Fergie exit evokes painful memories of Busby departure

Posted by Mark Payne

Sir Matt Busby, Louis EdwardsPA PhotosSir Matt Busby, the man Sir Alex Ferguson emulated and surpassed, explains his decision to retire at a press conference in January 1969.

The end of the most distinguished managerial career in the history of sport is upon us. Sir Alex Ferguson is to retire at the end of the current Premier League season on May 19 and take a seat on the board of Manchester United Football club. A statue of the man stands outside Old Trafford behind the Sir Alex Ferguson stand. His place in history is assured, and football will never be the same again.

The task facing United now is to appoint a successor who can maintain the success and popularity of the club. It is a situation Manchester United has faced before and bungled badly. A few short years after Sir Matt Busby -- the man who built the first real dynasty at United and also has his statue outside the stadium -- retired in 1969, the club were relegated. The thought of a repeat is unthinkable.

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When United triumphed under Busby in the European Cup final at Wembley in 1968, it felt like the end of an era, and a changing of the guard promptly occurred. George Best never hit the same heights again and the team began to fade away as former United player Wilf McGuinness took the managerial hot seat. A little over a year later, Busby was persuaded to return with United finishing only eighth in 1969-70 and starting the next campaign poorly.

Two front-runners for the new vacancy are treble-winning former United players Gary Neville and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Both are intelligent and ambitious men who have the essence of the club flowing through their veins. But surely a thoroughbred manager with European pedigree is required for a job of such magnitude.

It is well documented that McGuinness struggled in the role as Busby's successor for a number of reasons. Firstly, he had played alongside most of the players and the jump to a supervisory position was too much for lines of authority to remain clear. An episode in which he ordered a suited Bobby Charlton to do push-ups in the training ground mud is uncomfortable for all parties to talk about to this day.

Additionally, Busby was still actively involved in the club and resident at Old Trafford every day; a formidable shadow looming over his successors. Famously, you always knew if he was in the building by recognising the smell of his pipe.

Wednesday morning's announcement included the information that Sir Alex will similarly be taking a position in the club's hierarchy. Any man who walks into a stadium with a statue of his predecessor outside needs to have a fair amount of self-confidence.

And so, it is no surprise that thoughts turn to the availability of Jose Mourinho, who is in the middle of extricating himself from an uncomfortable liaison with Real Madrid. Mourinho has the pedigree and the confidence to take the reins at Old Trafford. And he would win.

Once Busby retired in 1969, the next 21 years garnered just three pieces of silverware in the shape of the FA Cup (not including the Second Division title in 1975) until Fergie won his first trophy, the FA Cup in 1990. This would obviously be wholly unacceptable given the current success of the club.

But the procedure for appointing a new successor is unclear. Finding a new pope would be easier, with probably less smoke involved. The full reasons behind the decision to retire now are not yet known but Fergie will do well to heed to advice of old rival Kenny Dalglish, who said that he regretted resigning as Liverpool manager only two weeks after he had done so. Kenny returned two decades later.

Sir Alex is booked in to have a hip operation soon and health factors are likely to have been central to his announcement. Those who saw the 71-year-old charge across the pitch to berate the referee after United's fixture at Newcastle over Christmas thought he would carry on forever.

In his 27 years as Manchester United manager Ferguson has dragged a flagging local institution and turned it into a global force. The very thought of United being the preeminent team in world sport in 1986 was farcical. In 2013, as he walks away, it is an unquestionable truth. The flag at the Stretford End reads "the impossible dream made possible." That is precisely what Sir Alex has delivered.

And he has done it in style.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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