Owen's switch to United moves another step closer

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The SFX agent, who masterminded David Beckham's move to Real Madrid two years ago, had a pre-arranged meeting with Gill but the subject of Owen was raised as the two men discussed the summer's potential transfer activity.

Gill, who is scrupulous about transfer regulations concerning "tapping-up", was not prepared to take the discussion any further but the meeting indicates that should Real be prepared to sell, there is a good chance Owen's personal terms could be arranged quickly. United would need the permission of the Madrid club to speak to Stephens in an official capacity but there is still a good relationship between Old Trafford and the man behind the development of the Beckham brand.

It is understood that Owen would be amenable to an offer from United. Gill is renowned as a tough negotiator who sticks to the rules of international transfers and, with the club under the new ownership of the Glazer family, he would only operate within guidelines laid down by Fifa.

Owen aside, the priority over the next 12 months for Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, remains a replacement for Roy Keane.

Reports that Bayern Munich's German international Michael Ballack is already a certainty for Old Trafford next summer were yesterday described as wide of the mark. While Ballack, who will be out of contract next summer and will be 30 in September 2006, is a possibility, there is still a genuine sense at United that they have not yet identified the player to take on Keane's mantle.