In view of United’s 8-2 victory over Arsenal, it seems almost indecent to ask the question.
In an age of instant gratification and quick fixes, where the average tenure for a Premier League manager according to the League Managers Association is less than 1.5 seasons, it’s hard to imagine we’ll see the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson again.
He is without question the most decorated of British managers, having added over 30 pieces of silverware to the Old Trafford trophy room, an almost obscene haul. Whoever is responsible for polishing them must detest the man.
Born into the shipyards of Govan, Ferguson's began managerial life in the same uncompromising vein as pitbull managers like Brian Clough and Rangers’ Jock Wallace, terrorising the likes of Gordon Strachan. But what makes him all the more extraordinary is the way he has adapted to the demands of modern game in order to still operate effectively in this age of player power and the primped, preening prima donnas of the present Premier League. Not that the hairdryer doesn’t come out when needed.
He’s remarkably sprightly for a 69-year-old approaching his twenty-fifth year in the job. As Bobby Charlton said recently: “Football keeps him young.” But all good things must come to an end, and eventually United are going to have to appoint a successor. The only question is: who? The image of Alex Ferguson is umbilically linked to Manchester United. Replacing him will be a tall order for anyone, but not an impossible one.
After all, this is a club with fearsome resources and a global reach, with revenues of £286.4m in 2009-10 and a global fan base of 350m. Steering such a juggernaut is going to require serious strength-of-character. Still, United Chief Executive David Gill has confirmed that plans for the handover are in place. Speaking on United's pre-season tour of America, he said: "There won't be meltdown. It will clearly be a sea change for the club and we have to be ready."
With that 8-2 victory still fresh in the mind, Mancunian Matters takes a look at the leading candidates to take the reins when Ferguson finally steps down.
The Home Guard
There’s one man who looms large in any discussion of the next United manager: Everton’s David Moyes. The fellow Scot, a friend of Ferguson’s, has worked wonders on a shoestring budget at Everton, only finishing outside the top 10 twice since his appointment in 2002. In 2004/05 he even managed to gatecrash the top four and snatch a Champions League slot.
Moyes' eye for a cheap punt is unparalleled - Mikel Arteta, Tim Howard, and Phil Neville all came to the club on minimal fees, while the likes of Tim Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott were snaffled from the lower divisions, which might appeal to the Glazers and their Moneyball ideals.
While a few of his pricier buys have gone awry (Yabuku anyone?), not all have been a disaster. Pundits baulked at the £15m paid for Marouane Fellaini, but when he’s been fit he’s looked an elegant midfielder and attracted admiring glances from Real Madrid, Arsenal and Chelsea.
While Moyes is tried-and-tested in the Premier League, the one thing that may count against him is his lack of top-level European experience. The season Everton did qualify for the Champions League, they were dumped out of the qualifying round by Villareal, then unceremoniously dispatched from the UEFA Cup 5-1 by Dinamo Bucharest. They made the last 16 of the same competition in 2007/08, but haven't improved on that since.
The other obvious British contender is Martin O’Neill, currently out of work since leaving Villa in August 2010. Having been at the helm at Celtic, he has experience of managing a big club in European competition, but he appeared to rule himself out of the running in 2010, saying he prefered to built a team than inherit one.
“For anybody it would be absolutely an impossible job to succeed him. What can you do? Win the Premier League 10 times? You’d still be just starting out against him. I know Brian Clough went to Leeds and said he could win it better, but he only lasted 44 days. And to be honest it wasn’t his most inspiring moment.”
And we can safely rule out Fergie’s mate Sam Allardyce, despite his claim that he is "more suited" to the likes of Real Madrid or Inter Milan than Bolton or Blackburn.
The Foreign Contingent
Ferguson has spoken numerous times of his admiration for José Mourinho. And the fact the Portuguese managed to remain friends with Sir Alex during the seasons he was getting the upper hand on him is testament to his considerable man-management skills – compare his frosty relations with Benitez when Liverpool looked like closing the gap. It’s telling that relations between Ferguson and Wenger have thawed now Arsenal are no longer consistently challenging for the title.
Mourinho’s track-record is hard to argue against - Champions Leagues with Porto and Inter, league titles in three countries - but the feeling remains among many United fans that he’s too much of a mercenary for a club used to being ruled by a loyal father figure like Ferguson. These misgivings also extend to his preferred style-of-play.
