As conspiracy theories about the activities of Sir Alex Ferguson's enemies rumbled on yesterday, the Manchester United manager had a fresh round of more tangible worries.
Nicky Butt has asked for a transfer and is likely to leave Old Trafford for an estimated £5m during the transfer window. "He has asked to go. It is a very sad situation," Ferguson said.
Butt, who turns 29 on 21 January, has been at Old Trafford for 12 years and grew up as part of the "golden generation" that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers. He has started only 11 of United's 31 matches this season and made it known before Christmas that he would consider a move if more first-team chances were not forthcoming.
Middlesbrough, under the guidance of United's former assistant manager, Steve McClaren, are favourites to sign him. McClaren has already said Butt would be "the perfect player for us. If there was any possibility of getting him I would be first on the phone." There is likely to be interest from numerous clubs including Tottenham, Everton, Birmingham and Manchester City.
Butt's request for a move received support yesterday from Sven Goran Eriksson's England No 2, Tord Grip, who said the midfielder needs regular first-team football to remain part of the international set-up. "He has been an important player for us," Grip said. "It's better for him to get back playing regularly."
A second blow for Ferguson came when Fernando Vasquez, the manager of Real Valladolid, turned down a fresh approach from Ferguson to become his assistant. "United have renewed their interest but I cannot suddenly abandon the project I have started at Valladolid," he said. "I am a man of ethics and principles and I only leave a club if the board gets rid of me."
United's concerns over their strikers also continued despite confirmation of the signing of the Chinese teenager, Dong Fangzhuo. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's return from injury is still uncertain. The saga over Louis Saha is also no closer to conclusion despite claims by his agent that he might move this week. "Sir Alex Ferguson did not give up on Louis Saha," Branko Stoic was quoted as saying. "To be honest, negotiations are very hard. A new bid is coming, superior to the previous one, and I believe the transfer will go ahead during this week."
Dong's signing will do nothing to help matters in the short term. He does not yet qualify for a British work permit and will start his life in Europe with United's feeder club, Royal Antwerp.
These developments unfolded against a backdrop of alleged chicanery designed to discredit Ferguson. He is still seeking evidence that someone has been leaking damaging stories about him, including suggestions of a potential conflict of interest over Tim Howard's transfer. A group of Ferguson's supporters within the influential fans' group, Shareholders United (SU), meanwhile, have reiterated their belief that United's AGM last November was targeted by planted "hijackers" whose intention was to sully Ferguson's reputation by asking embarrassing questions.
A dossier about the alleged plot, compiled by Michael Crick, an SU member and investigative journalist, has been handed to United. It alleges that four people, including two actresses, bought small shareholdings in United a few days before the AGM and then planned a trip together to the meeting, where each asked a potentially tricky question, including one about Ferguson's son Jason's business interests.
Crick discovered that two of the four were directors in three London companies involved in private intelligence gathering. A fifth individual involved in what Crick calls "the AGM team" was identified as being an investigator who regularly does work for the corporate investigators, Kroll.
Last year Ferguson had it confirmed that John Magnier, the major United shareholder with whom he is in legal dispute over stud rights to the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar, had been employing Kroll to gather information on his personal and professional affairs. The Kroll employee linked to "the AGM team" denied he was personally at the AGM or that his associates who were present had anything to do with Kroll.
A United insider said last night: "We're aware of Crick's report and it's being digested. It's not something there will be any public acknowledgement of at this stage."