Ferguson exit strategy uncertain as United's pre-eminence fades

Sir Alex Ferguson once told a supporter he was "an idiot" at one three years ago, the former chairman Sir Roy Gardner would take a pasting from shareholders and, when the shouting was over, everyone felt like they had been given their chance to have a say. The plc status of United might have been unpopular but there was a sense of democracy about this once-a-year occasion, when the distinction between the directors' box and the cheap seats was removed and the gloves were taken off. Under the ownership of the Glazers, there will be no more AGMs.

It will come as some relief to the United board who, with the team's form so woeful of late, the trauma of Roy Keane's censored MUTV interview and the insistent questions over Ferguson's management and tactics, that they do not have to face the rabble. In fact, under their new owners they are obliged to say very little at all: the accounts for this financial year can be filed as late as April and there will be no doubt that the detail disclosed under the plc will be lacking from the documents dispatched to Companies House next year.

The question surrounding United is simply in which direction this club, its underachieving players, its manager and its American owners are heading. United have suffered two defeats to Middlesbrough and Lille in the past week that have proved symbolic of their fading form and Ferguson would now appear to have irreconcilable differences with his captain, and most influential player, who will, there can be little doubt now, be a malign presence until his contract runs out at the end of the season.

When he comes to address the press today, Ferguson may wish to draw upon a story he is fond of telling about a run of three losses in October 1996 after which BBC Radio Five Live ran a programme about the end of Manchester United. No one needs reminding that United won the Premiership that season by seven points. Their capacity for self-renewal this time, however, is seriously reduced and they have a new ownership whose £540m debt makes them potentially volatile employers.

The understanding that when Ferguson finally comes to leave Old Trafford it will be done on his terms, with due respect to the 19 trophies he has delivered to the club so far, is the unspoken agreement that is under threat. As half of the current board, the decision to remove the 63-year-old would dwarf any other change of coach that directors Joel, Avi and Bryan Glazer have made at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and there can be little doubt that David Gill does not want to be remembered as the United chief executive who finally did for Ferguson.

While the rest of English football may have already relegated United in the hierarchy, the club still regard themselves as worthy of the very best manager in the business and, at the moment, he would be Jose Mourinho. Their approach to selling him the job, to taking him away from the world's richest football club, would be to appeal to the Portuguese coach's sense of history: to tell him that whatever he achieves at Chelsea would be so much more significant if he did it at United and was acclaimed as the man who restored them to their position at the head of the table.

No easy task against Chelsea's resources but then United still had the chutzpah to approach Arsène Wenger in 2001 when Ferguson was still promising to resign in the summer of 2002 only to be told by the Arsenal manager that he would not break a contract. Even those two men would realise that, in a lifetime, you rarely get offered the United job more than once and turning it down, as Ron Saunders famously did in 1986, is a choice that can be a career-defining decision. Gill and Ferguson met yesterday and high on their agenda for discussion is likely to have been the question of United's finances which are built around their progress in the Champions' League. It is regarded as a cautious approach that United budget only on the basis that they are eliminated in the first knockout round of the Champions' League, but, for the first time since 1994, they face the prospect of not even progressing that far should they lose at home to Villarreal on 22 November.

In the last financial year, profits were reduced by £14m, a loss based on a £6m shortfall from a smaller share of the Champions' League pot given to English clubs - because of United's lower position in the Premiership - and £8m less from domestic television money. Under the former Sky television deal United's 4pm kick-off against Chelsea on Sunday would have been worth £650,000; under the new deal it is valued at £343,000. Uefa pay £218,000 for a victory in the Champions' League and half that for a draw which means, so far, with additional qualification payments of £2.4m, United have made only £2.84m from the competition - a record low.

The reaction from Ferguson after Wednesday's defeat was telling: no invective against his players, no threat to open the dressing-room door to allow the fans in to give their opinion. His attitude was clear: after the Keane interview débâcle this week, his squad has been castigated enough in public already. The easy way to signal the club's direction, without a missive from Florida or an AGM, would be to beat Chelsea on Sunday, but at the new United of 2005 nothing is any longer quite as simple or as certain as before.

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