So he is not, after all, immortal. Sir Alex Ferguson made sure Liverpool never regained its perch, saw off the challenge of Blackburn Rovers, outlasted Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, faced down Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and finished with the upper hand over another club bankrolled by mega-rich owners, Manchester City. He could not, though, in the end, fight the effects of aging forever.
He still seems a young 71, his energy barely dimmed, even if he is mellower now than he was, but Dave Whelan, the Wigan Athletic chairman and a close friend, had warned a year ago that this season was likely to be Ferguson's last.
"After next season, Sir Alex will call it a day," he said last May. "The pressure is telling, especially when you are at the top for so long. The older you get the harder it is to cope with all that pressure, and eventually it will affect you. Sir Alex is resilient, and I know he will want to carry on until he drops, and I respect what he has achieved as everyone does."
He was speaking a few days after Ferguson had suffered a minor health scare when he was taken to a Glasgow hospital after suffering a nosebleed that would not stop.
"I am sure his intention was to carry on for two or three, maybe even more years, but he has had a little scare in the last week or so and that tells me he will think very hard, and realize there is no point trying to carry on for another five years and take the risk," Whelan went on. Earlier this week, there were reports he requires an operation on his hip. Eventually, even the greatest has to accept it is time to slow down.
As Ferguson noted in his parting statement, though, he could hardly have left the club in a stronger position. A year earlier, City had pipped United to the league title in the final seconds; this season it reasserted its dominance by cruising to the Premier League title. This is a young side and, as Ferguson pointed on in his program notes for last Sunday's game against Chelsea, it should form the basis of another great United generation.
"This team of champions is not going away -- we are here for the long ride," he said -- appearing to rule out any though of a departure. "We will get better, and if we apply ourselves in our normal fashion, I see our 20th league title as nothing but the start of another decade of success. Whether I will be here to oversee another decade of success remains to be seen, but I certainly don't have any plans at the moment to walk away from what I believe will be something special and worth being around to see."
Perhaps, though, a certain amount of secrecy is understandable. United, after all, after its partial flotation last year, must have half an eye in its share price and that means the quickest and smoothest transition possible. How, though, does anybody replace a figure like Ferguson?
Two candidates have emerged as early favorites: David Moyes and Mourinho.
There were reports earlier in the week suggesting Moyes had been lined up as an assistant for Ferguson with a view to him taking over at the end of the next season, and enough money was bet on him leaving Everton that bookmakers, assuming inside knowledge, briefly stopped taking bets. He is a calm and astute manager who has clearly become frustrated with the lack of investment at Everton that would allow him to take the club higher than upper midtable in the Premier League.
The problem is that he has very limited European experience, having led Everton in just one Champions League game. It may also be that Moyes is simply not glamorous enough to satisfy the demands of the brand -- and that, absurd and repulsive as it may sound to traditionalists, is a consideration for the club's owners.
Mourinho is expected to leave Real Madrid this summer. He has held talks with Chelsea's owner, Roman Abramovich, and the club's interim manager, Rafa Benitez, made clear Tuesday that he thought Mourinho was set to take over. But there were reports overnight that negotiations had stalled, ostensibly over the issue of the compensation Madrid will be paid, and it doesn't take a huge leap to wonder if there is some other reason. Either way, Mourinho's bargaining position seems to have been strengthened, although it is known that some senior figures at United, most notably Bobby Charlton, have concerns about his abrasive style.
Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp is a distant third favorite. He has been undeniably impressive with Dortmund, leading the German side to two league titles and this month's Champions League final. It would be no great surprise if he outgrew the financial restrictions at the club, but his lack of experience outside of Germany must count against him.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, having led Molde to its first ever Norwegian title, has been mentioned, possibly with senior United players such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes stepping up to fulfill coaching roles, and it has not gone unnoticed that former France manager Laurent Blanc chose Wednesday to reveal he is seeking a return to work.
Whoever does get the job -- and an announcement is expected within two days (which in itself suggests a candidate currently working at a club who needs to negotiate his severance, but not one for whom a severance deal will be problematic) -- will need great strength of personality. No United player has ever played under anybody but Ferguson, and the burden of following the most successful manager in the history of the English game is daunting. That perhaps hints at Mourinho, and accepting his combustibility, but Moyes might make for a simpler transition and is certainly less likely to run into conflict with Ferguson as he enacts his roles as ambassador and director.
All that is certain is that, after 23 years after Ferguson saved his job by winning the FA Cup, 11 years after his first retirement, United faces a period of unfamiliar uncertainty.