Ferguson had won eight league titles with United but the club’s era of being the country’s biggest spenders was about to end
In 2003, Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, bought Chelsea FC and changed the dynamic and balance of power in English football. Chelsea became a major force and Ferguson had to find a way to combat their spending power.
An ‘invincible’ Arsenal side went the whole season unbeaten to snatch the title in what was a transitional first season under Abramovich for Chelsea. United finished the season in third place.
Worse still, United transfer targets such as Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel signed for Chelsea who were prepared to pay them more wages.
Ferguson was not used to being out muscled in the transfer market, certainly not by another English club, but it gave him an unlikely opportunity.
A lot of Ferguson’s critics claimed that it was easy for him to win the title so often, as United spent so much more money than any other club. Even Arsenal could not come close to matching their transfer and wage budget.
If United could beat Chelsea to the top trophies, it would show that Ferguson was still able to compete against richer opponents as he had done at Aberdeen.
It was a hugely difficult task. José Mourinho joined Chelsea in 2004 and turned them into a winning machine. Chelsea won the title and United finished the season without a trophy.
However, Ferguson had been clever in the transfer market. He had signed young players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and they were starting to blossom into big game players.
United won the League cup the following year but still finished behind Chelsea in the league.
Between 2003-5, Malcolm Glazer gradually bought out the shareholders to become the owner of the club
A large section of United’s fans protested the Glazer takeover. They feared that the Glazers were taking so much money out of the club that Ferguson would not have the resources to compete with Abramovich’s new Chelsea team. Ferguson, however, was to prove more than capable of meeting the challenge.
Ferguson’s third great United team
While Chelsea were making extravagant signings, Ferguson had been gradually rebuilding United’s team. Keane and van Nistelrooy left and Nemanja Vidić, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and Ji Sung Park had come in.
Ferguson’s patience was rewarded when the team reclaimed the title in the 2006-07 season. They were top of the league after 10 games and stayed there for the rest of the campaign.
Ferguson was keen to build on this success and signed Carlos Tevez, Owen Hargreaves, Nani and Anderson in the close season. The team were even more successful in 2007-08, winning the league and Champions League.
The Champions League success was particularly sweet as they beat Chelsea in the final. Ferguson had built his third great United team and proved that he could win the biggest trophies without being the biggest spender.
The following year, United won their third title in a row. It was Ferguson’s 11th with United and put them level with Liverpool on 18 titles each. They also reached the Champions League final but lost 2-0 to Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Barcelona side.
England’s most successful club
In the 2009-10 season, United won the League Cup with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa. However, they lost out on the title to Chelsea by a single point.
In the 2010-11 season, Ferguson became United’s longest serving manager, overtaking Sir Matt Busby. United celebrated by regaining the title, finishing nine points ahead of second place Chelsea.
It was United’s 19th title and made them the country’s most successful club. Ferguson had finally knocked Liverpool ‘off their f***ing perch’.
However the season finished in disappointment as United again lost in the Champions League final to Barcelona.
A fresh challenge
In 2011-12, United finished the season trophyless after losing the title to rivals Manchester City on goal difference.
Like Chelsea, City are backed by billionaire owners and Ferguson’s next challenge will be to bring the title back to the red half of Manchester. Despite coming so close in the title race and winning the league the previous season, many pundits don’t consider United’s current team to be one of Ferguson’s best.
With two big spending rivals now to compete with, Ferguson will have to build his fourth great United team if he is to regain the title.