How do you replace the irreplaceable? The last time Manchester United tackled such an enigma the result was four different managers in three turbulent years. The man leaving the unpluggable hole back then was Sir Matt Busby, soon it will be Sir Alex Ferguson.
While the job of replacing 'Fergie' is a tough one (impossible, many fans would argue), the modern-day Manchester United need only let what transpired post-Busby influence how they handle (or don't handle) the same issue today. You see, the problem with Sir Matt was, he never really left. While he relinquished managerial duties - first to Wilf McGuinness, and then to Frank O'Farrell (with his own second stint in between) - he stayed on as a club director. His presence was still felt, his voice still heard.
Tommy Docherty, whose own five year(ish) tenure as manager was slightly less rocky than those of the two men before him (unlike his love life, of course), once said, "When Wilf McGuinness took over as coach Sir Matt was always there in the background and he never had a chance. It was the same story for Frank." Considering the squad Busby left behind featured many senior pros, players who had worked with him for years, the fact he was still at the club became a problem. If the players had a problem, they'd speak to Matt. If they didn't like something the new manager was doing, they'd go see Matt. They even called him "the old boss". As Docherty himself said, "That kind of thing isn't good for the stability of a club. You can only have one boss." And, for the past twenty-six years, there has definitely only been one man in charge of Manchester United.
If that man, Sir Alex Ferguson, was to leave at the end of the current season, the situation United would find themselves in, squad-wise, is not remarkably dissimilar to that of when Busby left. There is a core group of ageing senior players (Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra) who have been at the club, under the same manager, for a sustained period of time. Replace these names with Law, Charlton, Dunne and Foulkes and clear parallels can be made. Both sets of players were/are massively attached, both to the club and to a single manager.
Attachment is natural. After all, football players are human, just like us. If something crops up that they're not too keen on, and their "old boss" is still within earshot, what do you think they'll do? Imagine you have a new boss at work whose methods take some adjusting to, but you still see your old boss in the break room every lunch time. You'd have a little moan, wouldn't you? You might feel a little better, and he might feel he's doing the right thing, but it's not healthy for the company. And if you've followed this tenuous analogy this far: it wouldn't be healthy for Manchester United. Remember Docherty: You can only have one boss.
Which bring us to the new boss. When Sir Alex Ferguson's successor wanders through Old Trafford's creaky managerial doors, he'll feel enough pressure already. The pressure to succeed, to maintain standards and results. He'll also be expected to make the team his own, to imprint the squad with his unique personality. It will be a hard enough task as it is; the figurative shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson will loom over the new man from the outset, and that's even if results are good. Having the physical shadow of a club legend darkening every stride you take would make the job nigh-on impossible, even more so after a defeat or during a run of poor form. The press - and some fans, no doubt - will give the new manager little slack as it is; having Fergie waiting in the background will only make things worse. Comparisons become a lot easier when both men are in the same building.
But Sir Alex is too canny for this.
He has been quoted in the past as saying he won't do a 'Sir Matt'. He recognises the problems caused by not 'leaving' when leaving, by loving the club too much to be able to make a clean break. It will take a brave man to walk away from the club entirely, but, it's what Fergie will have to do. The club will have to let him do it, too. Tough love, I think it's called.
He'll still leave behind a look-a-likey statue, the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, a teeming trophy cabinet and twenty-six plus years of wonderful memories - eternal reminders of, arguably, Manchester United's greatest ever manager. But the club will have to learn to live without the actual man himself. And Sir Alex, facing the much tougher task, I suspect, will have to learn to live without Manchester United.