Ferguson Jr relishes play-off return to Old Trafford
Not in his wildest dreams would Darren Ferguson have gone into the current season thinking that it would end in promotion, but he now finds himself 90 minutes away from achieving just that.
The twist in the tale is that the 39-year-old was the manager of Championship side Preston North End when the campaign kicked off, but since mid-January he has been back at League One Peterborough for his second spell in charge.
His Posh side defeated MK Dons 2-0 at a vibrant London Road on Thursday to win their semi-final tie 4-3 on aggregate. The victory secured their place in the League One play-off final at Old Trafford, a venue synonymous with the family name and where he himself started his career as a player, for a clash with Huddersfield.
Win that game and one of football's more ironic twists will see the Scot moving in the opposite direction to North End, who sacked Ferguson at the turn of the year but nonetheless ended the season relegated after a decade of second-tier football.
North End felt they had no choice but to dismiss Ferguson after less than 12 months at the helm, and some fans of the Lancashire club reckon their team would have avoided the drop if the board had not waited until their side hit rock bottom before changing manager.
Darren Ferguson makes his point from the touchline at London Road - photo: PA
Ferguson won just 13 of 49 games in charge and towards the end of his time at Deepdale had started to look like a man who had run out of answers.
But it seems that his failure at Preston has been very much to Peterborough's advantage, with Posh now on the cusp of securing their third promotion in four seasons.
"It has been a funny old season," said Ferguson. "The experience at Preston was obviously not great but I will use it to my advantage and it is good to be back at a really good club and winning games again."
Peterborough finished fourth in the League One table and provided plenty of entertainment for their supporters. They have scored four or more goals seven times since Ferguson returned to the club. In total they scored 106 goals in the league, 69 in their 23 home league fixtures, and are unbeaten at London Road since November.
To watch Peterborough is to see a team with a huge desire to attack. They pour forward at every opportunity, with the extremely impressive Craig Mackail-Smith the focal point. The former Dagenham & Redbridge striker was on target again on Thursday, slotting home his team's second goal after his initial effort had been blocked.
Mackail-Smith, who is expected to leave for a substantial fee in the summer, scored 27 goals in the regular season and found the net in both legs of the semi-final tie. He chases down every lost cause, has plenty of pace and is a constant menace to the opposition. On Thursday he was superb and should probably have scored more than once.
But team-mate George Boyd reckons that it is in defence that Ferguson has made the biggest difference since his return.
"The gaffer came in and instilled some confidence and self-belief that I do not think we had just before his arrival," said Boyd.
"He changed the shape to a diamond formation in midfield which I think has helped to give our back four some protection but it has not stopped us going forward and attacking. We are still scoring but keeping it tighter at the back."
Peterborough have had nine clean sheets in League One since Ferguson's second coming and restricted the opposition to one goal in a further six matches. The manager must take huge credit for Thursday's performance after learning from the 3-2 first-leg defeat and impressing on his players the importance of closing down the opposition quickly.
"We did a tactical session on Tuesday and the players got it straight away," added Ferguson. "We pressed MK Dons all over the pitch and they could not handle it.
"It was probably the best performance since I came back in, the concentration levels were magnificent."
MK Dons' impressive young manager Karl Robinson had no complaints about the result on Thursday, although he quite rightly pointed out that but for a dubious refereeing decision during the first leg that saw Posh awarded a controversial penalty, his team might have travelled to London Road with more than a 3-2 advantage.
"The tie turned on a refereeing decision but Peterborough deserved their victory at London Road," said Robinson. "We were not good enough on the night but I am full of pride for everyone involved with the club.
"I do not want to feel this pain again and we must make sure we come back stronger. People will forget but we were as good on Sunday as Posh were in the second leg."
The Dons have not been in the second tier since their move from Wimbledon in 2004 and will have to wait at least another year to get there.
Posh last secured promotion to the Championship in 2009 when Ferguson completed back-to-back promotions during his first spell in charge. He left the club early in the 2009-10 campaign and it turned into a nightmare season for the Cambridgeshire side, who worked their way through four managers, with Mark Cooper, Jim Gannon and Gary Johnson all following Ferguson. Not surprisingly perhaps, the club finished bottom of the league.
When Johnson left in January 2011 after nine months in charge, citing an uneasy relationship with the board, there seemed to be no end to the instability at London Road, but that appears to have changed under Ferguson.
And the manager will now end the current season prowling the Old Trafford touchline that has for so many years been the domain of his father, Sir Alex.
"I have played there, my dad works there and I told the boys in my team talk that it would have been a horrible feeling to watch MK Dons run out against Huddersfield," added the Posh boss, who started his career at Manchester United before moving to Wolves in 1994.
"It would have been devastating for everyone if we had not got there. It is a rare occasion when you get to play at stadium like that."
Victory for Posh could complete a memorable weekend for the Ferguson family, with his dad's team set to take on Barcelona in the Champions League final at Wembley the night before the League One contest.
"I won't be going to the Champions League final now but he can come to our game and hopefully we'll both win and it will be a lovely weekend for us all," added the Posh boss.
It will not be a complete home from home at Old Trafford for Ferguson Jr, as his team will be in the away dressing room and dug-out.
But that will not bother the Posh boss, who after a chastening experience at Preston has wasted no time in rebuilding his managerial reputation.