Atkinson's successor has done quite well

Big Ron assesses the men who could take over from Ferguson, who he thinks is at least two seasons away from retiring.

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Sir Alex Ferguson, who has led his Manchester United team to 10 Premier League titles, goes into today's vital match against Chelsea looking to lift his team from a mini crisis of form which sees them sitting in an unfamiliar mid-table spot in the table. But the wily Scot has seen it all before at Old Trafford, where he has become an institution since arriving in 1986 and has delivered 23 precious items of silverware including two Champions League trophies.

Three months short of his 67th birthday, he is in the privileged position in a profession notorious for managerial casualties of being able to name his own retirement date. That, in the opinion of his predecessor at United, is at least two seasons away. Ron Atkinson's dismissal paved the way for Ferguson to leave a secure existence in Scotland to take on the daunting challenge of trying to deliver what at the time was a first league title in 26 years for one of the world's most famous clubs.

Big Ron was asked to speculate on Ferguson's future when he guested for Showtime at their Dubai television centre recently and concluded that the situation could well become vacant at an ideal time for the current England manager Fabio Capello. Atkinson explained: "The first thing you have to bear in mind is that Fergie is likely to do a minimum of two more seasons so it doesn't necessarily mean those names being mentioned now are going to be in contention when the job is available. It is a question of who is flavour of the month at the time.

"At the moment, people are looking at a lengthy list of United old boys for a possible successor - former players such as Mark Hughes, Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Gordon Strachan and Paul Ince. "When Sparky [Hughes, now the Manchester City manager] was at Blackburn and his team were making progress and looking quite good, you could see him emerging as a contender. "Now he is across the road so we'll have to see what happens there. Similarly, if Keano [Keane] starts to get Sunderland buzzing then his name will be bandied about. Nobody seems to mention Brucie [Bruce] but he is a big Manchester United stalwart and if he does very well at Wigan then his name will come into the hat.

"The other one who has done a good job in recent years and maybe has not been appreciated as much as the rest is little Strachan at Celtic. Then there is Ince at Blackburn. Let's see what he does there." Having sung the praises of that cluster of United favourites, Atkinson then plumped for giving an outsider the task of inheriting the Ferguson legacy. "Unless one of those I've mentioned has an outstanding next two years, I would suggest the next United manager is going to come from overseas," Atkinson forecast. "Say Capello was on the market [after the 2010 World Cup], he would not go there and feel inferior. He would put his cards on the table and say 'I've done it' ."

Atkinson, 69, remains one of the most larger-than-life figures in football and loves to tell his after-dinner audiences about his and Ferguson's collective achievements at Old Trafford. "I often say to people that United have had two managers in the last 27 years and we have won 34 trophies between us." Taking into account Community Shields, Ferguson's haul is 31, Atkinson's three.