Ferguson's heir is apparent

When Sir Alex finally decides to call it a day at Old Trafford he may ask for his former protege Alex McLeish to replace him.

The competitive juices of Sir Alex Ferguson, right, flow fiercely and he will not retire as Manchester United manager until he is at least 70.
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As he prepares to celebrate his 68th birthday on New Year's Eve, you can safely presume that at the very top of Sir Alex Ferguson's computer print-out of resolutions for 2010 will be "to avoid mentioning - and verbally dynamite anyone with the temerity to do so within my hearing - the 'R' word...". Ever since he teasingly revealed that he planned to (whisper it) retire in 2002 only to promptly change his mind when it appeared that his less than close buddy Arsene Wenger headed Manchester United's four-man short list of suitable candidates (which at the time also included Martin O'Neill, David O'Leary and Alan Curbishley), Sir Alex has steadfastly refused to discuss the date of his possible departure.

And why should he? Bob Dylan turned 68 last May and surely no one would dare suggest that it is time for him to pack away his harmonica and reserve a rocking chair on the veranda of The Twilight Home For Ageing Rock Stars. Fergie may have been at Old Trafford since 1986 and become Britain's greatest manager ever, ever, EVER, but the competitive juices flow as fiercely as ever. The man lives to make mischief, and why would anyone want to slip into cardigan and slippers when there is so much fun to be had baiting Signore Ancelotti, Senor Benitez and Monsieur Wenger? Even as I write, Sir Alex will be sharpening his barbs as a house-warming present for his new neighbour Roberto Mancini.

The day will come, however, when Fergie and his wife, Cath, decide that enough is enough (it is my belief he will announce his intended abdication 24 months hence when he turns 70), whereupon he will assume his place on the board of directors charged with the task of nominating his successor. It will be a brave man, indeed, who agrees to replace him in the United dugout but Jose Mourinho is one such individual. He craves the job - which was one of the reasons he rejected Manchester City's recent overtures - and Fergie likes him and respects him. Nor would the self-styled "Special One" be intimidated by the continued presence of the "Very Special One" in the corridors of Old Trafford.

Seven years on, while O'Leary and Curbishley have long since relinquished any chance of nabbing the hottest of football's hot seats, Martin O'Neill has moved from Celtic to Aston Villa where he has enhanced his reputation as a manager blessed with rare inspirational skills and astute tactical acumen. The Northern Irishmen is also a shrewd diplomat and politician, two vital qualifications if Sir Alex's beady fixed eye were boring into the back of his neck.

With the announcement of the accursed "R" word still a long way off, much can change between now and then. Other managers at home and abroad are certain to force their way into the reckoning and commentators across the globe will compose millions of words on the subject. But according to my Old Trafford mole, although he would be gaze kindly upon either Mourinho or O'Neill, Fergie, who loves surprising people, favours a third candidate, his fellow-Scot and one-time protege Alex McLeish, who served as his on-field lieutenant for many years at Aberdeen, where they combined to transform a modest provincial club into the best side in Europe.

McLeish possesses all the necessary experience; he can nurture young talent, as he displayed at Hibernian where he converted a struggling club into the most exciting outfit in Scotland, he has proved himself in Europe as manager of Rangers, and he showed that he can handle "big name" players as Scotland's international coach. At Birmingham City, he has had no qualms about locking horns with Wenger, Ancelotti, Benitez and, aye, Fergie, himself.

Such is the nature of the bond between the two that McLeish still forgets himself on occasion by addressing his mentor as "boss" during their frequent phone conversations. A kindred spirit in personality and football philosophy, McLeish makes no secret of his admiration for "the boss". "As a manager, there are probably a lot of things that have rubbed off on me from Sir Alex," he reveals. "Things I do without even thinking about it. I don't think there's any one trait I could say, 'that's the way Sir Alex does it', but he's been my greatest influence in football - absolutely."

The mutual affection is tangible, even though McLeish looks back on his European "debut" for Aberdeen against Marek Stanke Dimitrov in 1983 as a less than golden memory. "Fergie pulled me into the squad for the away leg in Bulgaria and gave me US$7 (Dh26) a day spending money for the three-day trip," says McLeish. "But whoever I was due to replace declared himself fit at the last minute and I was left behind. To add insult to injury, Fergie demanded his $21 back."

Euphemistically described as an "uncompromising centre-half of the old school" - "If I'd a tenner for every stitch I've had put in over the years I'd have a bank book like Cristiano Ronaldo's" - McLeish, like his adopted dad at Old Trafford, is a hard, hard man with a sentimental and gentle streak. Or as Sir Alex puts it: "He reminds me a lot of Bill Shankly." And they don't come any better than that...