LONDON (AP) — The touchline jigs after goals. The furious gum-chewing. The obsessive time-keeping. The outbursts against referees. The stream of silverware.
Alex Ferguson 's hairline is receding but not much else changes with the Manchester United manager, whose competitive fires are burning as strongly this season as they did when he arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 with the task of awaking a sleeping giant.
Having won 37 major trophies over 26 years, he has certainly done that, establishing himself as the most successful coach in English football. But how long can this 71-year-old institution of the Premier League carry on?
Ferguson recently suggested that he still has "two or three years" left in him, keeping to a timeframe he laid out midway through through last season when he turned 70. But it was another interview — given to French sports newspaper L'Equipe back in 2009 — which revealed the inner feelings of the Scot and which can still be used as a yardstick.
"Three things," Ferguson said, "can make me stop — my health; if I don't take pleasure (in the job) any more; and if I don't have the strength for a new challenge." There appear to be few issues with his health — Ferguson had a pacemaker fitted at 62 but hasn't had any other major scares, despite being in one of the most pressure-filled jobs around.
He is clearly still relishing his job, too. With United sitting pretty atop the Premier League, Ferguson has been at his feisty best in recent months in reigniting his feud with Spanish coach Rafa Benitez, dismissing Newcastle as a "wee club in the north east" and claiming his top striker Robin van Persie could have been "killed" by an opponent's recklessness. He is currently fighting an FA misconduct charge for criticizing a linesman.
Then we come to the "new challenge" issue. After Ferguson was hired by United, he spoke of his determination to knock Liverpool "off their perch" as the kings of English football. He achieved that at the start of the 1990s, and has seen off pretenders Arsenal and Chelsea since the turn of the century.
Now it's the turn of Manchester City, a rival from across the city, to challenge United's hegemony. Fuelled by the cash of its Abu Dhabi owners, City won the Premier League last year and threatened to change the landscape of English football with its big-spending ways.
The master at reinventing and reviving teams, Ferguson responded by strengthening his attack with the inspired signing of Van Persie and United is now on course to wrest the title back off City and extend its record haul of titles to 20. Another threat diverted — and this one not just from the "noisy neighbors" but a club with previously unseen spending power in world football.
Domestically, it could be the most satisfying coup yet for Ferguson. To many, it would be the ideal way to bow out. The biggest challenge of all would still remain, however. Like any great manager, Ferguson measures success by how many Champions League titles he has won and knows much of his legacy will judged on that. He never hides his dissatisfaction at winning only two in his United tenure — in 1999 and 2008 — and has spoken of his "envy" of other clubs' record in Europe.
"We are trying to gain parity with them," he said before United's humbling by Barcelona in the 2011 final at Wembley Stadium. Another Champions League title would put United level with Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Ajax on four and maybe then he would be happy to hand over the reins. Although for a man who times the exit of his players from United so well — save for Jaap Stam, perhaps — "Fergie" sure is hanging on for his own departure.
With a love of United now deeply ingrained in him, the Scot will also want to ensure the club is passed to a worthy successor. "There's no one on the agenda, I can assure you," Ferguson said last month, when he most recently discussed his future. "There's always going to be names bandied about, no question about that, and they're all qualified people but nobody knows where they're going to be in two or three years' time."
Ferguson then identified three names that are usually on most pundits' lists of potential replacements. "Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, David Moyes ... there's a lot of successful managers out there," he said.
Unsettled at Real Madrid, Mourinho can stake a claim to be the heir apparent for the man he has described as an "inspiration" and "role model for every aspiring manager" when the Spanish giants meet United in the last 16 of the Champions League next month. In many ways, it will be an audition.
Mourinho's penchant for hostility may mirror that of Ferguson but he is hardly the kind of coach who sticks around at a club and builds empires, something the Old Trafford hierarchy will want. The same can be said of Guardiola.
Like Mourinho, he has openly courted a job in the Premier League and his recently signed three-year contract at Bayern Munich could end just when Ferguson decides to leave United. Four years at Barcelona proved as much of a mental challenge as Guardiola could take, however. How long would he last at United, taking on the job of replacing the irreplaceable?
The safe money is on United maintaining its tradition of hiring British coaches and going with Moyes, another highly respected Scot and a fiery coach in the Ferguson mold. In his 11th year at Everton, he has shown loyalty, staying power and — most important of all — talent.
That loyalty wouldn't stretch as far as turning down an offer United, a scenario that could come as soon as this summer should United walk away with a Premier League-Champions League double. Now that would be a way to go.