FOOTBALL: Ferguson `may leave United soon'

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SIR ALEX FERGUSON could walk out on Manchester United before the end of his contract if his rift with Martin Edwards continues, according to a shareholders group.

Shareholders United believes that Sir Alex is becoming increasingly frustrated by his poor relationship with the club chairman and could leave before his planned retirement date in the summer of 2002. The relationship between Ferguson and Edwards is back in focus after a book entitled Manchester Unlimited, by Mihir Bose, alleged there was mutual ill-feeling between the manager and the man who is also chief executive of Old Trafford's plc.

Edwards is irritated by yet more talk of a fall-out with Ferguson and he said: "I'm sick to death of picking up newspapers and reading about a rift between myself and Sir Alex Ferguson. I don't believe a rift exists. I believe very, very little I read any more."

Michael Crick of Shareholders United believes, however, that the breakdown could drive Ferguson out. "It's no secret that there's a rift between them and although Edwards vehemently denies it, you only have to read Ferguson's book to see it," he said.

"I was saying a few weeks ago that there was a serious possibility that Sir Alex Ferguson might not fulfil the remaining two-and-a-half years of his contract and I still think that's a possibility. It's clear from Ferguson's book that he came close to leaving and if we have a rift between the chief executive and the most important employee, that's very serious."

Andy Walsh, chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, felt Edwards needed to be brought into line by the rest of the board. "What I would say is that it's highly inappropriate behaviour for the chief executive of a plc," he said.

"It's not for a chief executive to go round airing his private differences in public with other members of management. It's all quite disturbing and the board of directors and chairman Sir Roland Smith must pull the chief executive to one side and tell him to pack it in.

"From a supporters' point of view it's highly disturbing at a time when Manchester United are more successful than ever before. It's the job of the chief executive to inject some stability into the club."

Crick claimed that relations between Ferguson and Edwards have only declined in recent years, ironically as United have been most successful. Crick claimed Ferguson's salary has long been an issue, while he was upset at not being consulted about Sky's attempted takeover.

"I remember having a conversation with Ferguson about three or four years ago and he was very pro Edwards," he said. "It's all gone wrong in the last few years and the first reason was because he felt he was being underpaid, especially when he saw how much money Edwards was making out of the club. Ferguson was also left out of the Sky takeover and he felt aggrieved about that."