverpool’s record has been overhauled.
The Merseysiders, stuck on 18 top-flight titles since their last in 1990, have only been able to watch as their fierce rivals have won title after title in just shy of two decades, and now it is United – not the Anfield club – who can lay claim to being the greatest team in English league history.
Few would argue that Sir Alex Ferguson, as a result, has also cemented his place among the greatest managers in the history of English football.
Here, BBC Sport looks at the 12 Premier League titles that have underlined United’s domination of the modern game.
No 1: 1992-93 – FERGIE’S FIRST
The dawn of the Premier League era in 1992 also brought with it the dawn of a new era for Man Utd – one of winning titles.
They say the first can be the hardest, but having waited 26 years for a top-flight triumph, it would have been difficult to envisage the unrivalled period of success upon which Manchester United were about to embark.
Not that the title triumph of 1992-93 was plain sailing.
Bruce (left) and Robson lift the trophy to end United’s 26-year title wait
After missing out on the summer signing of Alan Shearer (the striker eventually swapped Southampton for Blackburn in a then record £3.6m move), United lost Lee Sharpe for three months with viral meningtitis at the start of the season and then endured a seven-match winless streak which saw them slump down to 10th in the table in November.
Then came the arrival of Eric Cantona, the mercurial forward joining from Leeds for £1.2m and turning United’s season almost completely on its head.
With the Frenchman supporting Mark Hughes in attack and Brian McClair operating in midfield alongside Paul Ince, United clicked into gear, sweeping aside closest title challengers Aston Villa and Norwich with seven wins on the spin at the season’s end to win the league by 10 points.
The triumph was of particular reward for 36-year-old Bryan Robson, who ended that season as the longest serving member of United’s squad, with 12 campaigns under his belt.
He was effectively replaced in the summer by Roy Keane, however, with the Irishman arriving for £3.75m in July from Nottingham Forest and going on to prove himself the ideal replacement for United’s ‘Captain Marvel’.
The Key Men: Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Giggs, Ince, Sharpe, Cantona, Hughes, McClair, Blackmore, D Ferguson, Kanchelskis.
No 2: 1993-94 – RECORD BREAKERS
In contrast to the first, Fergie’s second Premier League title was entirely straightforward.
Taking the league lead after four games, United held on to top spot for the rest of the season, eventually winning the title by eight points from Blackburn Rovers with a record points haul of 92 from 42 games.
United celebrate their record-breaking title victory at Old Trafford
Cantona, with 25 goals in all competitions, was again United’s inspiration, but with Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe, Andrei Kanchelskis, Hughes and new signing Roy Keane also on top form, United’s opponents simply had no answer to Ferguson’s ‘front six’ – and a starting XI which is still considered one of the strongest of Ferguson’s reign.
United went on to secure the league and Cup double with a 4-0 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final, and were only denied the domestic treble because of a defeat by Aston Villa in the League Cup final.
Particularly pertinent now, the season would also be remembered for another reason: one Liverpool fan’s taunting banner reading: “Au revoir Cantona and Man United, come back when you’ve won 18” – a reference to the Merseysiders’ 18 league titles compared to United’s then total of eight.
How that would come back to haunt Liverpool fans.
The Key Men: Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Ince, Keane, Cantona, Giggs, Kanchelskis, Hughes, Robson, McClair.
No 3: 1995-96 – THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
“You can’t win anything with kids.” Or so said Alan Hansen on Match of the Day.
In what has become one of modern football’s most memorable quotes, the BBC pundit – and he was not alone in doing so – wrote off United’s hopes of the title when Sir Alex Ferguson completely reinvented his side, having ended the 1994-95 season a point behind league winners Blackburn.
Fergie’s ‘new breed’ came through in impressive fashion in 1995-96
Out went Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis, through the ranks and into the first XI came David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers.
Cantona’s welcome return from a nine-month suspension for his infamous karate kick on a Crystal Palace fan in October was key, the Frenchman proving a talisman as he top scored with 19 goals.
The season also witnessed one of the game’s finest ever rants – Kevin Keegan’s infamous “I would love it if we beat them” speech.
As it turned out, Keegan’s Newcastle side fell four points short of United, who went on to become the first English club to win the League and FA Cup double twice.
The Key Men: Schmeichel, G Neville, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin, Giggs, Butt, Keane, Beckham, Cantona, Cole, Scholes, P Neville, Sharpe,
No 4: 1996-97 – CANTONA’S PERFECT SEND-OFF
This was the season of a tale of two strikers: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Eric Cantona.
Solskjaer proved to be the breakthrough player of the campaign. Arriving for the bargain price of £1.5m from Molde, the Norwegian scored 19 goals in his debut season to fire United to their 11th league title.
