By Greg Stobart
Sir Alex Ferguson has never been about short-term success. That is how he has managed to continually recycle and rebuild title-winning teams during nearly 26 years as manager of Manchester United.
It makes perfect sense, therefore, that he is thinking ahead to make sure United are in the best possible shape when he eventually retires - and he is likely to have the deciding say on who succeeds him at Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola are, in Ferguson’s mind, the only two candidates who can take on a job that is virtually impossible. How do you replace the greatest club manager ever, a man who has won 12 Premier League titles?
It is not a task that someone like David Moyes could take on with confidence given he has never won a trophy with Everton.
Nor is it a job for a United legend like Ryan Giggs or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Yes, they are certainly the type of figures who know the club and are worth having in the coaching set-up, but the job is too big for them. A few years ago, the likes of Roy Keane, Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes were all being mentioned as potential replacements for Ferguson but would not even make a 50-man longlist now.
No. Replacing the best requires the best. Ferguson knows this, and as he edges towards his 71st birthday in December, Guardiola and Mourinho are the two standout candidates.
They have worked for the two biggest clubs in Spain, possibly Europe, and won domestic and European titles. They have dealt with expectation, handled the tough questions, made the big tactical decisions and bought the right players.
Securing Mourinho or Guardiola could arguably be the most important thing Ferguson ever does for United, ensuring success and progress, eliminating the possibility of a slide into football’s backwaters.
The last time United were the most successful club in the country, they made a mess of the succession as Sir Matt Busby’s shadow loomed too large over managers who did not have the pedigree to stand out in their own right.
Men like Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty and Dave Sexton all tried but were unable to bring back the glory days as United spluttered for two decades in the 1970s and 1980s, while rivals Liverpool swept all before them.
Ferguson will know that he cannot make the same mistake.
The Scot is doing what he can to help the next United manager, building a young squad with a number of players who are unlikely to peak while he is still in charge.
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Ferguson said as much in July, insisting the foundations are in place for United to stay at the top and win major honours once he leaves Old Trafford.
"Of course, there will be life after me," Ferguson said. "Absolutely. Manchester United is an institution and the history of the club forces everything.
"We have support all over the world and that in itself raises expectation levels.
"But it won't be an impossible job to succeed me with the structure we have at this club. It will need an experienced manager – and I don't think the club will choose a young manager because of what the job demands.
"But no one will refuse this job after me – whatever the situation."
Ferguson will know, too, that he must take a step back and let the new boss get on with the job. He will take an ambassadorial role but he must not be seen to be pulling strings behind the scenes, should not be hanging around Carrington talking to players. His shadow will be great enough as it is.
If he does that - and can help secure Guardiola or Mourinho as his replacement - then Ferguson’s spirit will live on for many years to come.
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