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Keir RadnedgeOne of the most momentous eras in world club football is about to draw to a close with the retirement, in 11 days’ time, of Sir Alex Ferguson as manager of Manchester United.

United confirmed his departure – to become a director and club ambassador – after a rush of sudden overnight speculation.

Ferguson’s retirement had been the subject of rumour ever since he called a halt to his original planned departure in 2002. He is 71, has a heart pacemaker and will undergo hip surgery this summer. Not that these factors appear to have affected his energy, focus and ferocious ambition.

He might have wished to go out in glory in the Champions League Final at Wembley at the end of the month. But he has assessed this as the best possible practical moment after wrestling back the Premier League crown from ‘noisy neighbours’ Manchester City.

Ferguson, in a retirement statement, described this as “the right time.”

This season’s title will be the 13th league crown of his reign over English football which has included 38 major trophies with United and countless individual prizes including a FIFA Presidential Award from Sepp Blatter only this past January.

The Scot will not be the only major departure from Old Trafford this summer. Chief executive David Gill, who managed the transition of Manchester United’s ownership from the Edwards to Glazer era, is stepping down as ceo at the end of June.

Their partnership has been the foundation on which United have constructed their monolithic supporter and commercial popularity around the world.

Both men will be difficult acts to follow. Gill, it is known already, will be succeeded by Ed Woodward, the former Goldman Sachs banker who was instrumental in advising the American Glazer family in their controversial leveraged buyout. Woodward has been the driving force behind the construction of United’s 30-plus raft of sponsorships.

Favourite to succeed Ferguson is fellow Scot David Moyes whose 10 years at Everton are likely to come to an end with the expiry of his current contract this June. An announcement could be made before the end of this week.

Ferguson – full name Alexander Chapman Ferguson – was born on December 31, 1941, in the working-class docklands district of Glasgow known as Govan – traditionally an area which produces the toughest of men. He was a union representative in the shipyard and has been a life-long supporter of the Labour Party.

A centre-forward with Rangers in his modest playing days, he had gone into management with East Stirlingshire and St Mirren before breaking, with Aberdeen, the Scottish stranglehold of Rangers and Celtic and landing two European trophies.

In the summer of 1986 he took over as Scotland manager at the World Cup finals in Mexico after the death of Jock Stein and was then appointed manager of Manchester United the following November.

Ferguson had turned down Tottenham, Arsenal and Wolves in the six years before he took over at United.

The United job was a tough one because every new manager had to try to get out from under the long shadow of Busby who had pulled the club back together after the 1958 Munich air disaster.

Other managers had come and gone inbetween and Ferguson, too, would have been sacked had United not won the FA Cup in 1990: United’s board had almost run out of patience with him. Now, with almost 27 years to his credit, he is the longest serving manager in United’s history.

He also shares, with Brian Clough and Bob Paisley, a record as the only British managers to have won the Champions League Cup more than once. His second such success arrived in 2008, against Chelsea in Moscow. But the first triumph, in 1999, will remain the most memorable; United scored twice in stoppage time to turn over Bayern Munich 2-1 in Barcelona.

At the end of normal time even Ferguson was resigned to defeat and had been preparing words of consolation for his players. The most famous of his many comments about the game was uttered at the press conference afterwards: “Football? Bloody hell!”

Already a CBE, Ferguson was honoured months later with his knighthood for “services to football.” Last November United unveiled a statue of Ferguson at Old Trafford, outside the entrance to the North Stand which had been renamed in his honour a year earlier.

Fellow United icon Sir Bobby Charlton once said: “Alex is unique. I’ve never known anyone who works as hard as him. He’s been sensational for United. When we first got him you could tell at once he had this incredible work ethic: he wasn’t satisfied with second best, he wanted to be winning all the time.

“That hasn’t changed but in our wildest dreams we couldn’t have expected Alex to be so successful over all this time. I don’t know how he’s done it. He’s marvellous.”

Ferguson could hardly have expected to wrap up his career so neatly. His final match in charge – against West Bromwich Albion The Hawthorns on Sunday week – will be his neat and precise 1,500th as The Boss.

By Keir Radnedge

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