Ferguson hails young guns after Ronaldo signs at last

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The Independent Football

On the day Roy Keane sensationally parted company with Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson ensured that one of the younger members of his squad would remain at the club until 2010. While Keane stormed out of the "Theatre of Dreams" the Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo signed a five-year contract.

The deal had verbally been agreed with the 20-year-old before departure for United's pre-season training camp in Portugal, but a series of delays, believed to be due to Ronaldo's image rights and the fact that his agents were in Portugal, put the formal announcement on hold.

However, with fellow youngsters Wayne Rooney, Darren Fletcher, Kieran Richardson and John O'Shea all now tied down to long-term contracts, Ferguson feels that he has the basis of a squad which can take the club back to the pinnacle of the English game.

"It has taken a bit of time and we did get a bit frustrated but we are delighted the job has now been done," Ferguson said yesterday. "We are sure Cristiano will develop into the world-class player we know he is going to be. It means all our young players are now on long contracts, which shows the faith we have in them in representing our hopes for the future."

Ronaldo will not be disappointed either, having raised his salary from around £15,000 a week to £50,000 - a fairly handsome pay rise.

Ferguson's faith in the current batch of youngsters clearly exceeds that of Keane, whose "unbroadcastable" MUTV interview which ultimately led to his departure was so critical of some of the newcomers. Unlike Keane, Ronaldo, Rooney and company will be at the Valley today as United look to build on their win over Chelsea almost two weeks ago which even brought their ultra-critical captain to his feet.

So, too, will Gary Neville, who returned to reserve-team action on Thursday after a three-month absence with a groin injury.

Earlier in the week, Ferguson said that the Charlton trip would come too soon for the full-back. But Neville's 60-minute appearance against the West Bromwich reserves has persuaded the United manager to call the 30-year-old into his squad for the capital trip, with a likely start in Tuesday's crucial Champions' League encounter with Villarreal to follow should he come through this latest test without a problem. "This is a chink of light after all our injury problems," Ferguson said. "He is a great character in the dressing-room and hopefully there will be no more interruptions for him."

Louis Saha will not be in the squad, although Ferguson reported that the injury-plagued French striker was training well and a return to duty was not far away.

The news was less good for Ryan Giggs, who has been told that he cannot resume training for at least another fortnight as he looks to recover from the fractured cheekbone he sustained in the first meeting with Lille last month. "It is frustrating but with that type of injury you have to be cautious because if he got another knock on it he could be out even longer," Ferguson said.

With Keane a permanent absentee, it leaves only Gabriel Heinze and Quinton Fortune on the long-term injury list, meaning January reinforcements are almost inevitable. "We are always thinking about the transfer window," Ferguson said, smiling. "There is nothing to report as yet but the important thing is to assess and look around. Our scouts are all working hard."