Cantona (left), who would retire in the summer, and Man Utd’s young guns pose with the Premier League trophy
Ronny Johnsen also made a name for himself as an able successor to the retired Bruce, while Beckham was rewarded for a stunning season – in which he famously scored from the halfway line on the opening day – with a first England cap.
United eventually won the league by seven points from Newcastle and Arsenal, also reaching the European Cup semi-finals (losing to eventual winners Borussia Dortmund).
Then came the shock news of the season – Cantona, aged just 31, decided to retire from the game.
A true Old Trafford icon and arguably the catalyst for their modern-era success, ‘King Eric’s’ departure left a huge void at the club – one that was filled later that summer by Teddy Sheringham from Tottenham.
A trophy-less season followed for United, but they – and Sheringham – would not have to wait long for their return to the big time.
The Key Men: Schmeichel, G Neville, May, Johnsen, Irwin, Keane, Butt, Beckham, Giggs, Cantona, Solskjaer, Cole, Poborsky, Scholes, P Neville, Jordi Cruyff.
No 5: 1998-99 – THE TREBLE
Quite simply, the greatest season in Manchester United’s history.
Man Utd’s title victory in 1999 was among their closest and most thrilling
Led from the front by the formidable pairing of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, driven in midfield by the likes of Keane, Ryan Giggs and Beckham – who would be voted second in the European Footballer of the Year award at the season’s end – and built on the bedrock of a back five that included Jaap Stam, Gary Neville and Peter Schmeichel, United swept all before them.
Their league triumph was thrilling – pipping Arsenal by a single point with victory over Tottenham on the final day of the season, their FA Cup triumph – a 2-0 win over Newcastle – one-sided, and their Champions League final defeat of Bayern Munich simply stunning, with goals from Sheringham and Solskjaer in injury time putting the final sensational seal on the first and only treble won by an English club.
Upon reflection, not a bad way for Schmeichel – arguably the world’s finest goalkeeper in the 1990s – to bow out after eight years and 292 appearances.
The Key Men: Schmeichel, G Neville, Stam, Johnsen, Irwin, Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Yorke, Cole, Butt, Blomqvist, Sheringham, Solskjaer, P Neville.
No 6: 1999-2000 – DOMINATION
How to follow a treble? With a second successive league title, won by a record margin (18 points) and a then record goals haul of 97.
United won with a record winning margin and three goals shy of 100
Despite Mark Bosnich’s failure to live up to the hype as Schmeichel’s successor, despite the abject failure that was the signing of another keeper, Massimo Taibi, and despite the season-long absences through injury of Jesper Blomqvist, Wes Brown, David May and Ronny Johnsen, United strolled to the title.
Yorke and Cole were again pivotal, sharing 46 goals in all competitions, while captain Keane chipped in with his best return of 12 in a season.
The Key Men: Bosnich, G Neville, Stam, Silvestre, Irwin, Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Yorke, Cole, P Neville, Butt, Sheringham, Solskjaer, Berg.
No 7: 2000-01 – THE HAT-TRICK
Another procession for United in the league and a third successive title.
Man Utd’s class of 2001 became only the fourth club to seal a title hat-trick
A 6-1 defeat of Arsenal all but wrapped the title up for Man Utd in February, placing them alongside Huddersfield in the 1920s, Arsenal in the 1930s and Liverpool in the 1980s as the only clubs to win three titles back-to-back.
New keeper Fabian Barthez was an instant success, while Sheringham enjoyed his best season in a Man Utd shirt with 21 goals.
It was to be Sheringham’s last at Old Trafford as he returned to Tottenham in the summer following the arrival of Ruud van Nistelrooy from PSV Eindhoven for a fee of £19m.
The Key Men: Barthez, G Neville, Brown, Silvestre, P Neville, Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs, Sheringham, Solkskjaer, Cole, Yorke, Butt, Irwin.
No 8: 2002-03 – BACK FROM THE DEAD
Despite a superb debut season from Van Nistelrooy the previous year, in which the Dutchman scored 23 league goals including a streak where he was on target in eight consecutive games, United ended the 2001-02 campaign empty handed.
Ferguson, who would sign a new contract in the winter, responded with the then record signing of Rio Ferdinand for £29.1m from Leeds.
Man Utd produced a stunning run of form to overhaul Arsenal in 2003
Still United had to win the title the hard way, going unbeaten after Boxing Day – winning all but three of their remaining matches – to come back from eight points behind Arsenal at Christmas to take the league by five points.
Van Nistelrooy, with 44 goals, was again key, while Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and Solskjaer also hit double figures.
Arsenal would go on to regain the title the following season with their unbeaten ‘Invicibles’ team – but only after Beckham departed for Real Madrid in the summer of 2003.
The Key Men: Barthez, Brown, Ferdinand, O’Shea, Silvestre, Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Van Nistelrooy, Solskjaer, Veron, Blanc, Butt, G Neville, P Neville, Keane, Brown, Forlan.
