Sir Alex FergusonÔÇÖs Manchester United future was shrouded in doubt on Tuesday night with the Scot understood to be giving serious consideration to ending his 26-year reign as manager.
As rumours of the 71-year-oldÔÇÖs imminent retirement swept Manchester, senior figures at the club failed to respond to repeated attempts to confirm or deny the story, which emerged following UnitedÔÇÖs player versus coaches golf day at Dunham Massey on Tuesday afternoon.
With United now forced to adhere to the strict rules and regulations of the New York Stock Exchange in terms of the release of significant information relating to the running of the club following last AugustÔÇÖs partial flotation, any change of management would fall within those requirements.
As of Tuesday night, no statement over FergusonÔÇÖs future had been issued by United.
However, with sources close to the players confirming that the squadÔÇÖs golf day had been overshadowed by suggestions that the Scot would be making an announcement ahead of SundayÔÇÖs clash with Swansea at Old Trafford, any ongoing uncertainty is unlikely to be allowed to continue to the point where it would affect the confidence of investors and, in turn, UnitedÔÇÖs New York share price.
When UnitedÔÇÖs owners, the Glazer family, issued its prospectus for the clubÔÇÖs ┬ú500m bond issue in January 2010, the prospect of Ferguson leaving the club and potentially jeopardising future success was raised by the Americans as one of the risk factors attached to investing in the club.
Ferguson had appeared to brush aside the prospect of standing down this summer when he insisted in his programme notes prior to SundayÔÇÖs Old Trafford defeat against Chelsea that, “I certainly donÔÇÖt have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special”.
Ferguson said: “This team of champions is not going away – we are here for the long ride.
“We will get better and if we apply ourselves in our normal fashion, I see our 20th league title as nothing but the start of another decade of success.
ÔÇ£Whether I will be here to oversee another decade of success remains to be seen, but I certainly don’t have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special and worth being around to see.ÔÇØ
However, having always cited his health as the primary factor in any decision to retire, the clubÔÇÖs confirmation on Friday evening that Ferguson ÔÇô who had a heart pacemaker fitted in 2004 ÔÇô would undergo hip surgery in August, two weeks before the start of the new season, raised fresh doubt over his determination to continue in the post.
With large amounts of money wagered on Tuesday morning on Everton manager David Moyes leaving Goodison Park for Old Trafford this summer, bookmakers dramatically cut the odds on the 50-year-old due to intelligence that bets had been placed on the basis of strong information.
Jose Mourinho, the Real Madrid coach, is likely to become available this summer, with some figures within the club pointing towards Ryan Giggs being promoted to take a senior role on the coaching staff when Ferguson leaves.
David GillÔÇÖs decision to stand down as chief executive in the summer, to be replaced by Ed Woodward, will see Ferguson lose a man he has grown to trust and respect during their working relationship.
But with Gill not due to depart his role until June 30, any search for a new manager should Ferguson retire would involve Gill, Woodward and UnitedÔÇÖs Florida-based owners, the Glazer family.
Ferguson has repeatedly dampened down retirement speculation ever since he performed an about-turn on plans to walk away from United at the end of the 2001-02 season.
He has since admitted that his decision to go public with his intentions was an ÔÇÿabsolute disaster,ÔÇÖ and vowed that he would not make a similar mistake when he chooses to leave the club, having arrived as successor to Ron Atkinson in November 1986.
Whether Ferguson would remain at Old Trafford in a senior capacity should he retire could present a thorny issue for any incoming manager, with Sir Matt BusbyÔÇÖs elevation to an ÔÇÿupstairsÔÇÖ role following his retirement in 1969 ultimately proving a distraction to his initial successors.
Gill has repeatedly stated, however, that FergusonÔÇÖs opinion on a new man will be sought and that his advice will be taken by a club that has not appointed a manager for over a quarter of a century.
FergusonÔÇÖs determination to wrestle the Premier League title back from Manchester City this season, having been devastated by the loss of the crown to UnitedÔÇÖs neighbours, has been rewarded with his 13th league title as Old Trafford manager.
And although he has admitted his disappointment at failing to win more than two European Cups during his time at United, the ability to walk away from Old Trafford having restored the clubÔÇÖs dominance, both locally and nationally, has given Ferguson the opportunity to leave on a high.