Manchester United vice-chairman Edward Woodward has three options, it seems, when it comes to who will coach the club next season – or indeed, for the rest of this season. The first is Louis van Gaal. We all know what you get (or more to the point, don't get) with Louis: not many goals, possession for the sake of it and, if you ride your luck (and others around you drop out) a chance of finishing in fourth place.

The other two are what Donald Rumsfeld might call ‘known unknowns’. Firstly, Ryan Giggs: Van Gaal’s number two but conspicuous this season for his silence, although the outspoken criticism from his former team-mates in the media, chiefly Paul Scholes, hint at dissatisfaction with the current style. And then there’s Jose Mourinho, linked to the job ever since his departure from Chelsea, and on Sunday, reported by The Independent to have written a six-page letter explaining why he wants the job and what he would do if he had it.

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His agent Jorge Mendes was quick to bring out a statement, which read: “It does not occur to anyone that a coach like Jose Mourinho can write letters to clubs offering their services. It is absolutely ridiculous and totally absurd.” The statement does not say that Mourinho did not write a letter; nor that he does not want the job at Old Trafford.

In most cases, clubs will only need to make the change if things are going very well, and the coach is moving up a level, or things are going very badly. But how coaches are appointed remains one of football’s great mysteries.

Jose Mourinho could be on the way to Manchester United

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There is no set interview procedure, and shortlists are often created on the hoof. Most throw up all sorts of different names, with individuals who have very different ways of doing things. Giggs, untested but with his knowledge of, and role in, United history, and Mourinho, a proven winner but with an approach seemingly at odds with that history, is the perfect example. They can only both be options for the same job if the club has no idea what it wants.

The best-run clubs will know exactly what they want in a new coach before starting the process. They should also have a constantly-evolving long-list of targets in case a swift change is required – not that many do. Chief executives on friendly terms will often call each other for a reference, or a breakdown of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

Unsurprisingly, the interview is never conducted on the club premises. The coaches will almost always know someone there and so the meetings themselves are booked in at rooms in discreet hotels or the offices of club owners. The first step is normally a phone call and if that goes well, then a meeting is arranged. “Meet me, meet the owners, that’s the key,” said one Championship chief executive. “They need to get on with us and trust us just as much as the other way around.”

This didn't go quite so well for Wolves boss Jez Moxey when he sacked Mick McCarthy in February 2012. He had said the vacancy was “not a job for a novice” but found his options limited despite interviews with Steve Bruce, Walter Smith and Neil Warnock - and Alan Curbishley ruling himself out. He promoted assistant boss Terry Connor, who failed to win any of the last 13 games of that season.

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal

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Questions will be asked about style of play and a prospective coach’s approach to training, tactics and game-play. One Championship chief executive told me he asked the final three coaches on his shortlist for an example of a game in which they had made a result-defining decision. Another said that the previous coach would take all training sessions with the players, and it was important for continuity reasons that the new man (who ended up failing) did the same.

Getting the right manager is the single most important decision that a chief executive can make: if it goes wrong, it can be expensive, as United are finding out. “You need research your candidates meticulously and to have scouted them as assiduously as you would a player,” wrote Tor-Kristian Karlsen, who was sporting director when Monaco appointed Claudio Ranieri as coach, in The Global Player magazine.

“Know their character and temperament inside out, their strengths and weaknesses, their adaptability and flexibility; how they organise things, how hands-on they are, how they work with their coaching team. Clubs are happy to sanction huge budgets for player scouting, [but] very few bother to do the same for managers - even though that appointment is much more crucial. While players come and go and there is a squadful of them in case one signing flops, if your manager fails it's potentially ruinous.”

One other word of advice for Woodward comes from the Championship chief executive. “Don't listen to the fans,” he said. He was in charge of a team that won promotion to the top-flight, and wanted to change coach at the end of the season. The fans were up in arms at the mere thought, and the coach stayed. At least, until halfway through the season, when he left, the damage was done, and the side went back down again.

You also need a bit of luck. How would the Premier League table look now if Van Gaal had accepted Daniel Levy’s offer to take over at Spurs and not United in summer 2014? The clock is ticking on United’s season. Woodward is backing Van Gaal for now; before his next coaching appointment, he needs to know what United actually wants from its boss.

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