Phelan left United in the summer following David Moyes' appointment as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor.
Since then, the 50-year-old has been doing plenty of media work and quite a bit of background, filling in his knowledge of the lower leagues to give himself the best possible chance of climbing the management ladder when a chance presents itself.
It might have happened before now.
For his local team Burnley put him on their short-list to replace Owen Coyle in 2010.
Yet it appears Phelan was never even told.
"I was wrapped up in what I was doing," he told Press Association Sport.
"I realised it was something special. I was working in a great environment. The facilities were fantastic and the manager let the coaches get on with it. Would I have wanted to jeopardise that?
"When I got told later on that one or two clubs were interested but I was never informed it actually added value to what I had been doing. If I hadn't been doing my job properly, I would have been on my way.
"I am very lucky. How many guys have not only played for the top football club in the country, they have coached there and been an assistant manager there? That is a dream.
"But now I am out of it, I hope those opportunities come around again."
It's not that Phelan wants to dismiss what he achieved at Old Trafford.
After all, from being appointed first-team coach under Ferguson in 2001 and then moving on to assistant manager, he shared in six Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a couple of League Cups and that never-to-be-forgotten Champions League final triumph in 2008.
They are all indelibly soaked into an impressive CV.
But Phelan knows United must now be used in the past tense.
"My career has always been progressive," he said.
"I didn't just walk into Manchester United and become assistant manager. I did learn my trade before that.
"I went coaching in the lower leagues at Stockport and Blackpool, then I went to Norwich.
"Obviously, I then moved to the best club in the country but I did start to think I could take that progression again, from assistant manager to manager.
"I am quite open at the moment. Managing is where I want to go but that is down to circumstance.
"Is there an opportunity? If there isn't, it might be the next best thing, or the best thing after that.
"I no longer have that background of Manchester United. It gave me security but now it is gone."
Phelan is realistic about the challenges of modern-day management and how little time is afforded to those who do step in.
For the moment though, he can afford to wait, all the time acquiring more knowledge.
"I can be a little bit picky," he said.
"I know the standards I would like to maintain.
"In six months' time I might not be in that position but I do know a lot of people make mistakes by jumping in too quickly."
Of course, in part Phelan was the public face of United, standing in for Ferguson on all his BBC related interviews during the Scot's seven-year refusal to talk with the broadcaster.
Yet still, when the media offers came, he was not sure he would like it.
As it turns out, Phelan has been pleasantly surprised.
"I didn't think I would be known enough to be able to talk the talk," he said.
"As I have done it I feel quite comfortable in that environment, giving an opinion based on what I am seeing without feeling bad about it.
"You do think 'Am I good enough to put myself out there?'.
"I just hope I talk a lot of sense. The game is too big for that now."