Football: United bank on unholy alliance

Rupert Murdoch and Alex Ferguson may be unlikely bedfellows, but their combined expertise could bring Manchester United's Champions' League dream a step closer.
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The Independent Online
AN INTRIGUING outcome, if BSkyB buy Manchester United ,would be the bringing together of two men who, for much of their lives, have held starkly opposing political views. Rupert Murdoch, in many respects, would be an unacceptable face of capitalism in the eyes of Alex Ferguson.

Nothing is more likely to rile the Ferguson than to call him a Conservative. A confirmed socialist, he once rounded on a reporter who likened the team's travails in Europe to Margaret Thatcher's problems with her party over the EU. "Don't ever compare me to that woman," he growled, the look on his face a testament that he was not joking.

Yet Murdoch's newspapers in this country were Mrs Thatcher's strongest supporters and the The Sun has only recently converted to backing Tony Blair. The headline in the The Times yesterday described the proposed deal as "A Marriage Made in Heaven", but as far as Ferguson's political beliefs are concerned it will be a shotgun marriage.

But, if that suggests the most successful manager of recent times is likely to seek a divorce from Old Trafford, the impression is wrong. Ferguson might not see eye to Sky with his prospective employers but he can envisage a golden finale to his time with United.

Only last season Ferguson, 57 in December, bridled against suggestions he would be retiring soon, claiming he still had a hunger to succeed. After four Premiership titles and two Doubles, that appetite will only be satisfied in Europe.

Ferguson, who has been at Old Trafford since November 1986, desires to emulate one of his predecessors, Sir Matt Busby, by making United the best club in Europe. That means winning the Champions' League, which United qualified for by defeating Poland's LKS Lodz 13 days ago. The closest he has come was two years ago, when they reached the semi-finals and lost to the eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund.

Ferguson might have known nothing about BSkyB's negotiations, be concerned at the growing gap between the club and its supporters and have reservations about the likely new owners, but that will be offset by the opportunity to compete properly with clubs like Juventus, Milan and Barcelona, who have consistently paid higher transfer fees and salaries. It takes a strong soul to turn his back on a dream.

BSkyB have intimated that Martin Edwards, who currently owns 14 per cent of the club, will remain as a paid chief executive although he will sell his shareholding for approximately pounds 80m, and it is inconceivable that Murdoch would want to get rid of Ferguson or his assistant, Brian Kidd. The unholy alliance may have a beneficial side-effect, too.

A Conservative he might not be, but conservative Ferguson is by nature and, although United are the richest club in Europe, he has been loath to break a salary structure that pays the top players pounds 22,000 a week. Only last month he failed to sign the Netherlands' Patrick Kluivert even though Milan had agreed an pounds 8m fee with United, and it is reported that Dwight Yorke took a wage cut to come to Old Trafford from Aston Villa.

At last year's annual shareholders' meeting it was also revealed that Manchester United plc had been prepared to fund the purchase of Marcelo Salas, and it had been Ferguson who had baulked at buying the Chilean. Instead, Salas went to the Italian club Lazio for pounds 11.7m (pounds 800,000 less than Yorke).

Whether Ferguson, who has anxiously protected the club and the shareholders' interests in the past, would be as circumspect with Murdoch's money is debatable. Freed from restraints, he is likely to make his pounds 27m spending spree this summer on Yorke, Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist seem like the unloading of small change. "You can have the best collection of footballers ever," Ferguson said last season, "but if there's no-one driving the bus you'll not get there." He will not want to get off now the transport has turned into a coach of gold.