Football: Fortune's permit in doubt

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MANCHESTER UNITED's new midfielder Quinton Fortune had his work permit rushed through without consultation with the Professional Footballers' Association.

Gordon Taylor, the PFA chief executive, revealed last night that the players' union, normally watchful about recommending work permits, had been kept in the dark in the bizarre case of the South African signing.

Fortune has been granted a work permit by the Department for Employment and Education on the basis of a reference from the South African Football Association that he has played in 14 of the last 15 internationals. However, the Government department was hurriedly checking for proof yesterday after revelations that Fortune has played in just 17 out of 33 games in the past two years.

Taylor said: "We were not consulted. It's not landed on our desk. On the face of it Fortune does not meet the requirements. The Government promise to speak to all the football authorities if it is a borderline case. If there is some doubt it should come to us."

The DEE admitted last night that it was taking a second look at Fortune's record but a spokesman said: "The South African FA are the first source of information. If there is a relevant discrepancy we will check it out."

While he seeks clarification of Fortune's status, the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, will wait for a full assessment of Ronny Johnsen's knee injury before deciding to plunge into the transfer market.

Injuries to Johnsen, Wes Brown and David May have caused a defensive injury crisis at Old Trafford. United's medical team are assessing the Norwegian's injury and they fear he may require surgery, which would rule him out for the best part of the season.

If that is the case, Sir Alex is prepared to buy another defender to provide cover for his back line. A possible target, according to reports in Spain, is Barcelona's Dutch international stopper Winston Bogarde. The Champions' League transfer deadline is at the end of the month.

Jim Smith, the Derby County manager, has been forced to go back to the drawing board in his search for a striker after the Rams abandoned their move for Esteban Fuertes.

Derby called time on the pounds 2.3m deal after international clearance failed to come through by 9am yesterday - the deadline set by the Pride Park club. Smith, who has admitted his side need another forward, must now switch his attentions away from Fuertes as he bids to bolster his forward line.

"It's been a dreadful time for Esteban," Smith said. "He'd trained with us and was desperate to play for Derby in the Premiership. What I saw of him, both on the training ground and as a person, persuaded me to keep at it. Had I not been impressed, I would have looked elsewhere."

Fuertes must now return to his native Argentina, distraught at seeing his dream move to England collapse. Derby's chief executive, Keith Loring, said: "The problem has been with the three parties [two clubs and a firm of agents] who own his registration. There's been no problem with the player himself."

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink's transfer from Leeds to Atletico Madrid has gone through with hours to spare. The pounds 12m fee for the Dutch international striker has finally arrived in Leeds' bank account, just before the Spanish transfer deadline last night.

The Leeds secretary, Ian Silvester, confirmed: "The funds have been cleared and Atletico are getting Jimmy to sign the form cancelling his registration with us."

The Premiership sponsors Carling insist that the English top flight is becoming more popular than ever - despite smaller attendances at some clubs. The beer company claims that average crowds for the opening matches this season are proof that the league is as attractive as ever.

"The Premiership is the most exciting league in the world, and attendances rising by nearly 25 per cent since the beginning of our sponsorship in 1993 would appear to support this claim," a Carling spokesman, Andy Sutherden, said.

The average gate at this time last season was 29,300, but this season it is 29,840. However, the Football Supporters' Association has expressed "grave concern" over falling attendances at some clubs.