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Sir Alex will be replaced many times

Man U's exceptional ex-manager leaves a legacy no single person will replicate

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Louis van Gaal of the Netherlands is pegged by many to take over the reins at Manchester United next season.

MARTIN MEISSNER / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Louis van Gaal of the Netherlands is pegged by many to take over the reins at Manchester United next season.

At some point, the succession procedure following Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement from more than a quarter-century of management at Manchester United was always going to end up here.

And, no, "here" is not the interim appointment of long-time player Ryan Giggs and a backroom staff of United old-boys, including Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.

While their appearances at Old Trafford, today, when the Red Devils face Norwich City (11:30 a.m., TSN2) will no doubt boost morale at a ground left rocking by the brief and incompetent tenure of David Moyes, they will also represent little more than an exercise in nostalgia for a club as rich in history as it is unsure of its future.

The "Class of 92" quartet has exactly zero matches of first-team management among them, and while each of the four -- who won a combined 36 Premier League titles with United; six of them together -- may well become accomplished coaches someday down the road, today is not that day.

(Some have suggested Giggs could be the new Pep Guardiola, but the Spaniard apprenticed with the Barcelona B squad before taking the top job at Camp Nou)

Instead, United has arrived at a juncture it was always going to visit after Ferguson's exit. Namely, the realization that a long-term replacement for the celebrated Scot -- a sort of coronation -- was both unrealistic and a relic of the sense of exceptionalism that followed Ferguson out the door.

For 27 years, United was largely immune to the uncertainties their rivals routinely grappled with, and as Ferguson built one illustrious team after another the club became used to a cloak of success that covered an entire generation.

But it was not by divine right the Red Devils won trophy after trophy. It was because of Ferguson. He, himself, was exceptional, and in believing they could simply pass the sceptre on to Moyes, the club showed itself as alarmingly naive.

Moyes was never going to become Ferguson, just as Giggs will not become his former boss.

United, in botching its selection process, has learned the hard way that in the absence of a transcendental, once-in-a-lifetime Ferguson figure, managerial longevity has little correlation to winning.

Chelsea, following their 2003 takeover by the ambitious and impatient Roman Abramovich, won 11 major honours with eight different managers while United were claiming 10 with Ferguson, and Arsenal have gone nearly nine years without lifting a trophy -- all of them under Arsene Wenger.

It may be unsavoury following such an unprecedented period of stability, but the managerial merry-go-round is the way of modern football, and it's something United should, and now look likely to, embrace.

(And if they still crave staying-power, they can always appoint a long-term director of football.)

If, as is widely expected, Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal is given the reins at Old Trafford this summer, United will be getting a manager with considerable experience in turning chaotic situations into a helpfully formative ones -- in laying the groundwork for future success.

That's what he did at Bayern Munich following the disastrous nine months of Jurgen Klinsmann in 2008-09, and it's what he can be expected to do at the soon-to-be-dethroned Premier League champions.

He'll stay two or three seasons, establish an identity and a template, and then move on.

From there, United will appoint a follow-up specialist-manager to build on the Dutchman's foundation, and after he gets the sack they'll seek out a replacement whose specializations are what the club feels his predecessor lacked.

All of this was inevitable, and United would have ended up at this point sooner or later.

That it took them less than a year to abandon their idealistic philosophy of succession can only be a good thing, as three or four seasons of David Moyes would have only prolonged their agony while providing a false hope of an impossible future.

By admitting their Moyes mistake, United is moving on from Ferguson. They're taking their first, brave steps into a modern football world rather less straightforward than the last, but by no means less promising of glory.

Yes, there will be many new managers along the way. But that doesn't mean they can't be the right managers at the right times in the club's progression.

jerradpeters@gmail.com Twitter @JerradPeters

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 C6

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