Fergie's long goodbye

This season's Premier League could mark the beginning of the end for Sir Alex Ferguson. But until he retires, he looks ready to face down every challenge, including the one from a revitalised Chelsea, writes Sam Wallace
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Sir Alex Ferguson is learning to play the piano ("I've no left hand to speak of") and says he has started to notice that there are plenty of good last-minute travel offers on the internet for a well-heeled retired couple with time on their hands and a curiosity about the world. Giddy with happiness at his second Champions League triumph in May he gave a couple of interviews in which he hinted at something never previously mentioned. That he could imagine a life for himself that was meaningful and fulfilling and did not involve him being manager of Manchester United.

The 2008-2009 season is a momentous one in English football because it marks the beginning of the end of Ferguson's work at Old Trafford – possibly even the end. He says that he will not be managing the club at the age of 70, which means that he will have no more than three seasons, including this one, possibly fewer. And, wonderful though it was to hear Ferguson open up on his life, his temper and his piano-playing cousin in Ottawa, you wondered if he might have repeated an old mistake about putting a limit on his longevity. My money is on United to win the title for the third consecutive year, although the only thought that makes me flinch is the memory of when, in 1999, Ferguson announced his plan to retire three years hence and it diminished him in the eyes of his own players. Could it happen again?

After the postponement of his first retirement in 2002, announcing a new timetable for Ferguson quitting was regarded in much the same way as the prospect of setting a date for the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq. The trouble with both plans is that they hand the advantage to the insurgents. Like all great empires, Ferguson's regime is based on a flawed logic in all our minds that he might just go on for ever. Of course we know that he won't, it is just that his players, staff and the rest of English football are so in thrall to the notion of his infallibility that it has become one of his most useful tools. He meddles with it at his own peril.

Ferguson is, as he bluntly pointed out in his interview with Sir David Frost in May, the most important man at Old Trafford and his club's dominance of English football is based on his own omnipotence. When Cristiano Ronaldo cocked a snook at his club from a hotel pool in Los Angeles, was the player in fact acting upon an instinct that the rest of us have not yet picked up on, that a chapter is closing at United? That was always the problem for Ferguson when the second Champions League title came along – it would invariably feel that his job was done. He, of course, would feel enraged at the suggestion that it might have loosened his grip on power, but then it is what the players think that really matters.

In the summer of 2002, Ferguson said that his impending retirement, combined with nine of his squad, including David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane, signing lucrative new contracts the previous season had caused his team to lose the title to Arsenal. Six years on, it is not players such as Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick, Giggs and Scholes for whom Ferguson's future might prove a distraction. Rather it is the younger breed of players that Ferguson has introduced to the squad – Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Nani, Anderson, even Wayne Rooney – for whom at some point it will be an issue. Like the rest of us, they will be trying hard to imagine what United will be like in that hitherto undiscovered country of the post-Ferguson years.

Even so, in the 17th season of the Premier League, Old Trafford still looks the most solid bet in English football: 76,000 through the turnstiles for every home game and a becalmed boardroom even with the £660m Glazer debt. They do a good job of making the rest of the league's clubs look like 19 giant dysfunctional families. It is strange how Chelsea have tried to imitate United in so many aspects apart from that which most consider the most crucial. For the last five years Chelsea have studiously ignored the old adage from Ferguson about the manager being the most important person at the club, with mixed results.

Luiz Felipe Scolari is the closest Chelsea will get to appointing Ferguson, because, if the Scot had been born in that southern Brazilian region known as the Gaucho rather than in Govan, then you imagine he might have turned out rather like the new Chelsea manager. Scolari brings a ready-made reputation – Ferguson has never faced a former World Cup-winning manager in the Premier League – albeit one for that old-school management technique of building up the confidence of his players rather than blinding them with the science of DVD presentations and laptop team talks. In short, he is trying to beat Ferguson at his own game, which is a risky business for a newcomer to the league.

Where else does Ferguson look for sides who might deny him his 11th Premier League title? When it was pointed out to him that Liverpool's American owners have contributed to the heap of problems for Rafael Benitez, he smiled and said, "Long may it continue". Does anyone really believe that Robbie Keane, Philipp Degen, Andrea Dossena and David N'Gog represent the missing pieces in a team that can close an 11-point gap on United from last season? They do not seem capable of moving on until the matter of their ownership is resolved, which might take some time if Tom Hicks and George Gillett are planning on waiting out the credit crunch.

Arsenal are a marvellous distraction for the Premier League but they pursue a strange existence that no longer seems to have much to do with winning anything. Aston Villa and Tottenham have built impressive young, largely British squads from those players left to them by the "big four" of English football, but you wonder who will score their goals. Chelsea aside, last season you needed a striker who could score more than 20 goals to belong in the top four. The lack of top goalscorers currently on the market is why the markup on Roque Santa Cruz this summer is around £14m after one season in the Premier League.

Almost 22 years into the job, where does Ferguson's challenge come from today? It is how he takes his leave of the club, when he does it and what effect his impending departure might have. Funnily enough, it is the only act in football management, in more than two decades of unprecedented success, of which he has not yet proved himself to be the master.

Experts' choice

James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer
Champions Arsenal
Runners-up Manchester United
Champions League Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur
Bottom three Hull, Stoke City and Newcastle United
Why Arsenal? The Gunners are supposed to be down and out in terms of another title challenge. But they still have a vein of class that could redeem last season's bitter disappointment.

Sam Wallace, Football Correspondent
Champions Manchester United
Runners-up Chelsea
Champions League Arsenal, Liverpool
Bottom three Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City, Hull City
Why the same 'Big Four'? Villa and Spurs both have the potential to challenge the top four but neither have a player capable of scoring 20-plus goals – which all but Chelsea in the top four had last season.

Glenn Moore, Football Editor
Champions Chelsea
Runners-up Manchester United
Champions League Liverpool, Arsenal
Bottom three Blackburn Rovers, Stoke City, Hull City
Why Blackburn? It is tempting to pick Bolton, or Albion, but if Roque Santa Cruz goes he will leave behind a rookie manager inheriting a thin squad shorn of its best players.

Ian Herbert, Football Reporter
Champions Manchester United
Runners-up Liverpool
Champions League Chelsea, Arsenal
Bottom three Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City, Hull City
Why Liverpool? Potentially the League's top strike partnership, central defence sorted at last, Mascherano a year older and wiser. The club can have some real aspirations at last.

Jason Burt, Football Reporter
Champions Manchester United
Runners-up Chelsea
Champions League Liverpool, Arsenal
Bottom three Bolton Wanderers, Hull City, Stoke City
Why Manchester United? The imminent arrival of Dimitar Berbatov will give United the edge, plus Carlos Tevez is set to be the league's player of the season.

Neil Warnock, 'Independent' columnist and Crystal Palace manager
Champions Chelsea
Runners-up Manchester United
Champions League Arsenal, Liverpool
Bottom three Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City, Hull City
Why Chelsea? Chelsea were a whisker away last season from the Premier League and the Champions League despite many injuries and management upheaval.

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