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Ferguson....21 pivotal decisions...

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Ferguson: 21 pivotal decisions

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SIR Alex Ferguson celebrates 21 years at Old Trafford today - a period of unprecedented success for Manchester United.

James Robson counts down the 21 most pivotal decisions he's made during his time at the helm of the biggest club in the world.

21) Opting against Zidane -
Ferguson monitored Zinedine Zidane when he was a little-known playmaker at French side Bordeaux. Despite being a big admirer of Zizou, he had nagging doubts about how to squeeze both him and Eric Cantona into the same side. Zidane went on to sign for Juventus and become the finest player in the world, while Cantona went on to announce his retirement a year later.

20) Withdrawing from the FA Cup -
When United opted to take part in the inaugural World Club Championships instead of defending the FA Cup they won in 1999, it was heralded as the death of football's oldest cup competition. Ferguson, meanwhile, thought he was blazing a similar trail on the world stage as Matt Busby had done in Europe 40 years prior.

Ultimately neither prediction proved true.

19) Selling Van Nistelrooy -
Described by Ferguson as United's greatest striker since Denis Law, Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in 217 appearances. But that counted for nothing when the Dutchman was deemed to have an unsettling influence in the dressing room. Like so many before him, he was ruthlessly cast aside after five magnificent seasons. His departure, though, spurred United on to their first title in four years as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney came out of Nistelrooy's shadow.

18) Keeping Bryan Robson -
When Ferguson headed to Old Trafford in 1986 he came into a club with an established drinking culture that he could not abide. As such, he dumped fans' favourites like Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath - but turned a blind eye to Robson's antics, claiming it didn't affect the United captain's performance levels.

Robson continued to serve the club with distinction, stewarding them through Ferguson's early years before eventually being rewarded with his first title in 1993.

17) Rock of Gibraltar -
At first his relationship with John Magnier looked like a match made in heaven. Not only was he the finest manager on the planet, but he was also part owner of the finest horse in Rock of Gibraltar. But it all turned sour when the issue of stud rights came up, with the argument escalating to the boardroom and at one point seemingly threatening Ferguson's very position at the club. The two parties eventually came to a settlement, and Fergie's interest in horse racing has been distinctly lower profile ever since.

16) Appointing Steve McClaren - He might be far from convincing as England manager - but McClaren was fabulously successful as Fergie's No2 at Old Trafford. Recruited when Brian Kidd left to take charge of Blackburn in 1998, McClaren's first season saw United complete the treble. He went on to help them to two more titles in successive years before heading for Middlesbrough in 2001. The following season United failed to win the Premier League for the first time in three years.

15) Selling Stam - Whether it was his autobiography, injury record, form or the £16m Lazio were willing to pay for him, Stam's departure was a costly one for United. Not least because he was replaced with an immobile and ineffective Laurent Blanc. Without their rock at the back, United relinquished the title after three successive wins - finishing the 2001-2 season in third place and behind Liverpool for the only time since the Premier League began.

14) Eric Harrison - Fergie put his faith in Eric Harrison when deciding that a proper youth structure was the key to success.

As youth team coach Harrison played a pivotal role in the development of all Fergie's fledglings. From Giggs to Darren Fletcher and everyone in between, Harrison nurtured them through the early days.

13) Burying the hatchet with Schmeichel - The Great Dane looked to be on his way out of United in 1995 despite four outstanding years at the club. Ferguson had blamed Schmeichel's kicking for United's failure to hold on to a 3-0 lead at Anfield, prompting a furious bust-up. The keeper was all set to leave when the manager overheard him apologising to his team-mates, and decided to forget the incident. Schmeichel went on to win four more titles with United and captained their 1999 Champions' League victory in his final appearance for the club.

12) Standing by Cantona - The Frenchman's kung fu kick on a fan at Selhurst Park in 1995 led to furious calls for his departure. Ferguson, though, had other plans - going to great lengths to convince Cantona that he still had a future at Old Trafford. How right he was as Cantona came back to captain United's next generation to the double and back-to-back titles.

