Wenger heads impressive field in the race to succeed Ferguson

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The Independent Football

When Sol Campbell runs out in red-and-white at Highbury tomorrow afternoon the directors of Arsenal and Manchester United will be reminded that nothing can be taken for granted. They may then look towards the touchline below them and wonder, when these two great clubs meet again next season, which dug-out Arsène Wenger will be occupying.

It seems inconceivable that Wenger would walk out on Arsenal and replace Sir Alex Ferguson next summer. It would go against everything we know of the Frenchman's character. All season Wenger has insisted that, though he has not yet signed a new contract, he will do so. David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, has consistently reminded sceptics that Wenger is ''an honourable man'' and he has no reason to doubt him.

And yet. All the while Wenger stalls, and Ferguson's succession remains undecided, there will be a question mark. Campbell plays for Arsenal. George Graham managed Spurs. The Football Association appointed a Swedish manager. Football constantly surprises.

Wenger has already been mentioned in United's boardroom. The directors, who will draw up a short-list in January, are about to take their most critical decision since United became a plc. United's global prominence, and attendant commercial rise, is underpinned by playing success. If the team stop winning, the punters stop paying the share price slides. At a time when football, and its coverage on television and the internet, is expected to undergo significant change United cannot afford to lose ground. That the team is showing signs of vulnerability just as the domestic challenge revives accentuates the need to find the right man.

The initial favourites have long slipped by the wayside, Brian Kidd, Bryan Robson and Gordon Strachan undone by their failures elsewhere. Steve Bruce, meanwhile, seems unable to stay in a job long enough to prove himself while other former United players currently in management, Steve Coppell and Lou Macari, are in the Second Division.

More recent contenders, Martin O'Neill and Ottmar Hitzfeld, have also slipped in the betting. O'Neill's seven-figure purchase of Celtic shares suggests he may stay at Parkhead, as does the knowledge that Ferguson will continue to clock in at Old Trafford. Hitzfeld, who dismissed any interest when United travelled to Munich in midweek, is in line for the German national post.

While those two will remain under discussion the spotlight inevitably turns to Wenger and the other leading candidates Fabio Capello, whose Roma team meet Liverpool next month, Jean Tigana and David O'Leary. The latter yesterday ruled himself out, but, as the FA always notes when the England job is vacant, that is easy to do until the job is actually offered. An intriguing sub-plot is that should Wenger leave Highbury O'Leary would be favourite to succeed him.

There are a host of other possibilities, ranging from the credible to the fantastic. Few meet United's requirements as well as Wenger. Peter Kenyon, the United chief executive, has laid down the pre-conditions: experience at the highest level of club football with a track record of success; an understanding of English football; a good command of the English language; empathy with United's traditions, especially the commitment to youth and to attacking football.

Wenger clearly meets the first three conditions. His appreciation of Arsenal's traditions – he always wears the club tie, for example – underlines his grasp of the importance of history. That he has only broken with Arsenal's heritage in encouraging his team to play open, attractive football strengthens his case.

The caveat is his belief in youth. Ashley Cole is the only successful graduate from Arsenal's youth team during his reign. However, at Monaco he brought on Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit and Lilian Thuram and at Arsenal he has signed Francis Jeffers and Richard Wright while enormously improving Patrick Vieira. Stuart Taylor and Jermaine Pennant are also being encouraged.

There are two other doubts. One is his tetchy relationship with Ferguson, though United insist the Scot will have no involvement in team affairs after his retirement – at his own request. The other is Wenger's own expertise. Arsenal's continuing failure to maximise their talent at home and abroad is a puzzling one. So, too, are signings like Edu and Igor Stepanovs. Perhaps, though, they reflect Arsenal's more limited resources.

United's financial power would be attractive to Wenger, but he may wonder whether the timing is right. Legends are hard to follow. Only Liverpool, who appointed from within, have managed the trick in the post-war English game. As a United insider said: "We are trying to have an orderly succession of a successful manager. No-one has ever done it before. Liverpool promoted from within. We won't be doing that. It is unproven territory."

Leeds went through four managerial changes, including Brian Clough and Jock Stein, in the five years after Don Revie left. They were later relegated and did not win another honour until 1992. Tottenham were relegated within three years of Bill Nicholson leaving. Wolves and Ipswich suffered similar fates after the departures of Stan Cullis and Bobby Robson. Neither have reached the heights those managers took them to, nor have Nottingham Forest post-Brian Clough.

No-one is suggesting United will suffer a similar decline but it would be asking a lot of Ferguson's successor to expect him to maintain his rate of success. Could Wenger rise to the challenge? Would he want to? That is the question both boards will be pondering in the directors' box tomorrow.

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