When his team played Newcastle United seven years ago this month, Sir Alex Ferguson came down the tunnel at St James' Park, arms linked with his opposite number, Sir Bobby Robson. It was one of those great moments that football throws up occasionally, a brief, heartfelt pause in hostilities between two fierce competitors.
Just to prove the point that it was temporary, Ferguson was sent off halfway through the first half for abusing referee Uriah Rennie, demonstrating that his temper can go from 0 to 60 in the space of a few seconds.
In 2003, the late Robson had turned 70, which is, incidentally, the landmark Ferguson will reach at the end of next year. This will be his last entire season as a man in his seventh decade and, although one does not wish to usher him impolitely towards retirement, the whole subject of his going is not the taboo at United it once was.
That much was evident when the Manchester United chief executive, David Gill, discussed the matter of Ferguson's successor in an interview with The Independent in May. The issue occupies the minds of those in charge at Old Trafford as Ferguson begins his 25th season managing United against Newcastle tonight.
Gill conceded that an integral problem in planning ahead for such a momentous decision was the rapidity with which any manager's stock can rise and fall. He picked out Steve McClaren as an example of someone whose fortunes had fluctuated dramatically. In late 2007, it would have been inconceivable for McClaren's name to be linked with the United job. Another good season at his new club Wolfsburg and, come next summer, he could be a contender.
The field, even 12 months ago, looked very different. Jose Mourinho had won the title at Internazionale but his team were brittle when confronted with United in the Champions League. Now he looks like a genius again.
One year ago, Martin O'Neill lost his opening game of the season to Wigan and was struggling with a team that had fallen apart after February. He won his second game at Anfield and six months later he had revived Aston Villa. After his abrupt departure last week, it is more difficult to predict how Gill and United will regard him.
The managerial star of English football last summer – whom sensible people were suggesting as a potential successor to Ferguson – was Fabio Capello. What a difference a year makes. The World Cup made Capello look old-fashioned and out-of-touch. He was out-manoeuvred by a younger coach in Joachim Löw. His poor grasp of English does him no favours. His age – at 64 he is only four years younger than Ferguson – looks more and more a problem.
Currently, the question of Ferguson's successor is as open and as intriguing as ever. It could be, as with Mourinho when he got the Chelsea job in 2004, a coach who comes from relative obscurity to European-wide acclaim in the space of one season. Yet even Mourinho had won the Uefa Cup the previous season. Now there is no obvious candidate. The field is open. Open for someone new – perhaps even a British coach – to make the running should Ferguson decide this is to be his final season.
David Moyes, who at age 46, looks the closest like-for-like replacement for the 44-year-old Ferguson who was appointed by United in November 1986, has a wonderful opportunity. Moyes' Everton team have finished sixth, fifth, fifth and eighth in the last four seasons and Gill will be aware of the financial restrictions that come with managing the club.
As for the potential outsiders, even a flick through this year's Champions League coaches throws up interesting possibilities, such as Didier Deschamps (Marseille), Claude Puel (Lyons) and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona). Germany's Löw and Bert van Marwijk of the Netherlands had good summers, although there is not much scope for managers of national teams to make an impact over the next 12 months.
Whatever the restrictions of the Glazer ownership, whatever the pressure it brings, managing United is the most attractive job in English club football. At the very least, it is among the best three jobs in European football. No other English side plays in front of a home crowd as big as at Old Trafford. With respect to the rest, United is still the marquee name in English football.
The theory that whoever follows Ferguson will automatically go the same way as Wilf McGuinness – the successor to Sir Matt Busby – is just superstitious nonsense. There is no inevitability that history will repeat itself. A talented manager in Ferguson's chair could be considered to have achieved great things without having to match Ferguson's achievements.
That said, there can be no assumption that Mourinho, clearly the manager of the moment in European football, could simply be summoned with a crooked finger to Old Trafford were he to find life to his liking at Real Madrid this season. That is another element to the great race of succession.
When Ferguson came to United in 1986 he did so having won three Scottish league titles with Aberdeen and the European Cup-Winners' Cup. In his last full season in Scotland he turned down the Arsenal manager's job in March and went on to win both domestic cups. Aberdeen finished fourth in the league. By the time Ferguson left in November, they trailed Celtic by 10 points. His great team was breaking up.
Had another year passed without the call from United, would Aberdeen have begun to falter, especially against the newly rich Rangers? Might he have slipped out of the running for the United job? For United, it does not bear thinking about. For those who seek to take his place one day, it is all the motivation needed to keep striving.
Wenger's outlook on quotas is rich in contradictions
Great news that Arsène Wenger has signed up until 2014 at Arsenal but I am a bit confused by his latest attack on the home-grown quota rules. "We have the situation now where the richest people in the world are investing in football in this country and the Premier League only thinks about keeping foreign players out," he said. "You cannot say the richest man from India can come here but can only play with English players."
These rich investors in the Premier League whom Wenger is so keen to defend ... are they the same rich investors that he has spent the last seven years railing against, accusing them of "financial doping" and running unsustainable transfer budgets?
Carragher makes a political and footballing point
Whether you agree that Andy Burnham should be the new leader of the Labour Party or not, the fact that Jamie Carragher has made a donation to his campaign is welcome evidence of a footballer who is engaged and interested in politics and bright enough to take an interest in matters that affect ordinary folk.
Post-World Cup finals, there have been plenty of the usual attacks on our well- remunerated footballers. Some of it has been justified, much of it not. But not all footballers are the same, just as not all politicians are the same.Reuse content