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Friday, Jan. 30, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Manchester United soap opera looks set for very long run


LONDON -- The Manchester United soap opera continues and shows no sign of running out of far-fetched scripts.

Christopher Davies

You really couldn't make this one up. Previously on Manchester United . . .

Sir Alex Ferguson has started legal proceedings against the club's major shareholder John Magnier for half a stake in champion racehorse Rock of Gibraltar, the United manager believing an alleged verbal agreement over his 50 percent stake extended to stud fees.

Magnier, who with JP McManus, owns 25.49 percent of United's shares through their company Cubic Expression, has allegedly employed Kroll Associates, a private investigation company, to probe Ferguson's finances.

Leaked documents to the Sunday Times over the past two weeks, from unnamed sources, include a letter to United chief executive David Gill asking for full details over certain transfers -- there are 63 questions in all -- while requesting talks about Ferguson's new contract to be put on hold.

United has agreed that finance director Nick Humby will investigate recent transfers but M & M, believing this to be akin to the police investigating the police, want an independent audit.

If Humby finds anything irregular it would have dire consequences for United, which would be in trouble with the financial regulators.

Yet why has an investigation been sanctioned?

There should be nothing to investigate if the board has agreed to all the transfers.

To add to the incredible scenario M & M have enough shares and associates to call an emergency general meeting to pass a vote of no confidence on Ferguson if they so wish.

Yet whatever the manager may or may not have done, the United fans have made it known where their allegiance stands, their confidence in the Scot remaining total.

Ferguson, meanwhile, agreed to a new one-year rolling contract to commence July 2005, which will only antagonize the club's major shareholders, who, at the same time, are antagonizing the fans whose power should not be underestimated.

M & M vs. Ferguson has become personal -- the irresistible force against the immovable object, with both parties accustomed to winning whatever battles they start.

The Irishmen are trying to undermine the biggest single asset of the club they are major shareholders in. Like so much in this public private row, it does not make sense.

Why would Ferguson take on two of Ireland's richest and most influential men in a Dublin Court when he already has riches beyond most people's dreams?

On the other hand, as major shareholders M & M are entitled to ask why United paid £12 million for Cristiano Ronaldo, when the Portuguese winger was apparently on offer to other clubs for half that amount.

The whole matter seems destined to end in tears with United the losers. It is remarkable the team has kept winning amid all the politics and legal rows within its midst.

This one could run and run -- unlike Rock of Gibraltar who has retired to the less demanding business on a stud farm.

We are often asked whom we would like to come back as in our next life. My usual answer is that I do not mind as long as I do not return as myself.

If I could change places with anyone in my current life Winston Bogarde would be high on my list.

The Chelsea defender has earned -- or rather, has been paid -- around £7.25 million, mostly for simply training since signing from Barcelona on a free transfer in August 2000.

Bogarde, who does not even have a squad number, has started just four games for the Londoners plus eight appearances as a substitute -- the last 15 months ago.

That works out at around £600,000 per appearance, which surely makes Bogarde -- one outing in two and a half years -- the most expensive mistake in transfer history.

Bogarde has played two reserve matches this season and generally trains for only three days a week. As long as he does what the club asks of him, Bogarde is not in breach of his contract and will continue to collect his salary until his current agreement runs out this summer.

It can be said with as much confidence as night following day that he will not be offered a new contract.

Rarely can so much have been paid to someone for so little and not surprisingly, nobody has owned up to the responsibility of signing Bogarde.

Former chief executive Colin Hutchinson, who now works for an agency involved in the transfer of players, said he brokered the deal with the consent of then manager Gianluca Vialli.

The Italian denies he had anything to do with Bogarde -- "I went to Italy for a few days and when I came home, Colin had sold Emerson Thome to Sunderland and brought in Bogarde," said Vialli.

"I never wanted Bogarde and made that clear."

Hutchinson's version is: "Like all transfers during Luca's time here, the signing was carried out with his full knowledge and authority. To suggest anything else is nonsense."

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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