Britain's most successful manager could be ready to step down as early as the end of this season to secure the best possible candidate to replace him, but who should it be?
As he collected another three points on a day he was embroiled in a controversy with a player 50 years his junior, Sir Alex Ferguson’s fire looked like it was burning as strong as ever against Liverpool on Sunday.
Yet there are growing whispers within Manchester United’s corridors of power that the flames could finally be ready to flicker on one of the greatest managerial dynasties of all.
Sir Alex is said by Old Trafford sources to have purposely begun the process of drawing up a succession plan to ensure a smooth transition when he retires as manager.
Intriguingly, his retirement date is likely to hinge on the availability of the two men he believes are best equipped to take on the managerial baton, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
The Scot, who turns 71 in December, wants to keep his plans shrouded in mystery to avoid a repeat of the situation in 2001-2002 when he felt the team were destabilised after he announced his intention to retire at the end of that campaign, only to later change his mind.
However, the most successful manager in the history of British football is well aware of how crucial the timing of his departure will be in terms of United identifying a successor.
Chief executive David Gill has said that the club will seek an experienced candidate whenever the time comes to make their first managerial appointment since November 1986 and Sir Alex is of the conviction that the Old Trafford dugout can only be occupied by a select few who have taken an elite club to the heights.
In his mind, the coaches who best fit the bill are Mourinho and Guardiola, whose battle for supremacy in the Iberian peninsula proved so captivating in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
The Real Madrid manager has made secret of his desire to return to the Premier League when he leaves the Bernabeu, while former Barcelona boss Guardiola will have the pick of some of Europe’s marquee clubs as his year’s sabbatical in New York draws to a close.
United powerbrokers, including the Glazer family and Gill, not only want to tap into Sir Alex’s almost unrivalled knowledge and connections but also for him to play an active role in finding his replacement.
The Scot is expected to remain involved at Old Trafford when he steps down and said earlier this year that he would be keen on a similar ambassadorial role to the one that long-time United director Sir Bobby Charlton has at the club.
Keen to protect his legacy and safeguard United’s future, Sir Alex is concerned about the adverse effect it could have if the club miss out on Mourinho or Guardiola.
Indeed, there are now rumours emanating from Old Trafford that Sir Alex is even prepared to step down at the end of the current season, a time when it is feasible both men could be available, although the Portuguese will be reluctant to leave the Spanish giants without lifting the Champions League.
Sir Alex has a one-year rolling contract, which means that he is only entitled to 12 months’ severance pay and, in theory, gives United little long-term managerial security.
Nevertheless, speaking last New Years’ Eve in an interview to mark his 70th birthday, Sir Alex revealed his intention to stay in the job well into his 70s. He said: “I hope I have a long time left. As long as my health stays up, I would hope to have another three years at the club. I am still enjoying it.
“As someone who loves his job I am not about to let my years alone dictate my future. At my age health becomes the key issue for a man's work and I am happy to say I have been blessed with stamina and energy that sees me coping with what I admit is a very demanding job.”
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In a separate interview two months later, Sir Alex was looking similarly long-term: “I don’t know how long I can last now but if my health stays up I don’t think another two or three years would harm me.”
In both instances, the Scot highlighted the significance of his health and the events of the last few months may have contributed to a shift in his thinking.
Sir Alex was treated in hospital at the end of May after suffering a nosebleed which, according to his close friend, the American broadcaster Charlie Stillitano, left him in “tremendous pain”.
It is a problem which is believed to have afflicted the 70-year-old again this summer and could have contributed to his decision not to travel on the Scandinavian leg of the club’s gruelling pre-season tour, which spanned five countries and three continents.
Wigan chairman Dave Whelan, a fellow septuagenarian, is among those who believe Sir Alex is in the final season of his glittering United reign. Speaking in May, Whelan said: “After next season, Sir Alex will call it a day because he had a little scare.”
Gill has claimed that Sir Alex’s retirement date is a “non-issue” and not a concern for the hierarchy although he has spoken of the requirement for a “sensible transition to the new manager”.
It's a straight duel - who is right for United? Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho?
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