Sir Alex Ferguson's mounting frustration at Manchester United's failure to agree a new contract with Wes Brown has led him to launch a trenchant attack on the role of agents in the game.
Ferguson has made no secret of his irritation with the advice given to Brown that he hold out for more than the £50,000-a week United are believed to be offering him. But with no sign of a breakthrough, he has said that the role of agents "depresses" him. "Players of today live in their agents' pockets," Ferguson said. "It's a situation which depresses me at times, it really depresses me. Wes has been with us since he was 12 but I don't think that matters these days. Their agents live their lives for them and if you are happy to go along with that then you get the situation that you have got just now."
Ferguson takes particular pride in the paternalistic role he and the club have performed for Brown since he joined in 1991 and this might offer some explanation of why agents who have represented the defender, now 28, have been a source of such distaste for the manager.
Jonathan Barnett, who used to represent Brown, claimed that one of his staff was banned from United's training ground, such was the dislike of his Stellar Promotions agency. It was with some satisfaction that the club announced in 2004 that current agent Paul Martin would not be receiving payment for the last contract Brown signed.
Jason Ferguson's ownership of the Elite Sports Agency, which United announced four years ago they would no longer use because of the potential conflict of interest, means the picture is a complex one for the manager but his view of agents is perhaps best summed up by his comments a few years back that "There is a rat race and the rats are winning."
United have not struck a deal with Brown despite one meeting before Christmas between Martin and the United chief executive, David Gill, and a second one which also involved Ferguson. It is understood that the player is looking to reach the £55,000-a-week pay bracket of Edwin van der Sar and other middle-band earners at United.
"It's in his hands. It's not in our hands," Ferguson added yesterday. "We have given him his offer. It's amazing really, given that he has had such a good season and has had such a good run of games while Gary [Neville] has been injured. We wouldn't have made the offer if we hadn't had faith in him. Wes knows this and the other players have told him."
Ferguson's paternal role in Brown's development was hinted at by Michael "Ned" Kelly, who ran security at United for 12 years and revealed in his book that Ferguson asked him to keep an eye on the young defender. "There are five big crime families in the city who control things – all very well-known to the police," Kelly wrote. "The worry was they'd befriend Wes then get into United, so you'd see them in the players' lounge."
Gill has confirmed that Newcastle United made an offer for Brown last month, which the club rejected, and there has also been contact from West Ham but having resisted the temptation to sell in the transfer window, the club and player have until the summer, when Brown is out of contract, to agree terms. The prolonged impasse has echoes of the drawn-out 2004 talks which concluded after advisers to Brown, then on £15,000-a-week and one of United's lowest-paid players, demanded a salary of three times that sum.
Brown's performances this season bear no reflection of the uncertainty surrounding his future. After a career punctuated by injuries, including cruciate ligament damage in both knees and a broken ankle, he already has 33 starts this season which, with Neville apparently no nearer a comeback, leaves him on course to better his 40 starts of seven years ago.
"It is good to be playing week in, week out and hopefully I can keep this going," he said yesterday. "You get a routine going. You know what you are doing and know your position."
Brown played a full role in the less than fluid performance in Lyons on Wednesday which provided mixed messages about the side's potential in the Champions League. Their failure to lift their game, four days after Arsenal were so convincingly dispatched in the FA Cup, points to a team short on consistency. Yet the contribution of substitutes Carlos Tevez and Nani bears out Ferguson's assertions about the squad's strength in depth.
Rio Ferdinand said results were more important than performances away from home in Europe. "I think first and foremost you have to get results; performances come second," he said.
"We played well in parts; after the break we performed quite well for about 10-15 minutes until they scored. Then we upped the tempo again, they sat back and we managed to get the goal."
Caught in the beam: How laser-guided gamesmanship has played its part in sport
Lyons may be fined after a fan aimed a laser beam at the Manchester United striker Cristiano Ronaldo during Wednesday's Champions League match. The misuse of laser pens has become increasingly prevalent in French crowds and was a source of concern during Sunday's Marseilles v PSG game. Uefa's director of communications, Rob Faulkner, said he did not believe Ronaldo was in any "physical danger", but added the French club may be punished over the "peculiar" incident, akin to one Chelsea's Didier Drogba experienced earlier this season when a West Ham fan shone a green beam into his face.
VINNIE JONES In February 1997, the Wimbledon midfielder was taking a throw-in in the League Cup semi-final against Leicester when a laser beam was directed at the back of his head. "The pain was incredible," he said. The Aston Villa goalkeeper Mark Bosnich was a victim the previous month in a game against Newcastle.
BRAAM VAN STRAATEN The Springbok was targeted against New Zealand in Christchurch in 2000 when he was about to kick a penalty. He missed, the All Blacks won.
ILE DE CHYPRE In 1988 at Royal Ascot a "sonic gun" disguised as a pair of binoculars was used to make the second favourite swerve, unseating its jockey, Greville Starkey.Reuse content