Football: Ferguson faces future with funds to develop his dream: Joe Lovejoy suggests some likely targets in a summer of recruitment for the man of the moment at Old Trafford as thoughts turn to the quest for European Cup glory

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The Independent Online
FIVE successors have tried on Sir Matt Busby's mantle as manager of Manchester United these last 20 odd years and none of them - not even the substantial Ron Atkinson - has been big enough to fill it. Alex Ferguson has come closest, winning the League for the first time since 1967, but there remains the small matter of the European Cup.

Ferguson cannot hope to lay the ghosts which drove so many predecessors out of office unless, like Busby, he delivers the most glittering prize of all. Joe Royle's talk of a new golden age at Old Trafford, with United dominating the English game for years to come, was much appreciated, but already they are gazing longingly at wider horizons.

If the domestic championship has been their Holy Grail, the European Cup is United's nirvana, and the signings Ferguson makes during the close season will all be chosen with Europe in mind.

More than ever before, money will be no object. Ferguson had pounds 5m in his transfer fund before he paid pounds 1m for Eric Cantona in mid-season, since when the club have reported half-yearly profits of pounds 5m. The full-year figure is likely to be in the region of pounds 15m.

To that must be added the spin-off revenue generated by winning the League - pounds 870,000 in prize-money represents only the tip of the iceberg - and the millions to be made from participation in the European Cup.

Blackburn Rovers may have had their spell in the limelight, courtesy of 'loadsamoney' Jack Walker, but the new champions are about to reclaim their traditional role as the big spenders of English football. Supporters have been assured that there will be no repeat of the embarrassment caused a year ago, when Alan Shearer snubbed United in favour of Blackburn because better terms were on offer at Ewood Park.

Ferguson, then, has the money to buy big - and the targets he has in mind do not come bigger. David Platt, Roy Keane and David Hirst, for starters, with Stuart Pearce also under consideration.

Keane, the most coveted midfield player in the country, wasted no time on Saturday in announcing that he would be taking up the get-out clause in his contract, entitling him to leave Nottingham Forest in the event of their relegation. His advisors were at Old Trafford last night, and he has been looking at property in the Manchester area.

The dynamic Irishman is seen as the ideal replacement for Bryan Robson, whose various infirmities have restricted him to just half a dozen appearances this season.

In terms of the title-winning team, Keane's introduction would presumably be at the expense of Brian McClair, with Paul Ince untouchable after a season of swaggering progress with club and country.

Platt is Ferguson's most ambitious target. England's captain and principal goalscorer is surplus to requirements at Juventus, and certain to move on during the summer, but he would prefer to stay in Italy where Sampdoria, among others, have expressed interest.

For the moment Platt is not thinking of an early return to England, but if the Italian alternatives were to evaporate, who knows? Manchester is his home town, United were the club who hived him off to Crewe on a free transfer. It would give him great satisfaction to go back in style, for the record fee he would surely command.

Ferguson's continued interest in Hirst, for whom Sheffield Wednesday have refused at least two offers, is the strongest of indications that he is unhappy with Mark Hughes' goalscoring record, which is ordinary at best.

The abrasive Welshman has had one of his best seasons, with 15 goals to date, but the champions' centre-forward should really be contributing at least 20 - a figure Hughes has never attained.

Hirst has, and might reasonably be expected to do even better, given the service United's strikers enjoy. He is also an Englishman, which is important if United are to have a decent stab at the European Cup.

Hughes, being Welsh, is counted as a foreigner for European purposes, and the rules provide for only three 'non-nationals', plus two players 'assimilated' through football's version of naturalisation.

Peter Schmeichel and Cantona are sure to fill two of the places for foreigners. Hirst's recruitment, in place of Hughes, would facilitate the inclusion of McClair or Dennis Irwin - or possibly Keane as the third. Alternatively, Irwin might not be needed if Ferguson was to renew the pursuit of Pearce, who he tried to sign a year ago. England's injured left-back was not available then, but is expected to be part of Forest's post-relegation exodus.

Keane, Platt, Hirst and Pearce? We are probably talking upwards of pounds 15m, or, to put the figure in proper perspective, this year's profits. Small Boddingtons. That Busby mantle does not come cheap.