The Ryan Giggs injunction controversy yesterday threatened to undermine Manchester United's preparations for Saturday's Champions League final, as the player was withdrawn from training and a masked gang attacked photographers' cars outside his house.
Giggs last night played in Gary Neville's testimonial match against Juventus at Old Trafford but his absence from Carrington yesterday morning only inflamed the controversy, with Sir Alex Ferguson taking so badly to a question about the 37-year-old's value against Barcelona that he told his press secretary that the inquisitor would be banned from Friday's pre-match press conference at Wembley. "We'll get him. We'll ban him on Friday," Ferguson said.
The United manager last night confirmed the £17m signing of Atletico Madrid goalkeeper David de Gea, which may be concluded early next week. "We identified him quite a while back as one we should go for," Ferguson said. "He's a young goalkeeper; very quick, good composure, presence and an outstanding replacement for [Edwin] van der Sar. We were looking for the same type of qualities as Edwin, because the one great quality Edwin always had was his composure and organisational ability."
But the Giggs issue is more difficult to control. United accept that Ferguson cannot ban any journalist from Friday's press conference and the manager's clear displeasure was followed six hours later by a gang arriving in a Ford Transit van to throw eggs and flour at journalists and vandalise six cars. A press statement on the incident, which was issued without the club's advance knowledge by Greater Manchester Police, included the name of Giggs' street.
Giggs, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes all played half an hour of Neville's testimonial last night, with David Beckham also pulling on a United shirt for the first time since 2003. United lost the game 2-1.
Ferguson's response to the events of the past 72 hours suggests he feels they could destabilise United's preparations if he allows them to. The Giggs press conference question – about the value of having a player of such experience available for the final – was put by the Associated Press's Rob Harris, an experienced journalist known in the press corps for his willingness to raise the difficult issues, and was the third of the day at Carrington.
"All the players are important, every one of them," Ferguson replied, then asked his press secretary, Karen Shotbolt, for the identity of the questioner, in an aside which was caught by the microphones. After establishing from her that this journalist would be seeking attendance on Friday, Ferguson replied he would be banned.
Giggs has shown no superficial signs of the strain surrounding his legal battle with reality TV star Imogen Thomas in recent weeks. He was convivial with those journalists he recognised at Manchester Airport en route to United's semi-final match in Schalke on 26 April and was the only player willing to stop to talk at any length to the daily press reporters, after United's second-leg win took them to Wembley.
But United, who fielded Anderson and Rafael da Silva for the last 25 minutes of Neville's testimonial, know that distractions could be fatal. Captain Nemanja Vidic acknowledged yesterday that a key part of their task would be the psychological one – of not allowing Barcelona to get under their skin with gamesmanship.
"We have to focus and concentrate and then it won't be a big deal to handle the things that we know will come," said Vidic in a discussion of the controversy surrounding the Catalans' semi-final first leg against Real Madrid. "Obviously their players have a different mentality to us but it won't be a problem to deal with these things. They may do things and argue more than they should do but it won't affect us. The referee for the game will probably be the best referee around. I think he can cope with that."
2010-11 fan favourites: Players of the year, as chosen by supporters
Javier Hernandez is set to cap a remarkable debut season for Manchester United by leading the attack in Saturday's Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley. The Mexican has been voted player of the season by the club's supporters, and is (so far) the only winner who played a significant part in last summer's World Cup.
Supporters' player of the season:
Arsenal To be announced on Friday
Aston Villa S Downing (England)
Birmingham B Foster (England)
Blackburn P Robinson (England)
Blackpool D Vaughan (Wales)
Bolton S Holden (US); played four minutes at 2010 World Cup
Chelsea P Cech (Cz Rep)
Everton L Baines (England)
Fulham To be announced next month
Liverpool Lucas (Brazil)
Manchester City V Kompany (Belgium)
Manchester Utd J Hernandez (Mexico); played 169 minutes
Newcastle F Coloccini (Argentina)
Stoke R Huth (Germany)
Sunderland P Bardsley (Scotland)
Tottenham L Modric (Croatia)
West Bromwich Y Mulumbu (Congo)
West Ham S Parker (England)
Wigan A Al Habsi (Oman)
Wolves M Jarvis (England)