Widely regarded as saving Sir Alex Ferguson’s job at Manchester United way back on January 7, 1990 – and kick-starting over two decades of domination of English football – Mark Robins is in no doubt about the Scot’s place in the pantheon of managerial greatness.
Right at the very top. Although without the Huddersfield Town manager’s crucial input on the pitch in United’s famous FA Cup third-round success at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, it is fair to say Ferguson would have become a footnote in Old Trafford history along with the likes of Dave Sexton, Ron Atkinson and Tommy Docherty.
No trophy-laden trail – a remarkable 38 in all. No 13 league titles, two Champions League crowns, five FA Cups and four League Cups. And a few others besides...
It is a haul that will probably never be eclipsed by any of Ferguson’s contemporaries across the globe, with the football world still taking stock following the 71-year-old’s shock decision to retire at the end of the season after an imperious 26-and-a-half-year spell at United.
Robins, who also scored the goal that saw United beat Oldham Athletic in the Cup semi-final replay in April, 1990 – with Wembley glory beckoning the next month – told the Yorkshire Post: “He is the best manager to have ever graced the job, without a shadow of a doubt.
“He was the complete manager. He had everything.
“It’s sad he’s going, I suppose retirement comes to everybody. But he is the institution within the institution.
“Not only has he built teams over the years, but a club. The way United look now is totally different to when he took over.
“Over a quarter-of-a-century has gone by and from what he inherited and what he has now is testament to him and the board. You just can’t speak highly enough of him as a man and manager.
“He has won absolutely everything you can imagine. He also leaves an unbelievable legacy and strong squad, club and organisation for the future.
“Prior to him coming in, there was hardly anybody given an opportunity in the youth team (at United), Norman Whiteside was one of the only ones.
“They tended to go and buy players for the first team. But how the club developed under his direction and what they have done since has been from those foundations he put in place.”
While Robins played an integral part in United’s first trophy success under Ferguson, one of his managerial colleagues across Yorkshire played a decisive hand in helping the Red Devils claim the piece of silverware they all craved in the Spring of 1992.
That man being Hull City manager Steve Bruce, who netted two last-gasp ‘Fergie-time’ goals in their never-to-be-forgotten 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday on April 10, 1993, with Ferguson and former assistant Brian Kidd hugging each other on the pitch after the winner.
It proved the catalyst to their first title success in 26 years, with the trophy trickle subsequently turning into a flood.
On Ferguson’s decision to step down, Bruce, who formed an impregnable centre-back partnership with Gary Pallister during the first golden era of the Scot, who nicknamed the pair ‘Dolly and Daisy’, said: “All the superlatives have come out and the old cliches. But Sir Alex simply has been the best there is – full stop.
“Of courses there’s your Shankly and Paisley (Liverpool’s Bill and Bob), but for the longevity of what he has done, there will never be another one like him. Never.
“What more can you say? What he has achieved, in my opinion, will never be done again. It is a remarkable achievement.
“Thirteen titles will never be beaten by one man again.
“I had the privilege to work under him and see the high standards he demands. He was just very very good at what he did.
“He obviously kept the decision to himself. It had to happen some day, but I think we thought he’d carry on forever. But he’s 71 now and deserves a fantastic retirement for the work he put in.
“He gave me a chance and brought me to Manchester United and I played for him for nearly 10 years. For that, I will always be grateful.
“He had the full package. But his determination to win was the overriding thing about him. He had a huge pride about winning.”
Traditional enmity between the Uniteds of Manchester and Leeds may have descended to new levels during Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford, but for Whites legend Eddie Gray, the respect he has for his compatriot’s achievements and the man himself massively supercedes any sense of club partisanship.
Gray, a friend of Ferguson’s, said: “Sir Alex isn’t getting any younger, but it is still a surprise to hear he is going. He had just won the league title again and seemed full of enthusiasm.
“His record in English football has been unbelievable. Not only in England, think also what he achieved at Aberdeen, where he broke the dominance of Celtic and Rangers and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup as well against Real Madrid.
“He had this reputation as being tough and hard, which he was. But off the field, he was completely different and a very generous man who was always trying to look after fellow managers if they were in trouble.
“He is good company and likes a laugh and all the people who have worked for him over the years would tell you that.
“He will be a big loss to Manchester United and the game. It just gives other managers a chance now!
“He knew about the Leeds and Manchester United rivalry and I think he quite enjoyed coming to Leeds to try and rub us up a bit!”
On Ferguson’s retirement, ex-Leeds chief Howard Wilkinson, who denied him a first league title in 1991-92, said: “The news draws to a close the career of a man and a manager, the likes of which we will never see again.
“His public face was always that of the ultimate professional with a fierce pride and determination to do the very best for his club. His frighteningly competitive nature will never be equalled.
“But, in private, with those he trusted, he was the very best sort of friend you could ever wish for. To say his presence on the bench will be sorely missed in no way begins to describe the massive hole he will leave behind.
“He always said he was too old to retire, let’s hope he manages to enjoy the retirement he deserves.”