11) Keane fallout - Of all the players Ferguson has had to let go, the acrimonious departure of Keane was probably the most painful. After publicly slating his team-mates on MUTV, the fiery Irishman was given his marching orders. In truth he had been below his best for some time and his exit forced Ferguson to embrace the future - splashing out £18m on Michael Carrick.

10) Selling Beckham -
No sooner than a flying boot struck the head of the then England captain, his departure from Old Trafford was inevitable.

Ronaldo's arrival cushioned the loss of the midfielder - but his absence still had a profound impact on United, who would take four years to win another Premier League title.

9) Signing Ryan Giggs - Giggs was connected with Manchester City when Fergie turned up on his doorstep with YTS forms for United. His*high hopes for the Welshman led him to watch his youth games as a teenager, before heading off to prepare for first team matches later that day. Arguably the club's greatest ever servant - Giggs has been a pivotal part of each of the nine titles won under Ferguson.

8) Announcing retirement - When Ferguson revealed he was set to retire at the end of the 2001-2 season it was largely blamed for a rather limp defence of the title they'd dominated for the previous three seasons - with a number of players deemed to have coasted as they awaited his replacement.

7) Scrapping retirement plans -
With Sven Goran Eriksson reputedly set to be announced as his successor, Ferguson shelved plans to step aside, instead promising to build a third great team at United. His decision was soon vindicated as he went on to win his eighth title at Old Trafford the next season.

6) Bringing through the kids -
Fresh from missing out on the title to Blackburn and FA Cup to Everton in 95, Ferguson called time on his first great United side - selling off Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes. In came youth academy graduates Beckham, Butt, Scholes and the Nevilles, prompting BBC television pundit, Alan Hansen, to assert: "You never win anything with kids." How wrong he was as United went on to win the double and those same kids proved the nucleus of the 1999 treble-winning side and beyond.

5) Selecting Robins -
The FA Cup third round clash with Nottingham Forest 1990 looked every bit a must-win for Ferguson. With the national press already writing his obituary, defeat would surely have cost him his job, little over three years in the post. He opted to play a little-known prospect from the youth team called Mark Robins, who stooped to head the only goal of the match and set Ferguson on course for his first trophy at United and spark a flood of silverware.

4) Dropping Leighton -
If Robins spared Ferguson the sack, his decision to drop Jim Leighton for the Cup Final replay against Crystal Palace, truly saved his job. Given that United ended the season just five points above the relegation zone, he needed tangible proof that he was building something at Old Trafford. His first piece of silverware provided that - but not without putting Jim Leighton's nose out of joint. The Scotland international's jittery performance in the 3-3 draw in the first match, led to Ferguson calling on loanee Les Sealey, who duly kept a clean sheet in a 1-0 win.

3) Sending in the SAS -
With 23 minutes remaining and United trailing 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the 1999 European Cup final, Ferguson threw on Teddy Sheringham to try to turn the match. With nine minutes left and still no change, he sent for Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. With only stoppage time remaining United were still behind to Mario Basler's sixth minute strike. By full-time both Sheringham and Solksjaer had scored to clinch the treble.

2) Taking a chance on Cantona -
The Frenchman had been pivotal to Leeds edging United to the title in 1992 and his brilliance was beyond question. But he came with baggage and enfant terrible image that Howard Wilkinson couldn't tame. When Leeds made an approach for Denis Irwin in late 1992, Fergie countered with a cheeky request for Cantona. The rest is history.

1) Accepting the job -
Surely the most pivotal of all, not just for Ferguson but Manchester United. He brought unprecedented success and returned to the summit of English football at a time of massive change for the national game. Ferguson had already reputedly gone close to taking a job at Tottenham, only to later change his mind. Had he not, the face of English football might be very different today.
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