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Saturday, April 23, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Plot thickens over meetings between Kenyon, Ferdinand


LONDON -- If, by chance, a guy bumped into an old girlfriend in a restaurant his wife would no doubt understand. Unfortunate coincidences happen, unplanned, innocent liaisons . . . hey, they're part of life.

Christopher Davies

However, if later the same night the guy bumped into his old flame again his wife might ask questions.

Serious questions. Lots of them.

Lighting does not strike twice, especially within a few hours and the hubby would have to conjure up a pretty good excuse for the second "unscheduled" meeting.

Which is why Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has cast doubts about the double restaurant rendezvous between Rio Ferdinand, the player's agent Pini Zahavi and Peter Kenyon, the Chelsea chief executive.

Ferdinand and Zahavi arranged to meet for dinner at Carpaccio, an Italian restaurant in Chelsea.

Kenyon, who as chief executive of United negotiated the £30 million transfer of Ferdinand from Leeds, was also there.

Ferdinand and Kenyon spoke very briefly as the United defender had dinner with Zahavi.

The pair left the restaurant to continue their evening elsewhere, at a Greek restaurant 7 km away (the portions in the Italian place must have been very small to visit a second eatery the same night). Lo and behold who was there? Kenyon.

As Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger remarked, it's like seeing the same film twice.

THERE ARE A number of reasons why Sir Alex Ferguson smells a rat.

Peter Kenyon was involved in the "tapping-up" charge Chelsea faces for an illegal approach to Arsenal's Ashley Cole, a meeting the Premiership leader initially denied.

Some may say an experienced wheeler-and-dealer like Pini Zahavi was insensitive, to put it mildly, to take Rio Ferdinand, his client, to a restaurant where the chief executive of a club which is under investigation for such an allegation was dining.

Kenyon is probably not in the top 100 on Ferguson's Christmas card list. The United manager believes the club's then-chief executive should have done more to secure the signature of Ronaldinho from Paris St.-Germain, the Brazilian eventually joining Barcelona in 2003.

Chelsea insisted it had no plans to sign Ferdinand and said: "Both the player and Manchester United are fully aware of the circumstances of the meeting and Chelsea's position on it. There is absolutely no significance in Peter Kenyon seeing Rio, their meeting was purely by chance in a very public place."

The London club (which also met Cole in a very public place -- a central London hotel) initially refuted claims any meeting with the Arsenal player had taken place, so Chelsea denials can lack credibility.

When Kenyon was pictured with England head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson for talks two years ago, Kenyon said it must have been an old photograph.

Chelsea also said it would take legal action against anyone suggesting it was anything other than an innocent coincidence, so maybe Ferguson will be hearing from its solicitors.

United put out a statement saying it accepted Chelsea's version -- which cut little ice with Ferguson who said: "The club have accepted Chelsea's explanation? Well, that may be someone else's view but it's certainly not mine.

"I've not been over-encouraged by Peter Kenyon's words that he does not want to sign Rio. He's saying he doesn't want to sign one of the best central defenders in Europe.

"For a chief executive of a Premier League club -- with the recent history they have had -- to sit in a restaurant like that is amazing.

"I don't know if it's contempt or whether he is thumbing his nose at us or what. I just don't know. I would say that it was, at least, ill-advised. Therefore, we will leave the matter with the football authorities. I think the Premier League are aware of it."

Wenger, unusually in agreement with Ferguson about an issue, said: "I don't know if it really happened like it happened with Ashley Cole. First of all, a club should not be involved in any kind of incident.

"I respect what Chelsea are doing on the pitch but I expect them to behave and respect the rules off the pitch, like everyone else."

Leeds United fans might be thinking there is a touch of pots and kettles about Ferguson's indignation.

When Ferdinand joined United in July 2002, the time-span between the two clubs reaching an agreement on the £30 million fee and Ferdinand signing was a matter of hours, prompting Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale to remark the two parties must have had little to discuss.

PINI ZAHAVI is known as the super-agent and he is certainly super-rich, pocketing £1.5 million from Rio Ferdinand's transfer from Leeds to Manchester United.

Nice work if you can get it.

Since Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea two years ago, the Israeli has become almost a club adviser, earning millions of pounds from the transfers of players such as Juan Veron and Hernan Crespo, currently on loan to Inter and AC Milan, respectively, with Chelsea paying a large chunk of the players' £85,000 a week wages.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Zahavi are very close, the agent having helped the United manager in a number of transfers apart from Ferdinand.

While Ferguson has given Peter Kenyon both barrels, he has not criticized Zahavi and did not blame Ferdinand.

The England defender has two years of his contract with United remaining and it remains hopeful the player will sign a new deal. Ferdinand is reported to currently earn £70,000 a week, but needless to say Zahavi wants more for the player's next deal.

"Rio loves it in Manchester and wants to stay there," said Zahavi and you know there's a 'but' coming.

"But it depends on United, not on him, whether that happens. He is ready to go a long way to make sure it does but everybody has to give a little. It's called negotiation.

"He deserves to earn, if not more than the other top central defenders in the world, at least the same. Rio cannot see himself playing for another club and I can assure everyone that Chelsea are not on the agenda.

"They already have two fantastic central defenders (John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho)."

However, Zahavi added: "We are focusing on him staying with United. We hope very much to conclude an agreement in the next couple of weeks. If we don't, Rio will see out the two remaining years of his contract unless United choose to sell him."

This is real gun-to-the-head stuff.

By extension Ferdinand, treated compassionately by United who paid his wages when he was banned for eight months after missing a drug test, endorses his agent's statements. If he doesn't he should come out and distance himself from Zahavi's quotes.

Does Ferdinand love Manchester enough to stay for £110,000 a week but not enough to stay for a mere £90,000?

Some may see this as almost amounting to public extortion. As a public company United cannot blow its wage structure to pieces for any single player.

Zahavi knows this, too.

If Rio isn't happy with, say, £90,000 a week then it's a sad world.

What is even sadder is that United will probably pay Zahavi a nice fat fee if the new contract negotiations are completed successfully.

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


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