The private feud between Sir Alex Ferguson and John Magnier has now become a bloody, bare-knuckle brawl which threatens the future of the most successful manager in British football.
Magnier and his associate, JP McManus, who between them own a quarter of Manchester United through their company Cubic Expression, have written to Sir Roy Gardner, chairman of the United plc, demanding that negotiations with Ferguson over his new contract cease while recent transfer deals are investigated. Implicit in those letters is an understanding that Magnier and McManus may call an extraordinary general meeting if this is refused. Usually, it requires only 10 per cent of the shareholders to request an EGM.
Manchester United yesterday made no comment on the letters. The board's public stance has been, somewhat unrealistically, that the legal action between Ferguson and Magnier over the stud rights to the racehorse, Rock of Gibraltar, which sparked a stream of damaging leaks over Ferguson's role at United, is a private matter. They hope the case, which is likely to be heard in Dublin in 18 months' time, could be quietly dropped but, given the personalities of both men, this is unlikely.
They were publicly relaxed a fortnight ago when details emerged that Ferguson's son, Jason, may have benefited indirectly from the transfer of goalkeeper Tim Howard from New York Metrostars in the summer. They said, privately, that they had paid the agent, Gaetano Marotta, properly and that what he did with the money was not their concern. It has been alleged that Marotta paid Mike Morris, a Monaco-based agent with long-standing links to Jason Ferguson, £139,000.
The club pointed out that Sir Alex Ferguson only initiates transfers and "all negotiations are conducted by executive directors of the club." Interestingly, when Louis Saha was signed last week, all details of the transfer were released, which United have not done before.
Their chief executive, David Gill, has stood resolutely behind Ferguson and was dismissive of Magnier and McManus' concerns when he met their representatives last month. Negotiations over Ferguson's new contract have dragged on for four months since it was announced that the offer to extend his tenure to 2007 had been made. Every effort will be made to conclude them this week.
The main sticking point is whether the contract should be for a fixed term or a one-year "roll-over" deal. Members of the board and Magnier were keen for the latter option, as it would obscure the timing of Ferguson's eventual departure from Old Trafford. When in 2001 he announced he would be quitting at the end of the season, it had a debilitating effect on performances. The indications are that Ferguson would now take the "roll-over" option.
Last month, Magnier's request to see details of Ferguson's new contract, which is believed to be worth £4m a year, was denied. This may force Magnier to demand a place on the board but he may be advised to think carefully about forcing an EGM, which if it threatens Ferguson's position, would depress the share price and frighten shareholders. He will receive no support from Shareholders United, a group of small investors, who collectively represent the supporters. In a statement, their spokesman, Oliver Houston, said: "It would be disgraceful if personal score-settling were allowed to win out. What we have witnessed these last few weeks is mudslinging."
Should Magnier fail at an EGM, the only other step would be to mount a takeover of the club, which Cubic Expression are believed not to want. Magnier has no interest in football and his attitude to the vast payments made to agents Pini Zahavi and Ranko Stojic, who were reportedly paid £750,000 to deal with the utterly straightforward transfer of Saha, mirrors the bewildered attitude of another non-football man, Alan Sugar, when he took over Tottenham in 1991. "What we cannot understand," Magnier wrote to Gardner, "is the astonishing fees which have been charged to the company."
Sugar, famously, rid himself of Terry Venables whom he deemed responsible for the "agents' culture" at White Hart Lane. However, even now, in the midst of one of potentially the most damaging periods of his career, Ferguson is still a long way from the exit at Old Trafford.