Sir Alex Ferguson was planning on leaving Manchester United at the end of the 2001-02 season, as the Premier League giants created a three-man shortlist of successors
Fergie’s United won the first Premier League title in 1992-93 and went on to lift another 12 before calling time on his glittering career in May 2013.
The history books, though, could’ve looked a lot different. In the summer of 2001, Ferguson announced his intention to retire at the end of the following season.
He’d already won everything at club level – lifting the Champions League in 1999 – and United began looking for replacements from the turn of the century onwards.
Ferguson would later postpone his retirement – later calling the premature move the “biggest mistake” of his career – but a three-man shortlist for his successor was still drawn up in 2000, according to The Athletic.
Here, Mirror Football takes a look at those three candidates and what they’ve gone on to achieve in management in the last two decades.
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At the time, Arsenal legend O’Leary was viewed as one of the best young managers in the Premier League.
He was appointed Leeds boss in October 1998 and achieved success in his first campaign, leading the West Yorkshire club to European qualification.
The following season they reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and qualified for the Champions League, where they went on to progress to the last four.
But, just as Ferguson announced his intention to stay at Old Trafford, O’Leary’s managerial career and Leeds’ status as a top European club started to unravel.
O’Leary’s side failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2001-02 and he was subsequently relieved of his duties, as Leeds racked up the debt. Just two years later, they were a Championship side.
O’Leary, though, did get another crack at management in the Premier League at Aston Villa and again fared well in his early months in charge.
Villa finished sixth in 2003-04 and 10th the following campaign, but O’Leary was sacked at the end of his third season after they avoided relegation by just eight points and two places.
The three-time Manager of the Month hasn’t had a job in the Premier League or EFL since, experiencing a brief spell at UAE club Al-Ahli between July 2010 and April 2011.
Like O’Leary, O’Neill was held in high regard at the turn of the century after cracking spells at Wycombe Wanderers and Leicester.
He started his managerial career at the former, leading them from non-league football to Division Two – today known as League One – during a memorable five-year spell.
After a brief stint at Norwich, he took Leicester from Division One (Championship) to the UEFA Cup, winning two EFL Cups and promotion to the Premier League.
Unlike O’Leary, though, his career went from strength to strength after Ferguson’s famous U-turn.
During his time at Celtic, O’Neill won seven major trophies and reached the UEFA Cup final in May 2003, losing to Jose Mourinho’s great Porto side.
The Nottingham Forest icon returned to the Premier League in the summer of 2006 – ironically replacing O’Leary at Villa – and went on to achieve three consecutive sixth-place finishes.
O’Neill later managed Sunderland, Republic of Ireland – leading the country to Euro 2016 qualification – and Forest.
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Curbishley’s longevity is perhaps why United reportedly took an interest in appointing him as Ferguson’s success at the turn of the century.
He became Charlton Athletic’s manager in the summer of 1991 and went on to lead the team to the Premier League in May 1998, winning a famous play-off final against Sunderland.
Charlton were immediately relegated back to Division One but found themselves back in the big time 12 months later, this time winning the second tier title.
After Ferguson decided to stay at Old Trafford, Curbishley’s Charlton went on to consolidate themselves in the Premier League before he said goodbye in May 2006.
Charlton went on to suffer relegation 12 months later and haven’t returned to the top-flight since. Curbishley’s work has never been forgotten, though, later having a stand named after him at the Valley.
He returned to management in December 2006 – controversially keeping West Ham in the Premier League thanks to Carlos Tevez’s goals – but that proved to be his last hurrah.
Curbishley hasn’t managed since leaving West Ham in September 2008, although he’s enjoyed brief coaching roles at Fulham.