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LONDON (Reuters) - Manchester United's succession planning for life after Alex Ferguson was left in tatters on Tuesday when manager David Moyes was sacked after 10 troubled months of failure and frustration at a club used to seamless success.
Moyes, appointed with a six-year contract on the direction of retiring fellow-Scot Ferguson last July after 11 years at Everton, did not even get to complete his first season as the club's American owners, the Glazer family, ran out of patience.
Announcing his departure in a terse, two-line statement, United thanked Moyes for "the hard work, honesty and integrity he brought to the role" at Old Trafford but his spell in charge will be remembered more for dire performances, humiliating defeats and a failure to qualify for the all-important Champions League for the first time since 1995/96.
United have lost six home league games, won only one match in 12 against the Premier League's top six and will finish outside the top four for the first time since 1991.
Midfielder Ryan Giggs, 40, was appointed to take interim charge of the team for the final four games of the season with United mired in seventh place, 23 points behind league leaders Liverpool.
Speculation immediately turned to who might take over at Old Trafford, with the club's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward leading the recruitment process.
A decision on Moyes's successor will be taken by the board as a whole but senior figures, including Ferguson, will be consulted.
Dutchman Louis van Gaal was installed as the bookmakers' favourite.
The former Barcelona, Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich boss is coach of the Netherlands but has already said he will stand down after the World Cup in Brazil and has talked of a move to the Premier League.
Other leading coaches distanced themselves from the role, with Juergen Klopp saying he was happy to stay with Borussia Dortmund and Pep Guardiola also indicating he had no desire to walk away from a Bayern Munich side he has forged into probably the best in world football.
That is the level United fans and owners expect to be operating at but, a year to the day after securing their 20th English league title, they are instead scrambling to try to qualify for the "also-rans" Europa League.
Tuesday's announcement was widely expected after being leaked to British media on Monday - a day after United's meek 2-0 loss at Moyes's former club Everton.
The manner of the defeat, and of many of the other 14 under Moyes' troubled 51-game stewardship, would have been unthinkable under Ferguson, as newspaper stories that many of the current squad had no faith in their manager seemed to be borne out by their lacklustre displays in recent weeks.
The sacking of Moyes, less than a year into a contract of a reported four million pounds ($6.73 million) per year, is an indication of the profit-focused approach of the Glazer family.
While able to accept the $50 million shortfall caused by missing the Champions League - partly due to a huge new shirt sponsorship deal with General Motors - the prospect of giving Moyes a close-season transfer money pot in a market where the best players might not want to come, proved an unpalatable one.
United's shares, which trade on the New York Stock Exchange, were up just over six percent at $18.80 at 1924 GMT, signalling investor relief at the decision to sack Moyes.
Former United stalwart Gary Neville suggested Moyes should have been given more time to make his mark and said the fault was not his alone.
"The idea of giving people three and four and six year contracts and then getting rid of them after 10 months is something that is foreign to me," he told Sky Sports.
"However, there is no disguising that the football this season has been poor, the results have been poor. As a fan, I've not enjoyed watching it. I'm sure David Moyes himself hasn't enjoyed watching it.
"I've played with a lot of those players, they love the club and are desperate to do well for the club but they've just completely lost confidence and belief. That's ultimately what's cost David Moyes."
Moyes's sudden departure mirrored the traumatic spell the Old Trafford club suffered between 1969 and 1971 when Matt Busby retired after 24 years as boss.
His hand-picked successor Wilf McGuinness only lasted 18 months before Busby took over the reins again.
Ferguson, who has sat in the stands silently watching his empire crumble, will not be returning to the dugout, but the comparisons between his time and Moyes' brief stint did not help the new man.
Moyes built his reputation during 11 seasons at Everton where, despite not winning a trophy and operating on a relatively shoestring budget, he routinely guided the club into the top 10.
However, moulding a well-drilled hard-to-beat unit proved to be a different managerial task than getting the best out of a team expected to win trophies, even if the squad he inherited did appear short of quality in key areas.
Eyebrows were lifted before the season had even begun when Moyes raised concerns about the champions' tough fixture list in the opening weeks.
A crushing 4-1 loss to Manchester City on September 22 and defeat in their next home game to West Bromwich Albion, who had not won at Old Trafford since 1978, left United 12th after their worst start to a league season for a quarter-of-a-century.
Everton also won at Old Trafford for the first time in 21 years, Newcastle United won there for the first time in 41 years and Swansea City for the first time ever, when they triumphed in the third round of the FA Cup.
The board started to feel concerned after lacklustre defeats at Olympiakos Piraeus in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 clash and then Liverpool at home in recent weeks.
The loss at Moyes's former club Everton on Sunday proved to be the final straw and the United hierarchy reached a decision to dispense with the Scot late on Monday night. Woodward met the manager to confirm his fate early on Tuesday.
Moyes's first major signing, Belgium midfielder Marouane Fellaini, who followed from Everton, looked ponderous and out of his depth as United failed to show attacking spark while his January purchase of Juan Mata for a club record 37.1 million pounds, even though the former Chelsea midfielder was ineligible for the Champions League, looked like a desperate move.
Questions were being asked in Old Trafford's corridors of power not about who Moyes would sign but about what he would get out of the players.
Rumours emerged of player dissatisfaction with Moyes's training regime while the new manager was further alienated by virtually ignoring Giggs, who is worshipped at Old Trafford.
The few bright sparks came in the Champions League but they were extinguished when United were knocked out by holders Bayern Munich with the minimum of fuss.
The knives had been out before then, with disgruntled fans paying for a plane trailing a banner over Old Trafford reading 'Wrong One - Moyes Out' in a game against Aston Villa in March - which United won 4-1.
Fans of rival teams started to chant 'David Moyes, we want you to stay', stewards stood guard to keep home supporters away from the prominent banner inside Old Trafford declaring the manager to be 'The Chosen One' while at Everton last weekend Moyes was taunted by one fan posing as the Grim Reaper, complete with inflatable scythe.
When Ferguson left Old Trafford after 26 years, he told the fans in a farewell speech: "Your job now is to get behind our new manager".
As 70,000 roared their approval, the last thing he would have expected would have been to be repeating the plea 12 months later.
Additional reporting by Alan Baldwin/Mike Collett/Keith Weir; Editing by Martyn Herman and Toby Davis