While his opening campaign with Chelsea saw some rollocking, gung-ho football, that was quickly replaced by a more systematic, defensively-minded set-up. The two-times Champions League-winner is a master pragmatist though, who works with what he has - with a Real Madrid squad full of attacking verve, this season they have looked an extremely attacking team.
Perhaps a better fit would be Pep Guardiola, who has spoken of the Barcelona job as having a hude burn-out factor, so all-encompassing are its demands, and seems keen to try his hand abroad. While Arsenal might seem the most obvious fit, the temptation to take the helm at a club of United’s statue would undoubtedly be tempting. Guardiola has worked wonders in his three seasons at the club, and the free-flowing pass-and-move football he favours would be perfect for a club like Manchester United with its attacking traditions.
Ferguson's former right-hand man Carlos Queiroz would once have been seen as the continuity candidate, having become Fergie’s tactical advisor and gained plaudits from the players, but after a poor stint with Portugal and a rudderless qualifying campaign, he’s probably slipped out of the picture.
Given the emphasis placed on experience by Ferguson and Gill, it seems unlikely United will follow Chelsea’s lead and appoint a young European coach like Andres Villas-Boas. If they did, the likes of Marseille's Didier Deschamps and Borussia Dortmund's Jurgen Klopp.
After Guardiola's success at Barcelona, could the Old Trafford hotseat be filled by one of Ferguson's former players? After his sterling work at Blackburn, Mark Hughes looked his he had the managerial nous to follow in Fergie's footsteps, but once he went to City, the likelihood of him ever being offered the United job plummeted rapidly to zero.
Steve Bruce has done a reasonably good job at Birmingham, Wigan and Sunderland, and made excellent use of scouting, particularly in the South American market, but whenever he’s spent large sums of money he’s spent badly and most United fans believe he doesn't quite have the managerial chops for a club of their size.
Roy Keane began managerial life at Sunderland with a flourish, but his star has been on the wane ever since. He left them floundering in the relegation zone and his stint at Ipswich was disastrous. His man-management skills have been questionned, and there's a sense that the snarling, never-say-die passion that made him a United legend as a player just leaves his teams in a constant state of terror.
In the Premier League era, United have become a multinational team and there are a number of overseas stars who could return to Old Trafford. Laurent Blanc took Bordeaux to a league championship and is doing an impressive job of restructuring the French national team after the shambles of the 2010 World Cup. And then there's the King: Eric Cantona. After returning to football as Director of Soccer at the newly-revived New York Cosmos, the fairytale scenario would surely be a return to the Theatre of Dreams.
And finally - don't underestimate the nepotism card. You can bet that when Ferguson does retire he'll mention his son, Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson, as a possible replacement.
Mancunian Matters took to the streets to quiz fans on who they thought would succeed Fergie:
Terry Naylor, 60, actor
I don’t know if they’ll go for a big name, someone like David Moyes must have a chance, but they’ll want continued success, so maybe Mourinho. He’d be a gamble, but I think he’d do well.
Jamie Handley, 24, student
Seeing as though it will probably be the start of the 2013 season, hopefully sooner, I can't see past the Special One. There was talk of him taking over at City when his inevitable gargantuan fall-out with the Madrid board occurs, but Mancini seems to have made the position his own.
Joe Elham, 26, painter and decorator
Nobody will ever replace Fergie. I am living in denial that he will outlive us all so I will never have to watch United with any other manager at the helm!
James Rutherford, 22, hotel and rail consultant
I don’t think anyone can ‘replace’ Fergie can they? I’m hopeful that Mourinho will take the job, he’s wonderfully entertaining and I’d like to see him and Villas-Boas going blow for blow.
Jo Kyriakides, 26, sales assistant
A lot of United fans are saying the Special One would be the only replacement for Fergie but to be honest I think he would change the style of play of the team for the worse like he did with Porto, Chelsea and Inter - to quote the Simpsons "high kicking, low scoring"! Also with his recent behaviour (fights, negative tactics, players deliberately getting sent off) I think he's lost a lot of respect. I think we need someone young and who appreciates nice football like Guardiola, but that is not going to happen. Otherwise...Cantona? Why not?
Who do you think will be United's next manager? Leave a comment below and let us know.