Sport

Prepare for end of the Alex Ferguson era

David Lacey

Ferguson cannot go on forever and the fact that his birthday coincided with the end of another year somehow increases its significance.

Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United. (Getty)

Though Manchester United fans were no doubt unanimous in wishing Sir Alex Ferguson many happy returns on his recent 71st birthday, the sentiment was tinged with a sense of unease. Ferguson cannot go on forever and the fact that his birthday coincided with the end of another year somehow increases its significance. The image of a weary old man making way for a newborn baby as 2012 gave way to 2013 hardly applies to the United manager, whose inner rages are burning as brightly as ever. Yet the inescapable fact is Old Trafford will be looking for his successor sooner rather than later.

The speculation about who follows Fergie has already had a trial run.

After United won the Champions League in 2008, Ferguson announced that he would be stepping down as manager within the next three years. But following the 2009 final, which United lost 2-0 to Barcelona, Ferguson said he would be staying on for as long as his health permitted and that he aimed to win the league championship at least one more time to overtake Liverpool's total of 18.

No sooner had this been achieved than the title left Old Trafford for Manchester City and its retrieval has been Ferguson's main driving force. That and the desire to make up for United's modest showing in last season's Champions League.

Now that his team have been paired with Real Madrid in the knockout stage of the present tournament, retirement will surely be so far from his mind as to be nonexistent.

These recurring challenges keep him going and the prospect of taking on José Mourinho's Real, not to mention Cristiano Ronaldo, will stoke the fires afresh.

The knowledge that Ferguson is in the habit of taking wine with Mourinho after matches has prompted the thought that the Portuguese would be a suitable successor to Fergie. And should United knock Real out of the Champions League the likelihood of Mourinho leaving the Bernabeu will increase because his team are already 16 points behind Barcelona, the La Liga leaders.

The reality is that the under-35s among United's followers will have no clear memory of a time when Ferguson was not in charge and cannot imagine anyone else doing the job. Therein will lie the problem for whoever comes next. It was much that way when Sir Matt Busby retired in 1969 after 24 years as manager. Wilf McGuinness, Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson all came and went without making United the force they had once been, and Busby himself even returned for a season. Maybe it will take a similar

 succession of appointments before United find the right man to replace Ferguson and he will need to be a special one even if he is not actually the Special One. – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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