Two meetings but Ferdinand is innocent, says his agent

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The Independent Football

Rio Ferdinand's agent yesterday confirmed that Chelsea had wanted to sign the Manchester United defender - but that their interest ended when they were discouraged some time ago. Pini Zahavi also dismissed claims that Ferdinand was "tapped up" by the Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon at two restaurant meetings as "the joke of the century".

Rio Ferdinand's agent yesterday confirmed that Chelsea had wanted to sign the Manchester United defender - but that their interest ended when they were discouraged some time ago. Pini Zahavi also dismissed claims that Ferdinand was "tapped up" by the Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon at two restaurant meetings as "the joke of the century".

He revealed to The Independent that Ferdinand is expected to sign a three-year contract extension at United in the next "two to three weeks". But Zahavi also warned that the 26-year-old was prepared to see out the remaining two years of his present deal and become a "free agent" if a new contract is not agreed.

"If we reach a deal on the new contract, then great," Zahavi said. "If no, then the option is open to everyone. Chelsea is one club but Rio would prefer to play abroad if he leaves Manchester."

That will set alarm bells ringing at United, who could not countenance allowing such a valuable asset - Ferdinand cost £29.1m four years ago - leaving under circumstances in which they could not recoup a substantial transfer fee.

However, Zahavi, the Israeli agent who has close links with Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich and has been involved in many of the club's major transfers, insisted that Ferdinand, who is believed to be seeking a £90,000-a-week pay deal, is "committed" to United "and I would never go against them. [Sir] Alex [Ferguson] is my friend." He also claimed that the England defender would be the club's next captain.

Chelsea yesterday reiterated that they had no interest in Ferdinand after it was revealed he had met Kenyon at two different restaurants in London hours after United lost to Norwich City on Saturday 9 April.

"We have made it absolutely clear to United - on more than one occasion - that we have no interest in Ferdinand," Chelsea said in a statement. "Regardless of where this encounter took place, there is absolutely no significance in Peter Kenyon seeing Rio. As already stated, their meeting was purely by chance in a very public place."

Kenyon phoned United 's chief executive David Gill last week to insist nothing untoward had happened. But that did not stop Ferguson attacking Kenyon - a one-time United executive - last Friday, saying he treated his former club with "contempt".

Ferguson also implied that there would be a Premier League investigation into the incident - especially as it follows the alleged tapping-up of Arsenal's Ashley Cole by Chelsea. However, it is unlikely the authorities will launch any inquiry.

The first, hour-long meeting took place at Carpaccio, a restaurant in Chelsea, but hours later Zahavi, Kenyon and Ferdinand met up at the Elysee Greek eatery near Tottenham Court Road.

"There was no secret meeting," Zahavi insisted. "Rio just came along to see me. They say there was a second secret meeting - but it was on the same night. I was just at a restaurant that belongs to a friend and I was there with the Israeli ambassador." Zahavi said that the Newcastle United manager Graeme Souness and his wife were also due to be at the restaurant.

"Had he been there would they have written [because the Israeli ambassador was there] that he was going to be the next manager of Maccabi [an Israeli club]?"

Zahavi said he invited Kenyon along to the second restaurant because "he is my friend and we go out many times together".

"Peter Kenyon had no motive. He is innocent. It is a joke. If we wanted to do a secret meeting between Rio and Chelsea then I could have done that."

Zahavi said that if he had known what fuss the incidents would have caused he would have acted differently. "I can tell you that 100 per cent it was an innocent meeting," he insisted. "If I knew then what the press would be saying now then I would have told Rio not to come."

The agent denied that the meetings were an attempt to put pressure on United to offer Ferdinand the deal he wants. "I could find 10 million other ways. I could arrange that clubs bid for him," Zahavi said.

"They [Chelsea] do not have any interest in Rio, although they did in the past. But I told them to forget about it. We would not do anything against Manchester United."

There is, nevertheless, a long-standing admiration for Ferdinand at Stamford Bridge and despite Zahavi and Chelsea's protestations the contract talks will be monitored closely.

Zahavi said his client deserved a new deal. "Rio is the best defender in the world. No doubt," he said. "There are some very good central defenders in Italy and Spain but none of them come close." It is likely his wish will be granted with Ferguson claiming that the two parties were not "far away" from an agreement.

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