MANCHESTER UNITED chief executive David Gill today hailed working with retiring manager Alex Ferguson as the "greatest experience" of his working life.
The 71-year-old Scot announced this morning that he will stand down at the end of the season after a trophy-laden 26-year reign, having celebrated his 49th and final piece of silverware with a 13th Premier League title this term.
Gill said: "I've had the tremendous pleasure of working very closely with Alex for 16 unforgettable years – through the treble, the double, countless trophy wins and numerous signings.
"We knew that his retirement would come one day and we both have been planning for it by ensuring the quality of the squad and club structures are in first-class condition.
"Alex's vision, energy and ability have built teams – both on and off the pitch – that his successor can count on as among the best and most loyal in world sport.
"The way he cares for this club, his staff and for the football family in general is something that I admire. It is a side to him that is often hidden from public view but it is something that I have been privileged to witness in the last 16 years.
"What he has done for this club and for the game in general will never be forgotten. It has been the greatest experience of my working life being alongside Alex and a great honour to be able to call him a friend."
Joel Glazer, joint chairman of the Manchester United board with brother Avie, pinpointed the 2008 Champions League final penalty shootout success over Chelsea as a highlight among the many memories.
He said: "Alex has proven time and time again what a fantastic manager he is but he's also a wonderful person.
"His determination to succeed and dedication to the club have been truly remarkable. I will always cherish the wonderful memories he has given us, like that magical night in Moscow."
Ferguson will take on the roles of both director and ambassador for the club after stepping aside from the managerial hotseat.
Avie Glazer said: "I am delighted to announce that Alex has agreed to stay with the club as a director.
"His contributions to Manchester United over the last 26 years have been extraordinary and, like all United fans, I want him to be a part of its future."
Former player Paul Ince described Ferguson as one of a kind and also admitted finding a replacement would not be easy.
Blackpool manager Ince said: "He's done the lot, you will never see anyone of his kind again."
When Ince joined United from West Ham in 1989 Ferguson made sure his move was not ended because of a problem with his medical.
"I remember the first day that I joined Man Utd. I failed my medical and I thought my move to Man Utd was going to collapse. The way he treated me was like a son and I will never forget that moment.
"To play under that man was so demanding, his standards were so high. We had our ups and downs, a lot have ups and downs with him."
Ince said Ferguson's replacement would have a difficult act to follow.
"It's got to be someone with a massive character. It has got to be someone who can deal with what it takes to be a Manchester United manager. Whoever comes in to replace him is going to have to deal with the Man United legacy."
Ince believes Ferguson staying at the club as a director could be a double edged sword for his successor.
"It can have its advantages and disadvantages. Replacing Alex Ferguson is such a massive, massive job. Whoever goes in will need the help of Alex Ferguson," he said.
"Whoever comes in if it doesn't go well you've got Alex Ferguson upstairs and it can put added pressure on you."
Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor said Ferguson would be "the toughest act to follow".
Taylor said: "The game of football will be a lot poorer place without him. He has been quite simply the best. He followed in Matt Busby's footsteps and even surpassed him.
"He will be also be the toughest act to follow."
Taylor has been PFA chief throughout Ferguson's time at United and he admitted they had clashed on occasion – but that it was soon forgotten.
He added: "I will miss him – he has been a very good friend of the PFA throughout his career.
"Of course at times it has not always been smooth and we have had a difference of opinion but we always respected each other and we have had a lot more agreements than disagreements.
"He is a great football man, he has turned out team after team and in terms of youth development he has been one of the finest exponents of that. He has had a faith and a belief in his youngsters that is rare in today's football."