After 26 years at the helm of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed his retirement at the end of the 2012-13 season. Here are a few thoughts on his career at Old Trafford and why United fans should be thankful.
Where would we be without Sir Alex? For 26 years he graced Old Trafford with his energy and charisma, challenging the status quo and knocking our gloating rivals off their perch. He took a sleeping giant, a club which had lain dormant for almost 2 decades, and transformed them into a titan of the game once again. On the face of it, he won trophy after trophy to bring a golden age to Old Trafford. But his achievements go much deeper than just the success on the pitch, he transformed the club behind the scenes, reworking and reinvigorating a backroom system shorn of inspiration and created a mentality which bred success.

When Alex Ferguson (as he was then) walked through the door of Old Trafford on November 6th 1986 it was the dawn of a new era at Manchester United. Perhaps not everyone was aware of this fiery Scotsman, but he had masterminded the end of the Old Firm domination in Scotland with a small, unfashionable club, Aberdeen. He had broken the yoke of Glasgow by winning leagues and cups - once even berating his players for not producing a performance worthy of their talent even after winning a cup final! - but he also took his Aberdeen side and made them a force in Europe, winning the Cup Winners Cup by beating Real Madrid's star-studded side in the final. It's a measure of the man that, since his departure south of the border, the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers have rediscovered their stranglehold on domestic Scottish competition.

Life was tough at United in those early seasons for Alex. The trophy cabinet lay bare, partly down to bad luck and injury, but United were still considered as the bridesmaid without ever being the bride, the weight of increasing years since title success laying more and more heavily on their shoulders with each passing year (something that we don't hear mentioned about the current Liverpool side, despite their lack of a title since 1990). What we couldn't see was the hard work which was resetting the foundations for future success.

One of those foundations lay in the form of the youth squad development. United have proudly had a youth policy since the then Chairman, James Gibson, created the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club in 1936/37. This creation blossomed in the early years, developing players like Charlie Mitten, into the first team fold. It continued on with the appointment of Matt Busby as manager by Mr Gibson, who was impressed with Busby's philosophy for the future. But the system of the 70s and early 80s needed overhauling. Alex Ferguson reworked the system; he divided the local area into sections and had a scout in each of those sections to enable United to bring in the talent of the future. He employed the right staff to help develop the youngsters into stars of the future, and he ruled with an iron fist, not letting any of the youngsters let being at United go to their heads - just ask Lee Sharpe and Ryan Giggs! It was this working from the ground up and leaving no stone unturned which produced the Fergie Fledglings in the late 80s and led to the fabled class of '92. Alex Ferguson was never afraid to throw a talented youngster into the fray, and that confidence in his young players gave them belief to express themselves on the pitch. Ryan Giggs came through those youth ranks and now stands as United's greatest ever appearance maker, a testament to the belief the manager had in those coming through the ranks. Paul Scholes has just retired, having played 718 games and Gary Neville stands 5th in the all-time appearance makers list - both coming through the class of '92. They only ever knew working with Sir Alex. Manchester lads with a passion for the game and an understanding of the tribal rivalries of the area, they were perfectly suited to Ferguson's vision.

Ferguson created a family at United. The entire club was United. He knew everyone's name, all the staff, all the players. It became a way of life. Live, eat, train, play as a unit. Back each other, fight for each other. Inevitably, as with every family, there are squabbles and disputes. Sometimes things are said and done in the heat of the moment which a regretted, and so it was at United. The departures of loved ones such as Stam, van Nistelrooy and Beckham were perhaps tinged with disagreement, but they all forgave each other and, as we have seen with the comments from ex-players, they still regard Sir Alex as the boss, the father figure of their footballing careers.

