By Jonathan Birchall
Sir Alex Ferguson will retire as Manchester United manager in 11 days' time. Football, bloody hell.
After 26 years and 38 trophies, it will be over. It has actually happened. The man who for over a quarter of a century has dealt in heart-stopping, eye-rubbing, breath-taking moments has given us one final masterpiece. What, why, how, who? The questions will come as soon as our jaws leave the floor.
But no man, Ferguson has insisted since taking over in 1986, is bigger than the club. United must, somehow, move on.
As has always been his promise, Ferguson will leave the club in the greatest shape possible to continue the dominance of English football which he has overseen for over two decades. A group of champions, 10 points clear of their nearest rivals City, will be waiting for the man who has to try and replace the most successful manager in English football history. With a young squad and a summer to make it better, the timing, as hard as it is to believe, is ideal.
Ferguson has known this day would eventually come, and has been drawing up succession plans for months, with Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and David Moyes having been pinpointed by the Scot as men able and worthy of taking on the club that Sir Alex built.
The Special One's seemingly inevitable move to Chelsea is a little less so now. Guardiola will join Bayern Munich this summer. It is Moyes, greatly respected by Ferguson, who is in pole position, even if he has yet to prove he can manage at the very top level.
No obvious candidate stands out, but a crumb of comfort for United fans remains in that Sir Alex, who is joining the club's board and will act in an ambassadorial role on behalf of the club, will play a pivotal part in choosing his own successor.
It speaks volumes that the world of football is already looking forward, following Ferguson's lead. "United never stand still," he said earlier this season. Even at the end of English football's greatest dynasty, the time for reflection and congratulation can wait. The future success of the club that will forever be in his debt is thanks enough. He wants trophies at Old Trafford, not gifts on his mantelpiece.
As such, a meeting with club staff took place this morning, in which tears were shed, future plans were discussed and Sir Alex's backroom staff tried to make sense of a morning that has shaken the game. In they go to the unknown. What, why, how, who?
The United team will be trying to celebrate their title success at Chester Racecourse this afternoon, though it remains to be seen if Ferguson will join them. He has work to do, after all.
For behind the hairdryer rants, the apoplectic touchline explosions and press conference abrasivity, remains enduring love between a 71-year-old and the largest football club on the planet. Some 26 years on and it is all for winning. It is all for United.
So although next season the dugout, the dressing room and the team will belong to somebody else, this club, this greatest of institutions, will remain Sir Alex's.
You sense it always will be.