Any suggestion three years ago that Sir Alex Ferguson might manage Manchester United into the next decade would have seemed to border on the delusional. Ferguson's conviction that the end was nigh meant his spare time on the club's European trips was taken up with taped interviews for a valedictory, ghost-written autobiography to lay a few myths to rest.
But Ferguson abruptly halted that project halfway through in 2005 (the David Beckham and Jaap Stam chapters were already completed) and the prospect of him going on and on became a real one yesterday when he raised the possibility of another three or four years at the helm, should his health – and United's – prevail.
Ferguson's pronouncements on this subject can change with the wind. He suggested a few weeks ago, after all, that he might not be around to see any Game 39 come into play and said something similar on United's break in Saudi Arabia. But after a week in which his side have progressed in Europe, there was certainly a spring in his step as he contemplated longevity.
"If your health is good and you are enjoying your job – two or three years, who knows? It's difficult to pigeonhole myself. It could be four years," he said. Ferguson, who turned 66 on New Year's Eve, has always said that he would not want to be managing at 70 but having undergone surgery for a minor heart irregularity in 2003, the United manager is clearly more comfortable with his health than when he pre-announced his retirement seven years ago.
The challenge is how to tailor the job to his advancing years. The shock of watching the death of his mentor Jock Stein during a Scotland match in 1985 will always be with Ferguson and he said after his surgery that he would reduce the workload. Yet it seems the only change to his schedule is a little more relaxation during the international breaks whose occurrence he has always tended to grumble about. "In international breaks I take more time, that's the difference," he said. "I hope there are more internationals next year! I enjoy that."
There are no milestones to reach. Sir Matt Busby's record of 24 unbroken years at the helm – with a further one and a half including his temporary return in December 1970 – are of no interest. "No, it's down to me its how I feel myself. It'll be my decision," he said.
Though Ferguson's decision to abandon his retirement plans in 2002 had most to do with Lady Cathy's persuasion, the fortunes of his side will undoubtedly be another key factor.
"One thing that can change is your health and the [other is] the success of the team," Ferguson said.
"I think we've made good decision the last couple of years in terms of the future of the club and team. The youth policy is strong and the youth in the club who'll be here for a few years is good." At no time this season have the powers of Ferguson's side been demonstrated quite so powerfully as on the Old Trafford night in January when Portsmouth, today's FA Cup quarter-final opposition, were despatched in a 2-0 win which might have been eight. Harry Redknapp, the Pompey manager, has more to fear today. Ferguson will recall Paul Scholes into midfield, conceivably with Darren Fletcher, after the veteran's superb display at Fulham last week.
For as long as Ferguson remains at the helm there will be talking points and the latest one created yesterday was the issue of the FA Cup semi-finals being staged at Wembley – to the detriment, Ferguson believes, of fans who must pay more for tickets and, in many cases, travel further. "The incentive for every footballer is that one day they can get to a final at Wembley and the semis at Wembley take [away] a bit of the real buzz from the final," he said.
These debates and more may continue until 2011 – but evidently no longer. The prospect of him managing a joint Great Britain side in the 2012 Olympics – as Lord Coe hopes – really is far-fetched, Ferguson suggested. "Crikey. I'm hoping I'm still alive then," he said.Reuse content