Speculating when Sir Alex Ferguson might retire has been a bit like wondering when the Queen will abdicate. Just like the boss of GB United, the longest-serving manager in English football shows little inclination to give up his throne.
But Sir Alex will be 70 this year, and while the Glazers would never dare to mention the words "pipe and slippers" within their manager's earshot, United's owners would be taking their eye off the ball if they had not given extensive thought to the Old Trafford succession.
Replacing Matt Busby, who built two great United teams and conquered Europe, proved all but impossible for Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell 40 years ago. Imagine the task of following Ferguson, who could soon be celebrating his 12th Premier League title and third Champions' League crown.
United's next manager will need the strongest of wills and unshakeable self-belief. Few fit that description better than Jose Mourinho, who in winning the Champions' League with Internazionale last summer became only the third coach to claim Europe's greatest prize with two different clubs.
Winning it with a third, Real Madrid, will surely have to wait after a 2-0 home defeat in the first leg against Barcelona on Wednesday, though going out at the semi-final stage could be insignificant in comparison with what Mourinho may have lost in the longer term. Last week may also have cost him the chance of succeeding Sir Alex.
Being a bad loser was not the issue. After all, Mourinho's tirade against what he sees as a pro-Barcelona bias was not dissimilar in tone to many a Fergie rant. No, the problem was on the Real Madrid bench, where Kaka, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain sat unwanted as Cristiano Ronaldo waged a lonely fight against the Barcelona defence. In the face of Barça's attacking prowess, Mourinhoopted for containment over expansion, for cynicism over idealism, for reality over fantasy.
Similar tactics helped Mourinho pull off the most stunning result of last season, when his Inter team beat Barcelona at the same stage. However,Inter, like the Porto side he led toglory seven years ago, were a limitedteam who could achieve success only by being greater than the sum oftheir parts.
This, in contrast, was Real Madrid, the greatest club in the world, blessed with players of outstanding talent, competing in front of their home crowd. Nobody expected Mourinho to throw caution to the wind, but Real's supporters have been brought up on teams who try to win by playingthe beautiful game.
If there is a voice at Old Trafford that carries as much authority as Ferguson's it is Sir Bobby Charlton's, who said in last week's compelling BBC account of his life that Busby had always insisted that United teams had a duty to entertain. That principle was observed by Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson, even if they never won the League, and has been reinforced by Ferguson.
It has been United's fate to be the team that other supporters love to hate – helped no doubt by the snarling winning mentality of men such as Gary Neville and Roy Keane – but that has never been down to their style of football. The talents of Eric Cantona, Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, to name just three, have lit up the English game. Last week's events brought confirmation that, for all his brilliance and intelligence, Mourinho does not produce teams that take your breath away.
If it is not to be the Portuguese, who else might be in contention to fill Ferguson's boots? Of the more experienced European managers, Carlo Ancelotti, whose Chelsea tenure may end this summer, has an outstanding pedigree. Of the younger generation, Mourinho's former assistant at Stamford Bridge, the 33-year-old Andre Villas Boas, has had a wonderful first season with Porto. Both men know their way around English football.
Might Gus Poyet become a candidate in a year or three? The Uruguayan has learned his trade the hard way and has impressed many with his brand of football at Brighton.
Pep Guardiola, Barcelona's ringmaster, is said to cherish a job in the Premier League, but would the fit with United be right? At this stage, we could only guess at Guardiola's flexibility, but managing in England is a very different prospect to workingin Spain.
For the future prosperity of our own game, it is to be hoped that United will retain the strong British character that has always run through their teams. Ferguson has enjoyed the benefit of arguably the greatest crop of youngsters – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and company – ever to emerge from one club, but under his stewardship United have continued to produce a flow of talent. He has also been prepared to splash out for the best British players in men such as Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling.
Of course, Ferguson's successor does not have to be British to maintain such a policy, but having a home-grown manager at the country's biggest and most successful club would clearly be a boost to the coaching profession here. It has long been a personal view that David Moyes is the most obvious successor to his fellow Scot, although Owen Coyle's work at Bolton will not have gone unnoticed. Whoever takes the job, nevertheless, will need the broadest of shoulders.
Millions of reasons why Rooney U-turn rings hollow
So Wayne Rooney has seen the light. In the aftermath of Manchester United's 2-0 victory away to Schalke on Tuesday, the England striker admitted he now appreciates the full enormity of what he came close to throwing away during his stand-off with the club six months ago.
Rooney, you will recall, had doubted the "continued ability of the club to attract the top players in the world" and "win trophies", prompting speculation that he would soon be leaving for what he saw as more ambitious employers. "When you look at it, how wrong was I?" Rooney now says. "Obviously I understood that I made a mistake. I admitted that and I apologised for that and moved on and I have wanted to try and prove myself again to the United fans."
Most United fans will be delighted to hear those words. So, one trusts, will United's accountants. Having realised the error of his ways, Rooney has no doubt already instructed the payroll department to revert to the terms of his previous contract, rather than the new five-year deal, said to be worth a basic £160,000 a week, which helped persuade him to stay.
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