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The culmination of a career

Plenty of paths to greatness have begun at Oxford, but never quite like this. The prime ministers and politicians, economists and actors, writers and poets may have studied beneath the famous spires, but Sir Alex Ferguson started there, at least as far as English football is concerned.

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In November 1986, a 2-0 defeat to Oxford United left Manchester United 20th in what was Division 1. His inheritance consisted of Chris Turner, Mike Duxbury, Arthur Albiston, Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Graeme Hogg, Clayton Blackmore, Frank Stapleton, Remi Moses, Peter Davenport (or Nigel, as Ferguson, confusing him with a patrician actor, called him) and Peter Barnes, an undistinguished initial XI at an underachieving club. In unprepossessing circumstances, the journey from mediocrity to magnificence began.

A quarter of century later, Tomasz Kuszczak, Fabio da Silva, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Nani, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were selected to complete the most astonishing lifetime's work in the history of football management in this country: single-handedly shifting the balance of power.

Over the intervening 25 years, a drinking culture has been replaced by a winning culture, the relegation zone has been traded for the record books. The banners being passed around the Darwen End told a tale in themselves, slogans like "top of the perch" and, simply, "19", the latest of many messages to Merseyside. Liverpool are no longer the most successful club in the history of English domestic football: that distinction falls now to United.

"It's not so much passing Liverpool but it's more important that United are the best team in the country in terms of winning titles," Ferguson said, his memo to Anfield devoid of taunting. Glory and gloating went hand in hand in the Darwen End, but not in Ewood Park's media theatre. Yet competitiveness has propelled Ferguson this far. He is not content to settle for second place, even in an historic struggle for supremacy that long predated his appointment.

It was a memorable occasion and a mundane match. A Merseysider, in Rooney, converted the crucial penalty to earn a point. Before then, Ferguson said: "It was agony at times." Ultimately, however, a serial winner has known few more satisfying draws. "It was a disappointing game but I'm not particularly bothered by that," he added. The Machiavellian conclusion is that the ends always justify the means; on this occasion, there was no disputing that, even if Blackburn felt Javier Hernandez was overly theatrical in tumbling to ground when Paul Robinson challenged him.

Penalty? Referee Phil Dowd and assistant Andy Halliday eventually decided it was, reaching a conclusion that spares the FA yet another meeting with Ferguson. Rooney dispatched it forcefully. It was the first significant threat since an early Nani header clipped the bar. In between, Blackburn had impressed, Brett Emerton drilling them ahead from Martin Olsson's cross before the favour was returned when the Swede headed against the woodwork from the Australian's ball in. Yet their fate was to be a footnote in United's long quest for supremacy.

If the manner of the result that took them over the finishing line was unconvincing, that was somewhat typical. United have stumbled on the road this season. "Normally our away form is much, much better but we are protected by the home form," Ferguson conceded. "It's not fair to say it's a bad Man United team or a bad league."

He shied away from comparisons, perhaps because they can be unflattering. The chances are that this will be few people's favourite United title-winning side. The team of 1993 had the novelty factor by ending a long wait. In 1994, they allied physical toughness with attacking brio, an awesome assortment of talented warriors. The side of 1996 confounded expectations, proving you could win plenty with kids; 1997 was Eric Cantona's fourth and final title. In 1999, they were Treble-winning immortals, finishing the campaign unbeaten in 33 games; the following year, they won the league by a colossal 18 points. A remodelled unit triumphed in 2003, with Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy combining beautifully and profitably. First place in 2007 ended the perception Ferguson was in irreversible decline, while in 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo's 42 goals propelled them to glory on both domestic and European fronts. 2009, like 2001, was a record-equalling hat-trick.

Yet if the class of 2011 is neither the most attacking nor the most exhilarating, the most resilient or the most remarkable, that is part of the achievement. It is proof of masterly management of the resources at Ferguson's disposal and part of a bigger accomplishment, one that was utterly unthinkable in the dark days of the late Eighties. This was the culmination of a career.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Phil Jones. Blackburn defended terrifically well with Jones and Christopher Samba twin bastions of defiance but the gifted local just earns this vote.

BLACKBURN VERDICT: The two central defenders were excellent as were Olsson and Emerton, the wingers, but Rovers' lack of ambition after United equalised was bemusing. They were content to let Scholes pass the ball around in his own half, utterly unchallenged, even though results elsewhere mean they aren't safe yet. It could be a nervy final day at Wolves.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: They were below par, certainly compared to the thrilling demolition of Chelsea six days earlier, but they got the job done. That was in spite of Kuszczak, who turned in an awful performance. United were already aware of Edwin van der Sar's importance without his error-prone deputy highlighting it. Ferguson was typically, and influentially, bold in his reaction to trailing by introducing Scholes and moving Valencia to right back. The veteran controlled the game after his arrival.


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