Ferguson hits out at Kenyon over Rio restaurant encounter

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday launched a scathing attack on Peter Kenyon, Chelsea's chief executive, effectively accusing the former Manchester United official of engineering a covert meeting with Rio Ferdinand and dismissing his own club's suggestion that the presence of Kenyon and Ferdinand in the same restaurant was a coincidence.

Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday launched a scathing attack on Peter Kenyon, Chelsea's chief executive, effectively accusing the former Manchester United official of engineering a covert meeting with Rio Ferdinand and dismissing his own club's suggestion that the presence of Kenyon and Ferdinand in the same restaurant was a coincidence.

In an outburst that carried strong echoes of Arsène Wenger's criticism of Chelsea over the alleged "tapping" of Ashley Cole - the Arsenal manager quipped yesterday that "this is a new film, but we've seen it before" - Ferguson claimed Kenyon made an error of judgement, at best, to remain in the west London eaterie last Saturday after Ferdinand's arrival. The England player later insisted he had no idea the former Old Trafford chief executive would be there, an explanation Ferguson has accepted.

While his players prepared for tomorrow's FA Cup semi-final against Newcastle United at the Millennium Stadium, a game on which their prospects of redeeming another anticlimactic campaign hinge, Ferguson looked forward to tying the 26-year-old Ferdinand to a new deal and providing a positive end to what he termed "an interesting week".

It started with defeat at the Premiership's bottom club, Norwich City. The front pages of the red-top press then feasted on Wayne Rooney's private life as the sports sections devoured Roy Keane's comments about colleagues with "talent but no drive". The American tycoon Malcolm Glazer made a renewed bid to take over the club, and Ferdinand seemed to be planning to follow Kenyon to Stamford Bridge.

When reports of the meeting of the latter pair surfaced, United's official response was to label it "an unfortunate coincidence". Their manager refused to toe the party line. "That may be someone else's view, but it's not mine," Ferguson said. "I can't say I'm encouraged by Peter Kenyon's response that he has no interest in signing Rio. I have to say that when a chief executive of a Premiership club - with the history they have got in recent times - continues to sit in that restaurant, it's either contempt or thumbing a nose at us. At the least, it's ill-advised."

At the time of Kenyon's defection to work for Roman Abramovich, Ferguson was concerned he would use his inside knowledge of United to Chelsea's advantage. The Scot clearly felt the Ferdinand affair confirmed his suspicion. He also wanted to reassure fans that the defender - whose corner he fought so hard when he was suspended by the Football Association for missing a drugs test - was not about to repay him by leaving. "That's why supporters need to know what I feel about this. My concern is my supporters. I'm just letting them know I'm not happy with it."

United have not yet complained to the Premier League, which they must do in order for Chelsea to be called to account. Whether the London club covet Ferdinand or not, the controversy brought together his agent, Pini Zahavi, with United's current chief executive, David Gill, and the club solicitor, Maurice Watkins, yesterday. They discussed a fresh long-term contract for the player and Ferguson said: "We're close to something. Whatever way Rio was enticed to that meeting, I do believe he does want to sign a new contract and stay here."

Ferdinand is fit to face Newcastle in Cardiff after jarring a knee at Norwich. Louis Saha and Ryan Giggs, who made an unexpected return to training yesterday, are out, but Darren Fletcher may return after an eight-week lay-off. "He's in my mind because, as a young player, it wouldn't bother him to come in," Ferguson said of the Scotland midfielder. "He came in against Arsenal in last year's semi-final and dominated the match."

Ferguson is willing to gamble in the hope of inspiring United into scoring freely again; in five of the past eight matches, they have failed to find the net. "Goalscoring is definitely an issue," he admitted. "We can't understand it because we're making chances. The confusing and worrying part is that we've been dropping points to all the bottom clubs."

Keane evidently shares his concern, being quoted as saying United's fans were "fed up" and that "performances have been very poor". Ferguson maintained that reports of his captain's withering critique amounted to the press "twisting" his remarks. "Roy was being honest, telling the facts. There's a difference between that and being critical."

United's players spent Thursday on a "bonding" trip to North Wales, where they went white-water rafting. Alan Smith found the exercise useful.

"You find out who'll pull you out when you fall in and who'll let you sink," said Ferdinand's former Leeds United colleague. United will be in deep water if they do not maintain their remarkable record of not losing an FA Cup semi-final in 11 ties. Their last defeat at this stage was in 1970, so long ago neither the player who put them out, Billy Bremner of Leeds, nor the ground where he scored, Bolton Wanderers' Burnden Park, is with us any longer.

However, Ferguson issued a word of caution. "Newcastle don't have the players available that they had in Lisbon on Thursday," he said. "That creates a situation where they have to pick a midfield who don't normally play together. But they'll still take the same number of fans as us, and they'll be as passionate as ever. They've still got experienced players. And they still have Alan Shearer."

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