James Lawton: Mourinho millions and Glazer debt are painting Ferguson into a corner

Mourinho is seen as the most natural fit for a United navigating new tides in a so far unexplored sea.
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Surely not enhancing for Sir Alex Ferguson the relaxing properties of a Scotch and water on the terrace of his Riviera villa is the speculation surrounding the intentions of Jose Mourinho.

It cannot be reassuring for the master of Old Trafford that Mourinho is said to be pattern-bombing English football with his desire to recruit old allies like Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, and maybe, the one he never quite landed, Steven Gerrard, in still another remaking of Real Madrid.

Or that Chelsea's Carlo Ancelotti may see in the situation a highly tempting chance to be reunited with his former Milan playmaker Kaka.

There is also the fact that the deposed champions of Europe, Barcelona, are not exactly retreating into their shell with the signing of David Villa and the move for Cesc Fabregas.

These are signs of serious mobilisation by the big guns. Such energy in the matter of pursuing the all-important prize of supremacy in the big show of European football – which also includes the possibility of embracing England coach Fabio Capello as Internazionale cast about for an adequate replacement for Mourinho – certainly puts into the sharpest perspective Manchester United's belief that they can ride confidently into a landscape that may just be taking shape under new Uefa regulations.

The Old Trafford chief executive, David Gill, is emphatic that Ferguson will have the means to compete with the plutocracy of Europe – and the cross-town spectre of Manchester City throwing masses of cash and new horizons at someone like Fernando Torres – but with a debt load of £700m and its servicing demands a more detached view has to be considerably less sanguine.

What United seem reluctant to accept publicly is that the Uefa edict that only good financial housekeeping will make possible a place in the Champions League from 2012 inevitably means that they are obliged to operate under a handicap of unprecedented proportions.

The club that Ferguson turned into one of the game's great cash cows, one which was on sale for around £20m at the end of the Eighties and was valued, unencumbered, at nearly £1bn within a decade, is now obliged to pursue a policy of thrift not out of desire but necessity.

Naturally, Ferguson operates within the reality of his situation. He defends it not, you have to believe, out of philosophical conviction but professional requirement and when Gill publicly expresses his confidence in the future, and the ability of his supremely successful manager to live within his new means, it is impossible not to detect a degree of whistling in, if not the dark, at least some extremely disquieting twilight. The idea that United continue to operate on anything like level terms with the strongest teams in Europe certainly dissipated harshly with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was maybe impossible to stand in the way of Ronaldo's yearning to return to the Iberian peninsula but then equally difficult, it turned out, was it to maintain the fiction that Ferguson's £68m profit on his signing would be ploughed back into a team attempting to win its fourth straight Premier League title and appear in its third consecutive Champions League final.

As it happened, Antonio Valencia proved an excellent investment at £17m – but a replacement for the man who laid waste Premier League defences on a routine basis and who, whatever you thought of some of his attitudes, offered a belief in any possibilities?

The disparity between what United lost and what they gained takes us to the very heart of their problem as the major powers in Europe now so zealously pursue the edge that can be provided not by new, prudent policies but the availability of ready wealth.

It is a debate which is likely only to intensify with the pressures that will be illuminated more clearly than ever before when the passing distraction of the World Cup is over. By then we will know a little better the new playing resources of the elite.

What United's owners have to accept is that the weight of the gold-and-green protest is only likely to intensify with each particle of evidence that indeed the club's position to compete at the only acceptable level, which is to say the very highest, is indeed compromised.

This is the reality that Gill, a respected administrator but a man for whom options have been reduced beyond his control, has been obliged to dispute recently. Like Ferguson, he is required to make the best of what he has available. This requires the rejection of something which appears self-evident: having what was once the most powerful club in England so heavily in hock, and at the random disposal of American ownership, could scarcely provide a less encouraging prospectus for an age of football in which wealth has increasingly to be reflected in the profit and loss account.

This inherent weakness can only be compounded by the fact that the richest of clubs now seem intent on getting maximum value from their resources.

The appointment of Mourinho in Madrid is maybe the most striking example of a move towards the goal of such efficiency. Real's history over the last decade or so has been a grotesque mirror to the game's worst excesses. Huge money has larded the galactico policy with rarely a glimpse of a solid return to the club's old eminence. Now Mourinho will be given the chance to prove that if he needs money as much as any winning coach, he also provides certain competitive guarantees.

Within Old Trafford the conviction is strong that when Ferguson decides it is time to walk away his natural successor will maybe have had his fill of the dramas and the pressures of the Bernabeu. Mourinho, the passionate leader, the man who has proved that he can hold both the starriest of players and a great following in the palm of his hand, is seen as the most natural fit for a United navigating new tides in a so far unexplored sea.

Meanwhile, though, the trick – and it will be a considerable one even for a man like Ferguson who has claimed so much plunder in his time – will be to keep the ship afloat.