No 9: 2006-07 – ANOTHER NEW ERA
Having gone three seasons without a league title, once again the time had come for Ferguson to reinvent his Manchester United side.
Despite their infamous clash at the 2006 World Cup, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo clicked perfectly to lead a United team now built around the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick back to the title.
United’s latest incarnation brought the Glazers their first title as owners
Rooney and Ronaldo shared 46 goals in all competitions, while eight United players were named in the Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year.
Up against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, themselves bidding for a hat-trick of league triumphs, United wrapped up the title in early May, eventually beating the Blues into second by six points.
The title also represented Giggs’s ninth, taking him one clear of the individual record previously held by Liverpool’s Hansen and Phil Neal.
The title was the first under the reign of the Glazer family, United’s new American owners.
The Key Men: Van der Sar, G Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Ronaldo, Rooney, Heinze, Brown, Saha, Solskjaer, O’Shea.
No 10: 2007-08 – THE CHELSEA RIVALRY
With Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich losing patience with Mourinho after one season as runners up in the league – a new managerial rivalry for the 2007-08 season dawned; Sir Alex Ferguson v Avram Grant.
Cristiano Ronaldo inspired United to the league and European Cup double
United gathered pace after a slow start and they, Chelsea and Arsenal went head-to-head throughout the season.
A return of 31 league goals (42 overall) from Cristiano Ronaldo drove United’s domestic campaign, with Wayne Rooney (18) and Carlos Tevez (19) providing crucial support, as Sir Alex’s boys won the title by two points from the Blues with victory on the last day of the campaign.
Fittingly, in a season marking the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash, United also went on to secure the Champions League and, just as in the league, it was at Chelsea’s expense, John Terry squandering the chance to seal European glory for the Blues in a penalty shootout in Moscow. Nicolas Anelka’s miss handed the trophy to United.
The Key Men: Van der Sar, Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Nani, Ronaldo, Rooney, Hargreaves, Anderson, O’Shea, Fletcher, Park Ji-sung.
No 11: 2008-09 – ANOTHER HAT-TRICK
And so it was that United entered the 2008-09 season bidding to match Liverpool’s record haul of 18 league titles – 15 years after the public goading that was that now infamous Liverpool banner (see 1993-94 season).
Ironically, led by Rafael Benitez, it was Liverpool themselves that ran United closest in their bid for an 11th Premier League title.
Another hat-trick and a record-equalling 18th title
However, despite losing only two games all season, beating their arch rivals 4-1 at Old Trafford, and winning 11 and drawing one of their last 12 matches, Liverpool fell short of United by four points.
Dimitar Berbatov’s arrival from Tottenham in a £30.75m deal yielded a return of 14 goals – the ideal foil for Cristiano Ronaldo (26 goals), Wayne Rooney (20 goals) and Carlos Tevez (15).
But much of United’s success was built on their defensive foundation, inspired by Van der Sar, who went an incredible 14 games without conceding a goal.
A hat-trick of titles – the first team ever to win three consecutive English top-flight crowns on two separate occasions – was secured, as was the equalling of Liverpool’s record.
Not even the summer sale of Ronaldo – admittedly, for the unbelievable figure of £80m – could take the gloss off another momentous season.
The Key Men: Van der Sar, G Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Ronaldo, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney, Anderson, Park, Scholes, O’Shea, Evans, Rafael, Nani.
No 12: 2010-11 – THE HISTORY MAKER
In the season that Ferguson officially became Man Utd’s longest-serving manager ever: history.
• 733 matches
• 132 players used
• 471 wins
• 158 draws
• 104 defeats
• 1448 goals scored
• 625 goals conceded
• 1571 points won
• Top Scorers: Giggs (105), Scholes (102), Rooney (102)
• Most Appearances: Giggs (573), Scholes (465), G Neville (400)
Whether you believe this season’s Man Utd side fails to hold a candle to the best in history or if you doff your cap at their success in arguably one of the most competitive campaigns in recent history, one thing cannot be disputed: Fergie did it again.
There’s little doubt that United had to do things the hard way at times, grinding out results when nowhere near their best.
But proof, if proof were needed, of this United side’s durability was epitomised by their club record league unbeaten run of 29 matches, up to 1 February 2011.
And despite a 1-0 defeat by Arsenal at the start of May that appeared to open the door on the title race once more, a 2-1 win over title challengers Chelsea the following week all but sealed yet another league success.
Twelve Premier League titles in 19 seasons – and with Ferguson showing few signs of stopping just yet, who is to say it will stop there?
The Key Men: Van der Sar, Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Nani, Carrick, Giggs, Berbatov, Rooney, Hernandez, Anderson, Park, Scholes, Smalling, O’Shea, Fletcher.