United's Mourinho Dilemma

nigel smithCorrespondent IDecember 15, 2009

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 11:  Inter Milan Manager Jose Mourinho returns the ball to Mario Balotelli of Inter Milan as Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson looks on during the UEFA Champions League Round of Sixteen, Second Leg match between Manchester United and Inter Milan at Old Trafford on March 11, 2009 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

What will Jose Mourinho make of Ryan Giggs’ claim that Sir Alex will stay in the United hotseat for another five years?

The BBC’s 36-year-old, newly-crowned Sports Personality of the Year said he was likely to retire sooner than his manager, who will turn 68 on New Year's Eve.

“The manager is as good as ever and will go on for a long time,” Giggs declared. “I can still see him as manager of United in five years' time, easily, because as long as he is healthy, he will have the desire to carry on.”

Giggs also told the Times newspaper that Ferguson "has a great team around him."

"He has his passions away from the game and can get away with his horse racing. When he comes back to football he is refreshed, and I know he still has that desire."

The quotes should make for interesting reading in the Mourinho household. Perhaps, the "Special One" will consider that they contain less meaning than an interview in the New Statesman last March, in which Ferguson outlined his own exit strategy, suggesting that he would remain at the United helm for no more than two years.

"That kind of area,” he told the magazine’s reporter. “We'll see. I'm 67 now. My health's good. I still have the drive and the energy. I've been here more than 22 years, but I still get a buzz arriving at the training ground. I still get that tingle of excitement when the team bus draws up at an away ground before a big match."

This timeline must surely fit Mourinho’s calculations more closely. His contract with Inter runs until 2012.

Nevertheless, the former Chelsea boss has made no secret of his interest in the United job and stood accused of touting himself for the succession last July following an article in the Mail newspaper.

“I would consider going to Manchester United, but United have to consider if they want me to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson,” he told the newspaper. “If they do, then of course.”

By November, the speculation had hardened sufficiently for the Times newspaper to splash with a headline that the "Special One" would return to England to take over the champions.

“Jose Mourinho has targeted Manchester United as the ideal venue for a return to English football and is optimistic that Sir Alex Ferguson will recommend him as his successor when he retires,” the newspaper claimed.

“Mourinho does not see his long-term future in Italy. His prime target is the United job. Mourinho developed a strong personal relationship with Ferguson and has been given reason to believe the Scot will play a significant role in appointing his successor.”

Mourinho, who won two titles with Chelsea and has already bagged Serie A’s top spot with Inter after only one season, is guaranteed to figure on the shortlist of candidates to succeed Sir Alex.

United’s Chief Executive David Gill almost admitted as much two years ago when commenting on Mourinho’s achievements in England.

“Mourinho is clearly a very successful coach,” Gill said. “He has done well here in a relatively short period of time.”

Yet, according to tabloid rumour, next summer could prove a pivotal period in Mourinho’s career. The Portuguese appears as a capable but disaffected force in Italian football. His media jousts have made him unpopular.

A parting of the ways between Mourinho and Inter would seem more likely if the Italian champions cannot improve on a quarterfinal berth in this year's Champions League.

This has led to the rumour mill regularly cranking out tidbits claiming that Mourinho may be forced to weigh his interest in the United job against eventual offers from the likes of Manchester City or even Liverpool.

Such a situation would concentrate Mourinho’s mind fully. It may also lead to some discomfort in the United boardroom too.

The number of contenders for the United succession has reduced sharply in the seven years since Fergie reneged on his commitment to retire. The list of the suitable no longer includes Sven Goran Eriksson, Mark Hughes, or Carlo Ancelotti. Those managerial heavyweights who still remain—David Moyes, Martin O’Neill and possibly Laurent Blanc—may not carry the weight of a Mourinho candidacy in the minds of United’s decision makers.

This raises an intriguing prospect. If the United board is convinced that Mourinho is the only man with the charisma and trophy-winning ability to take over from Sir Alex, would it be willing to offer the required nods and winks to prevent the Portuguese from taking the reins at a rival club?