Open season for United's succession obsession

As Giggs gears up for testimonial, Nick Townsend says the question of Fergie's heir will be all too apparent
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The Independent Football

Wednesday night's testimonial for Ryan Giggs is ostensibly designed to be one of unashamed glorification for a decade of service; an opportunity for a sell-out congregation to eulogise over one of Manchester United's best-loved sons. For many, equally pertinent is that, with their club playing host to Celtic, they may also be casting covetous eyes over Sir Alex Ferguson's successor.

Whether Martin O'Neill, or indeed Leeds United's David O'Leary, welcome the constant references or not (and the evidence from Glasgow is that the former is growing impatient with the speculation), this is the season when the Big Question – Who Follows Fergie? – will pursue them like stalkers. As prime candidates, neither will escape being asked for regular views on the prospect. A denial of any interest will only be taken as the proposal remaining a distinct possibility.

Recent events, notably the purchase of 6.77 per cent of Manchester United shares for £25m by the Irish entrepreneurs J P McManus and John Magnier, can only have provided further evidence for conspiracy theorists to declare that O'Neill is being lined up. It had been suggested that the pair's investment could result in their fellow horse-racing aficionado Ferguson gaining a position on the board, maybe even becoming chairman. The United manager has rejected this assertion, and understandably so. His genius lies in football management, not in the machinations of the boardroom. What purpose would be served, other than perhaps the satisfaction of usurping Martin Edwards, the present football club chairman and a man with whom Ferguson has not always shared opinions, by such post-retirement aspiration?

The likelihood is that McManus and Magnier may have more influence over the identity of the man to occupy the void when Ferguson retires at the conclusion of the coming season. The pair are close associates of Dermot Desmond, the majority shareholder in Celtic and it could be that the trio will become the conduit for a successful approach by United to the Scottish champions eventually to acquire O'Neill's services. But when?

O'Neill, if he was being perfectly candid and not taking an entertainingly circuitous route through the picturesque lanes of the English language, would concede that he aspires to the job, which ranks only with that of Real Madrid as the pinnacle of managerial ambition. The crucial caveat would be, "When the time is right". A highly principled man, O'Neill has acquired the position he always craved and will not be persuaded to depart until the job, to his satisfaction, is complete. That is his way, as it was at Leicester and Wycombe Wanderers, even when seductive offers were forthcoming.

O'Leary, too, would covet the role. And there is mutual admiration between him and Ferguson. Yet, he regards himself as still relatively inexperienced. And as a man who has emphasised his displeasure at those who do not honour contracts, he would find it very difficult to turn his back on Leeds, considering the faith they placed in him three years ago when Leicester refused to give O'Neill the opportunity to speak to them. There are few chairman-manager partnerships more harmonious than that of Peter Ridsdale and O'Leary.

Though Ferguson will not, presumably, be directly involved with his succession, it is unthinkable that United would appoint anyone not stamped "With approval of Sir Alex". Unless the club acquires a less experienced man, who may welcome Ferguson's contribution as a paternalistic figure, that could in itself present problems.

As has been stressed before in these columns, the mere presence of Ferguson, even on the periphery, may not be conducive to acquiring the most appropriate man, or sustaining harmony once the appointment is made. Many are those managers who pay handsome testimony to Ferguson's attributes – as rivals. Whether they are prepared to suffer him peering over their shoulder, albeit metaphorically, is another matter.

Ferguson's desire to complete his 16th season at Old Trafford with a Premiership-Champions' League double – thus making his act even more daunting to follow – has been enhanced by the £48m acquisition of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron. Ferguson will now enjoy such potential diversity of deployment that the phrase "a fixture in the team" will never again apply to a United player, certainly not a midfielder or striker. The utilisation of van Nistelrooy and Veron as Big European Night Charlies, who may only appear for the more significant Premiership matinees, and the use of 4-3-3 on occasions, with Paul Scholes or maybe Giggs becoming a third striker, will require all Ferguson's wiles to scheme effectively, particularly when fortunes do not match expectation and players' frustration sets in.

Giggs has already conceded that versatility will be increasingly crucial. "Players like me and Scholesy have spent a lot of our careers playing out of position and I can't see any problem with whatever system we are asked to play, he maintained during the club's successful Far East tour, as he prepared for his 11th season at Old Trafford. "We've both operated up front at times and I'm not bothered about where I'm asked to play."

Many would argue Giggs needs a testimonial like David Beckham needs a publicist. But Wednesday's unofficial Anglo-Scot Champions' Super Cup, between two clubs traditionally considered allies, will be an intriguing event. It will provide a first glimpse for the home faithful of the powerful resources Ferguson has stockpiled. It will also give O'Neill a chance to savour the atmosphere inside a theatre where he may one day take centre-stage.