Sir Alex, it seems, had a way with words. The half time team talk in Barcelona when the Champions League trophy was walking away to Munich is fabled, the simple team talk that won the Treble so remarkably that glorious night in the Nou Camp in 1999. Yet so many victories have been won with a never-say-die spirit which emanated from the man in charge. How is it that so many players, amongst them Andy Cole, have admitted that the only manager to have ever got the very best out of them was Sir Alex. He knew when to put an arm round them, to nurture them, to give them the hairdryer treatment, and he always, always backed the players to the hilt in public. It was that public backing, the support the players felt, which helped to create the family atmosphere and the right knit group - having a manager who 'had their back'.

His shrewd dealings in the transfer market were a measure of a man who kept his finger on the pulse of the game. Asked by Leeds if he would consider selling Denis Irwin he replied with a 'no' but, enquired about an enigmatic Frenchman who had a troubled past. His handling of Eric Cantona, particularly after the incident at Crystal Palace, was a mark of knowing how his players worked, how they thought, how they felt. For 26 years and more, right up to his last day, he never took his finger off that pulse. Those two signings of Irwin and Cantona, along with the purchase of Danish goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, cost less than 3million combined. Three of the shrewdest signings the club has had. Schmeichel became the best goalkeeper in the world, Irwin the most consistent fullback of his time, and Cantona the catalyst for the breaking of the title curse which had blighted United for so long.

Would he have been sacked if the FA Cup game against Forest had gone the other way, if Mark Robbins hadn't scored that winner, if we hasn't gone on to lift that first piece of silverware under the manager in 1990? I was at Wembley for the 3-3 first game against Palace. It was as if heaven itself was smiling on United, 3-2 down when the sun came out and shone and Mark Hughes scored the equaliser. The decision to drop Jim Leighton and replace him with Les Sealey in the replay was a gamble, but one of many master strokes Alex made. Sealey had a blinder, Lee Martin scored and United went on to win 1-0. It was the beginning of two decades of domination; a domination which has seen off all-comers - Liverpool, Chelsea, the noisy neighbours, Arsenal, they've all been up there challenging, but none have sustained that challenge.

When Sir Alex took over the club, United were on 7 titles, and by the time Liverpool won the old First Division in 1990 United stood 11 titles behind. The Premier League era ushered in a new age, but nobody ever would have thought that United would, or even could, catch that total let along surpass it. 13 titles later and United have won title number 20, and firmly knocked Liverpool off their perch. Yet there is more. 5 FA Cups (United have won the Cup a record number of times) the only United manager to win the League Cup (4), the Cup Winners Cup, 2 Champions League wins and the only English club yet to win the Inter-Continental and World Club Cups, as well as countless Charity/Community Shield triumphs have come. 2 Doubles and a Treble included. The personal awards have followed, winning countless manager of the year awards (11) and a record 4 LMA Manager Of The Year titles, even a Knighthood! but Sir Alex always thought first and foremost of the club.

The respect his peers show him can be illustrated by the fact that, with any comings and goings in the topsy-turvy world of football management, Sir Alex was always the first on the phone to offer words of advice to a manager who had either been installed at a club or who had been given the boot. He has inspired a new generation of managers - how many of his players both north and south of the border have gone on to become coaches and managers - and he has inspired millions of fans. Even those rival fans who over the years have thrown abuse at him deep down know they would do anything to have him leading their own side (although not many would admit it!)

Sir Alex never looked back; even in his final farewell address he reminded us fans to back the new manager. That is the mark of the man. Many of those fans have never known United without Sir Alex, he's been there for so long, a fact made even more remarkable considering the changes at so many other clubs. He has seen off 15 Manchester City managers - as they came and went, he remained, creating a dynasty which has been unrivalled anywhere in world football. Perhaps we will all now refer to TAF - Time After Fergie - such is his legacy at Old Trafford. He has become undoubtedly the greatest club manager of all time, and it is unlikely we will ever see his like again.

When Alex Ferguson walked through the doors at Old Trafford on that first day he was dreaming an impossible dream. More than 26 years later, as he leaves as manager for the final time, he walks out a Knight, and the man who, for every single United fan, made the impossible dream come true.