Alex Ferguson risked alienating himself from some of Manchester United's most influential fans groups yesterday when he asked them to abandon a protest against John Magnier and JP McManus at the Cheltenham Festival.
United supporters who are opposed to any takeover of the club have been planning a demonstration against the Irish racing tycoons - who own 28.89 per cent of United - at the racecourse on Gold Cup day, 18 March. They will meet this weekend with Cheltenham officials to discuss where on the course they may be allowed to stage a protest.
Yet Ferguson has requested that fans refrain from any protest, saying: "Cheltenham is such a great festival and I don't want it marred in any way... I am strongly opposed to any violent unlawful or disruptive behaviour which may reflect badly on the club and its supporters in general."
A statement from United added: "Sir Alex also knows that this is the view of the Manchester United Board, who have previously urged fans not to participate in any disruptive or criminal activities."
Ferguson's appeal was greeted by a mixture of "despair and surprise" by fans. Although the United4Action group, which is coordinating the Cheltenham protest, has yet to comment publicly, another group, calling itself the Manchester Education Committee, has told Ferguson to stay out of its business.
In a statement that aped Ferguson's own, the MEC - which organised a disruptive protest at Hereford racecourse earlier this month - compared Manchester United to the Cheltenham Festival. The MEC statement said: "[The club] is effectively the equivalent of a family member to many United fans and the MEC do not wish this special institution to be marred in any way. The MEC are therefore asking Sir Alex Ferguson to refrain from giving his name to any form of statement opposing action by United supporters."
Ferguson's plea for fans to cease protests against businessmen who are viewed as potential predators will not halt any plans, according to sources within a variety of activist fans' groups. "There is a mood of despair and surprise at what he's said," said one. "It's not going to go down well with people who have the best interests of United at heart. And it's not going to change the action we intend to take. Alex Ferguson shouldn't think he can just stand in the way."