It’s a strange time for football managers.

Hawk-eyed: Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (centre) during a training session. By Paul Ellis/AFP

What AVB would give to have employers like Blackburn’s Steve Kean; Blackburn fans hate Kean—he now has to hire a bodyguard—but his bosses at Venky’s have stuck with him through the team’s terrible season. Arsène Wenger faces the unenviable dilemma of whether to pursue one last dream, and risk serious blotting of his copybook, or to quit while he’s still marginally ahead.

Across the English Channel, the most celebrated manager of the past decade has yet to commit to his club beyond 30 June, possibly seeking new challenges after winning the lot with Barcelona. Perhaps the time is right; his closest rival is set to break Catalan monopoly over Spanish football and win the league title to add to his successes in three other countries.

José Mourinho, too, may be gone from the Bernabeu come the next season, filling one of the top slots left open by the musical chairs that will ensue once Harry Redknapp, as expected, takes up the England job.

The rules of management have changed dramatically in the English Premier League era, especially in the 21st century, and the technological age, but one tenet remains: Stability breeds success. Managers are scrutinized as they never were before, not merely in their decisions on the field but in their actions off it—handling the media, handling star players (who, in most cases, earn several times their salary) and handling the bosses, who are likely to be in the business for reasons other than sports. They must have skins that are both tough and Teflon, wit that is both razor-sharp and blunt, and a keen political sense.

Ferguson is the acclaimed master of most of these skills but the one man who comes closest is Mourinho. Few have thrived on controversy as much as he has, few have practised the dark arts as skilfully. Few have been as disarming as he was at his first press conference in England as manager of Chelsea in 2004. Asked which of the trophies he planned to win in his first season, he replied, straight-faced, “All of them".

With that, he effectively absolved himself of any future blame—and did pretty well for two seasons.

Yet, even he was unable to navigate the choppy waters under Stamford Bridge—and Chelsea haven’t quite been the same since he left. Six managers in four years since Mourinho’s departure have yielded one Premier League and two FA Cups; hardly the returns to inspire celebrations on Abramovich’s yacht. Now AVB, all of 34, finds himself at the wrong end of a game of Russian roulette.

The importance of managerial stability is best illustrated by the history of Liverpool and their former manager Bill Shankly. He had two great achievements; one was getting Liverpool back to winning trophies, the other instituting a system of succession called the “Boot Room"—essentially a clique of coaching assistants who would rise up the ladder, and eventually to the top-most job, in order of seniority.

From Shankly’s retirement in 1974 to Roy Evans’ departure in 1998, Liverpool managers were either coaches or former players. This ensured permanence, and a perpetuation of the winning habit —at least till the talent pool dried up. And then the club turned once again to Dalglish in January 2011.

What Liverpool’s “Boot Room" achieved collectively over those 24 years, Ferguson has done pretty much single-handedly, which is a source of pride and fear for all Manchester United fans. They dread the day, in the next couple of years, when Ferguson says he will step down (or move up), ending a reign of almost three decades—most readers of this column will probably not remember a time when Ferguson was not the boss of the Old Trafford. Those are huge boots to fill and, rather than looking at the biggest CV for the job, it might make sense to think left field—just as the club did when appointing Ferguson, then relatively unknown in England.

Ferguson has rarely commented on his choice of successor but he did let slip one name: Ryan Giggs. I’d like to go further and suggest a coaching team of United old boys including Giggs; Ole Gunnar Solskjær (already a title-winner in Norway); Phil Neville (called up to the England Under-21 coaching staff); Paul Scholes; Gary Neville (he’ll have to end his successful stint as a TV pundit, though); and Edwin van der Sar. Perhaps Roy Keane could be the bad cop. Between them, they know everything there is to know about the game; they have won and lost their share of titles, they’ve seen the good times and coped with the bad, and they’ve imbibed the important lessons from Ferguson.

That sort of transition plan would enhance Ferguson’s reputation even more than it currently is—it’s exactly what Matt Busby failed to do when he stepped down after 23 years in charge.

Fergie’s fledglings would truly come home to roost. There’s one small hitch—Giggs and Scholes might still be playing three years hence.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

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