The right time for Alex Ferguson to go

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Regardless of who replaces Sir Alex Ferguson, there are plenty of reasons to make this a good time for his departure.

Perhaps, as Manchester United have done in recent years on the pitch and now, apparently, in the dugout, it's fitting that we should turn to a Liverpudlian in a time of crisis. The legendary British DJ (and loather of all things Manchester United) John Peel, when giving praise to his favourite band, The Fall, summed them up with the famous quote: "They are always different; they are always the same."

Now, The Fall and Manchester United are not the same thing. One is a Manchester-based outfit consisting of an ever-rotating cast of nobodies with their best years long behind them helmed by a curmudgeonly and volatile boozer, and the other is a popular football club. But Peel's words might equally be used as a eulogy for latter-day United, and the bizarre identity they've taken on since 2008.

The questions surrounding Alex Ferguson's retirement as manager of Manchester United will largely centre around the black hole now at the centre of the club, reportedly to be imminently filled by David Moyes, may soon be overtaken by the larger abyss of the entire team, and whether they're worthy of being champions, or they're not simply there by a combination of luck, history, and magic.

Under the Glazer regime, United have had their financial firepower seriously reduced, and have not invested anywhere near as much in transfers and wages as a club with their revenue is capable of owing to the debt accumulated during the leveraged buyout. What that means is that it's been difficult to gauge whether the recent years of success are sustainable - how much of it has been down to Ferguson, and how much has been down to astute recruitment on the playing side.

Even if it turns out United simply have a very good squad, it's hard to know how much of that has been down to Ferguson and whether it can continue in his absence. There have been high-profile mistakes, but overall his record is virtually unparalleled. Even the bizarre recent decisions, playing almost without a midfield, and overlooking what received wisdom states as the most important area of the pitch for years, worked out due to a combination of astute recruitment in other areas and a skillful managing of the on-pitch side of things to offset it.

That represents a curious paradox - it was the right time for him to go because he'd never looked so replacable, in terms of the product that was being put out on the pitch, the loss of the incredible European nous that typified the era either side of the 2008 Champions League victory, the increasingly baffling team selections and oversights.

Yet the fact United had won the title at a canter this season could alternatively suggest that Ferguson has in fact never been more important. Considering the quality of the football and the glaring weaknesses, United overachieved to win the league at all, let alone by the margin they did. It has been put down to the incompetence of their rivals, but it's impossible to know either way for sure.

So, perhaps this was the right time for Ferguson to go. In the past few years since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure, United have had various experiments, played on occasion with outstanding grace, flair and bravery, and sunk to new depths of negativity and cowardice. Throughout it all, there's been some vague identity in the centre that nobody has been able to pin down, save to say that they're definitely sure it's there.

In the same way we've had trouble deciphering this United team, we continue to struggle analysing Ferguson. It's possible that whoever comes in will confirm all suspicions, United will be revealed to have an average squad, and they'll finish a distant third. It's equally possible that a couple of additions and the air of change will freshen things up and begin a new era. But either way, United were getting stale. When Peel gave his line about the Fall, he was suggesting a sense of familiar warmth through the continuity - but at United, that's threatened to become an irritating, stale awkwardness, and albatross around the neck that keeps the club perenially on the brink of returning to the next level without any hope of managing it. Whether the choice is a radical one or a more conservative option, and whether they succeed or fail, at least United will truly know where they stand.

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