The prospect of the slow break-up of the British heart of Manchester United increased yesterday when Nicky Butt admitted he was contemplating leaving the club in the wake of his continued exclusion from major matches.
The 28-year-old midfielder, who with David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes formed the core of the United teams which dominated the Premiership, has seen his fortunes dwindle drastically since a triumphant World Cup campaign that saw him chosen by Pele as one of the players of the tournament.
Phil Neville's transformation from a left-back best described as adequate into one of Sir Alex Ferguson's key midfielders, not to mention the summer purchases of Kleberson and Cristiano Ronaldo, have left Butt further isolated at Old Trafford. Scholes' return from injury and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's likely comeback to the right of midfield in January would hardly have filled Butt with enthusiasm. And he would not have relished his manager's warm endorsement of Darren Fletcher as a man to fill a central midfield berth in the years to come.
It was perhaps this which triggered yesterday's interview with the Manchester Evening News, in which he described his situation as "bleak" and "dire".
Newcastle pressingly need to find a long-term replacement for Gary Speed, who has underpinned their midfield for years but who is now 34. Sir Bobby Robson's much-criticised experiment of bringing Lee Bowyer to Tyneside has not been a success and Butt would be an obvious alternative when the transfer window reopens next month.
"My situation looks bleak this season," Butt said. "I would be lying if I said otherwise. Nobody in their right mind would want to leave this club if they are happy, but at times I have thought this could be it for me. I have been playing for 10 years and I don't want to leave but at my age I do need to be playing. At the moment things look pretty dire for me."
Butt played in United's opening Champions' League fixture this season, the 5-0 rout of Panathinaikos, but thereafter he featured only in games where players were rested for greater things. He was a substitute in an essentially dead fixture with Stuttgart last night but is unlikely to start Saturday's Manchester derby. His future at Old Trafford seems to be a life of sideshows.
The England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, has continued to select him for his country but the Swede will be wary of investing his faith too heavily in someone not considered good enough for United's bench against Aston Villa.
"The last thing I want is to get to the end of my career and reflect that I wasted so much time when I wasn't playing because you can never get that back," Butt remarked in as clear a statement of intent as any Premiership footballer, protected by a press office, can make these days.
Despite his comment that the loss of Thierry Henry would affect Arsenal far more than the departure of Ruud van Nistelrooy would damage Manchester United, Ferguson is confident this kind of scenario will remain imaginary. Real Madrid's desire to add Van Nistelrooy to their firmament of galacticos may be tangible - David Beckham referred to it in the wake of Madrid's victory over Barcelona - but Ferguson's priority is to add strikers to his roster, not remove them.
You could not drive a cigarette paper between his views on football and those of Roy Keane, which is why the United captain's comments that they should buy a forward when the transfer window reopens carry particular weight.
"I believe we need another striker," Keane reflected. "Someone with a physical presence and, hopefully, we will get him."
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