Mystery of the Birmingham striker deepens

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The Independent Football

The mystery of the "striking" Birmingham City players deepened yesterday when the relegated club pointed the finger at a freshly departed player - and cleared two more who had reputedly refused to play in Sunday's final Premiership match at Bolton Wanderers.

Olivier Tebily and Julian Gray had been reported to have informed the manager, Steve Bruce, that they would not play at the Reebok Stadium, where Birmingham lost 1-0. Bruce declined to "hang any individual out to dry" by naming the refuseniks, but said it was "quite incredible" that any professional would not wish to play.

Birmingham moved to exonerate Tebily and Gray yesterday. A statement issued on the club's website read: "Reports suggesting that they refused to take part at Bolton are completely false and inaccurate."

Piling on the intrigue, it went on to shift the focus to an individual or individuals no longer on Birmingham's books. "Without naming the individuals involved, the club can, however, confirm that the main instigator of any problems is no longer at Birmingham City."

Bruce has released five players - Chris Sutton, Jamie Clapham, Mario Melchiot, Nico Vaesen and Stan Lazaridis - while Jiri Jarosik and Nicky Butt have returned from loan spells at St Andrew's to Chelsea and Newcastle respectively. Yet both Melchiot and Butt were in the team against Bolton, narrowing down the list of suspects.

Lee Hendrie, Aston Villa's former England midfielder, has emerged as a target for Southampton. Hendrie was due to have a testimonial match during the close season, but said yesterday that Sunday's defeat of Sunderland may have been his last match for Villa.

Seville, who face Middlesbrough in the Uefa Cup final in Eindhoven tonight, have registered an interest in Joleon Lescott, Wolves' 23-year-old centre-back. Everton are also keen on Lescott, who is valued at £5m by the Championship club.

Sir Alex Ferguson believes Tim Howard still has a future at Manchester United despite allowing the US goalkeeper to join Everton on a 12-month loan.

Howard, a £2.3m signing from Metrostars in 2003, made only six appearances for United last term and will move to Goodison Park on a season-long deal on 1 July. Ferguson, however, resisted the chance to sell the 26-year-old in the hope that regular first-team football at Everton will improve his credentials to replace Edwin van der Sar when the Dutchman's Old Trafford contract expires in 2007.

"This is something we've wanted to do for a long time," said the United manager. "He will get the experience and he will come back a better goalkeeper."

The arrival of Howard will encourage David Moyes to off-load Richard Wright this summer, although the former Arsenal goalkeeper has not attracted interest from rival clubs.