James Lawton: Ferguson haunted by reality of failure in Europe

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The speculation that has hounded the last reaches of Sir Alex Ferguson's extraordinary, unprecedented career has an unbreakable focus now.

It is the one that was fixed on his face at the Estadio da Luz this week when he was separated, at a cruelly early point, from that which most excites his deepest passion in football. He was excluded from Europe in a way that mocked so much of his life's work and now, deep in his old pro's soul, there is surely one last, big question to ask himself.

Does he walk or stay, and if he stays will it only be for the time it takes for others to make a decent transition - and a regrouping of the club he brought back to a power and a glory beyond the dreams of all those who mourned the passing of his great predecessor Sir Matt Busby?

We can only guess at the turmoil in Ferguson's soul right now. A wiser man would have chosen his own point of exit. He would have gone with cordite and champagne in the air, but of all his strengths wisdom is not paramount.

It is a quality that rarely attaches itself with the greatest influence to the life of a fighter, and when all of his work is distilled to its essence that is surely what we will remember him for most: an extreme love of battle. He has been able to inculcate that ferocity of intent in his players more consistently than any of his rivals, and it has been the key to his success. But at 64 he may now have to force himself to accept the reality he has previously been able to put aside with a mixture of defiance and self-belief. He may have to say that the time has come to bury that fighting heart, and where would he be obliged to do that? Ironically, at the scene of one of Manchester United's greatest triumphs: Lisbon's Estadio da Luz.

That's where Fergie made his last stand in his favourite theatre of football war this week, and where a savage truth was underlined. United need to be refired and reorganised in a way that, it seems, has finally drifted beyond his powers.

The list of his potential successors is long. The England coach Sven Goran Eriksson - but can the speculators be serious? - and Ottmar Hitzfeld and Fabio Capello and Roy Keane all have their supporters, but what United need more than anything when, sooner or later, Ferguson goes is a proper blending of both passion and experience - the kind the man himself brought down from Aberdeen as a wrecker of the Old Firm and a winner in Europe. Hitzfeld and Capello and Eriksson have had notable successes in club football and Keane has the passion of all three of them but without a shred of experience of considering any priorities but his own. It leaves the door wide open for the long mooted candidature of Martin O'Neill.

If the former Celtic manager, drawn away from the cockpit of Parkhead by his family concerns, feels able to return to the game he has always tackled with the passion of a Ferguson - and similar powers of motivation - he would seem to be made for one of football's ultimate challenges.

He offers the power of instant purpose and drive. When he went to Celtic Park, after impressive work at Leicester City and a grounding in the job at Wycombe, most sober judges were willing to give him three years to close the ground between his new club and the runaway Scottish champions Rangers.

He did it in a year. He did untold lingering damage to the Liverpool ambitions of Gérard Houllier, and those of Graeme Souness at Blackburn Rovers, when he made nonsense of the suggestion that the best of Scottish football would crumble against superior Premiership opposition.

Along his way O'Neill was touched by the genius of Brian Clough - a vital piece of education in the formation of his own distinctly individualistic approach.

At this point in their history, with still considerable playing resources, and most thrillingly the phenomenal Wayne Rooney, at their disposal, United more than anything need an impetus that can carry them through their current doubts. The likes of Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo and John O'Shea, swaddled in their cosy contracts, need a new voice in their ears.

In considering the options facing the no doubt currently bemused Glazer family - they thought they were buying an institution of infinite success - it is inescapable that indignity is heaped on Ferguson, but here he is caught up in one of the most unshakeable of truths in football, as in politics and life in general.

The longer you stay, the more you risk failure. In a cool moment, Ferguson can take comfort by asking himself a question that has an answer implacably ensconced in football history. How many great managers finished their working lives bathed in fresh glory? It is hard to think of one.