By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
As he collected another three points on a day he was embroiled in a controversy with a player 50 years his junior on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson’s fire looked at Liverpool like it was burning as strong as ever.
Yet away from the pitch, the Scot's focus is no longer fixed solely on leading Manchester United back to the summit of the Premier League or snaring a third European crown of his reign - but also on putting in place a cast-iron succession plan that will see the club succeed long after he decides to call it a day.
With whispers growing 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, Ferguson is actively drawing up a precise succession plan to ensure a smooth transition when he retires as manager.
Already, he is in constant contact with chief executive David Gill, who is in control of the day-to-day running of the club, as well as being involved in regular conference calls with the US-based owners the Glazers as he finalises plans.
And the key to both the Old Trafford legend's succession plan and the timing of his retirement from management lie in part at least at the feet of the only two managers Ferguson himself considers serious candidates to succeed him; Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola.
Any appointment will have to be ratified by the board and Gill but, on both sides of the Atlantic, they are comfortable with Ferguson having the biggest say in the identity of the man who takes his seat in the dugout and when he comes to sit in it.
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At the moment, Guardiola doesn't feel like returning to the game.
He has said so a number of times. In fact, he repeats it as if it were a mantra. However, in the not-so-short term, Manchester United would absolutely be a club that would appeal to him.
The Red Devils are a well respected side, that favour long-term projects and leave the whole sporting business to the manager, instead of having a hands-on owner that wants to take every decision - such as, for example, Chelsea, another club who greatly admire the Catalan.
For that reason alone, the United job is one that would appeal to Guardiola far more than that of Chelsea. The Blues just do not feel like a good fit for a coach that feels much more at ease with a tradition-laden institution which values and good football are valued at the same level as triumphs on the pitch.
Either way, next summer will be key. Guardiola will return to football at that point and will do so, no doubt, with a big club on a long-term contract.
Any club hoping to take on the now 41-year-old will have to move swiftly in 2013.
Martin Langer | Goal.com Spain
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.
When he goes, be it next summer or in three years’ time, Ferguson intends to leave the club in immaculate shape.
“The succession plan is a delicate situation because of the club's need to continue delivering success on the pitch, and how any such change would impact their share price and wider perception as a club geared up for future success,” a source told Goal.com. “Gill doesn't feel it is pertinent to bring up the issue because he has been assured he will one day get the ‘phone call' from Sir Alex.
“He will go when he wants, and probably with zero warning. Sir Alex will also have the biggest say in his successor - the casting vote, if you like.”
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 Ferguson 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.
He is among the many admirers of David Moyes, who has worked wonders on a shoestring budget during the last decade at Everton, but the lack of European success of his fellow Scot rules him and those possessing similar credentials out of the equation.
In Ferguson’s mind, the only coaches who he deems worth of consideration are Mourinho and Guardiola, whose battle for supremacy in the Iberian peninsula proved so captivating in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 Spanish seasons.
The Real Madrid manager has made no 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 draws to a close.
Some senior figures at Old Trafford are concerned that Mourinho could be too high maintenance, both in terms of his transfer market demands and capacity for courting controversy.
However, the Portuguese and Ferguson share a healthy mutual respect and the Scot sees in Mourinho a driven man who reminds him of himself during his early years, using similar motivational and psychological tactics.
And in a recent interview, Mourinho said he would like to emulate the United boss by continuing to coach in his eighth decade. “I understand perfectly why Alex is still in the job (at the age of 70) and I think I will be the same,” he said. In turn Ferguson has even gone to the lengths of saying that Mourinho would enjoy more power at Old Trafford than he has at the Bernabeu.
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|It is no secret that "The Special One" wants to go back to England as soon as he leaves Real Madrid. He even reiterated the point in an interview with Sky Sports a few days go. Would he be interested in Manchester United? Absolutely, for a man with Mou's ego, succeeding one of the best managers in history would be an honour and a challenge.
The question, obviously is, when. When would Mourinho leave Madrid? Difficult to tell. If he wins the Champions League he might feel his task is over and look for a new challenge, but if he doesn't, the trigger-happy Florentino Pérez could decide that the Portuguese experiment is over and look for a more "manageable" coach.
Would Mou be a good fit for United, in terms of ambition and profile he surely would be, but after having the same manager for almost three decades, would the club's owners want to hire someone who has never coached a club for more than five years? I wouldn't be so sure...
Martin Langer | Goal.com Spain
The former Barca boss was even photographed with Sir Alex Ferguson in New York at the US Open tennis final during the recent international break, although United dismissed suggestions that the pair met to discuss the possibility of the Spaniard succeeding Ferguson at Old Trafford.
"The business of who succeeds him is paramount in Ferguson's mind - and Mourinho and Guardiola are the only two who, right now, he would considering entrusting the immediate and long-term future of the club to," another source told Goal.com.
Indeed, while 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, so keen is he to protect his legacy and safeguard United’s future, Ferguson is utterly mindful about the adverse effect it could have if the club miss out on Mourinho or Guardiola.
So much so, the Scot is prepared to time his exit to ensure United do not miss out on their top choice, heightening talk around the club that next summer - when Guardiola is expected to return from his sabbatical and Mourinho will have been at Real Madrid three years - could be pivotal.
Ferguson has a one-year rolling contract at United, designed to ensure there is no on-going speculation about his position and allowing him to feel backed by the club without being press-ganged into any decision about his exit plan. There is complete trust on both sides and a degree of financial security for the two parties.
However, the Scot - on the bench when legendary manager Jock Stein passed away during a Scotland v Wales match in 1985 - is also keenly aware of his own age and health.
Speaking last New Years’ Eve in an interview to mark his 70th birthday, Ferguson 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.”
In a separate interview two months later, Ferguson's outlook was similarly long-termist. “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,” he said.
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.
Ferguson 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”.
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Meanwhile, 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 Ferguson’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”.
And that is paramount in Ferguson's thinking as he juggles the demands of a 27th top-flight campaign with precisely planning the continuation not only his personal legacy, but that of the club's remarkable success over the past two decades.
Still, the decision on when to go will be left to the man himself to make. Similarly to Eric Cantona’s abrupt retirement announcement 15 years ago, few are likely to see it coming.
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