Van Nistelrooy and Keane join forces to affirm United loyalty

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The Independent Football

Denials in football are cheap, throwaway things. If you are inclined to glance through back copies of newspapers, you can find Florentino Perez shouting at reporters last June that he would "never, never, never" sign David Beckham, a promise the Real Madrid president probably wishes he had kept. Sometimes they even deceive their own employees, as Terry Venables discovered when assuring the press that following the sale of Rio Ferdinand there would be no need for further savings. Beside him stood his chairman, Peter Ridsdale, who would eventually dispose of just about every asset at Elland Road, including Venables himself.

To see Sir Alex Ferguson, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane in the same room reiterating their commitment to Manchester United was, however, something else entirely.

Manchester United have been driven past the point of distraction by reports that Van Nistelrooy, the one unqualified success of Ferguson's recent transfer policy, would be leaving Old Trafford for Spain, perhaps to Real Madrid, more probably to Barcelona. All this was shortly after he had negotiated a substantial pay rise and a new contract that should have kept him in Manchester for another four years.

Stories that Keane, whose relationship with his manager was supposedly soured by the decision to resume his international career, would be allowed to leave Old Trafford, were also deeply wounding.

It has, however, been more than just newspaper talk. Manchester United's chief executive, David Gill, does not normally write to the presidents of Real Madrid and Barcelona, informing them that a player is absolutely not for sale on the strength of a report on the back page of the Daily Mail.

Some facts are not in dispute. There was an altercation between Van Nistelrooy and the young French striker, David Bellion, at United's training headquarters at Carrington. Van Nistelrooy's agent, Rodger Linse, has been in Barcelona and he has talked directly to Barça's president, Joan Laporta.

Other matters; that Ferguson has not spoken properly to Van Nistelrooy since February, when he publicly criticised the sale of Beckham, and that the striker was dropped against Liverpool for disciplinary reasons, must remain conjecture, denied by both parties. "I told him not to talk to anybody else," Van Nistelrooy said of Linse's appearance in Barcelona. "He knows I want to stay here; I expect to be a Manchester United player this season and afterwards.

"Apparently, he has been seen in Barcelona but that has nothing to do with me because there is nothing to speak about on my behalf. He has a house over there so maybe he was just there anyway."

When it was pointed out that Laporta and others inside the Nou Camp believe that while it would be impossible to prise Thierry Henry from Highbury, Van Nistelrooy might not be so untouchable, he replied: "I don't know where they got that idea from. It was definitely not from me, my agent, or Manchester United."

Ferguson furnished the most persuasive argument: "Clubs will phone his agent quite regularly to ascertain whether he's available. That may have happened. Laporta might have phoned Rodger but it would be strange that four to five weeks after signing a new contract with us Ruud would have a change of heart. That's why I give no credence to these stories at all."

Van Nistelrooy stressed there was no "escape clause" in the contract he had just signed and denied absenting himself from last Saturday's defeat by Liverpool. He claimed he was at Old Trafford but saw the game from the players' lounge rather than the more logical venue of the directors' box and insisted he was injured rather than dropped.

The altercation with Bellion is probably an irrelevance in the wider picture. Training ground fights are, as Van Nistelrooy admitted, part and parcel of football. Some, such as the ones between Freddie Ljungberg and Olof Mellberg at the Swedish training camp before the 2002 World Cup, are filmed, most are not. "It's all about being in a team that wants to be better," Van Nistelrooy remarked.

While the Dutchman fidgeted, Keane's eyes brooked no argument. "It's come to a point where it's got to be nailed," he said. "I have two years on my contract and I have every intention of seeing it through. Talk of me leaving is absolutely ridiculous."

Ferguson stressed that his captain's return to the international fold he had supposedly left forever when quitting Ireland's 2002 World Cup training camp in disgust, was a move he agreed with. "When Roy spoke to me about moving back to Ireland, I in fact encouraged him. I thought it was the best move for Roy's family," Ferguson said. "Ten internationals, five each year, qualifying games of real importance to Ireland, would be within his compass. So long as we could manoeuvre him around our games - I mean we could be playing Liverpool or Arsenal before an international - it was the best thing for Roy's future."

This was in pronounced contrast to Ferguson's previous attitude to Keane resuming his career with Ireland. This season Manchester United have rested their 32-year-old captain, who underwent a hip operation last season, for 11 Premiership matches, of which, incidentally, four have been lost. There was, Ferguson reasoned, no point in doing this if Keane was then to force himself into dragging Ireland into another World Cup finals.

Keane stressed that the Ireland manager, Brian Kerr, a far more pragmatic figure than his predecessor, Mick McCarthy, had used words like "flexible" and "sensible" about the matches he would be selected for. "I felt it was something I had to do. It was the right thing to do; there are five qualifiers this year, there are five next season and some of them are double-headers. I really feel it is something I can cope with," Keane said. "There were too many uncertainties for me to go back last year but I am managing my hip a lot better now. I went back to Dublin and everything was great. It seemed a lot more professional and that was one of the concerns."

Keane's relationship with Ferguson has given the Manchester United captain licence to openly criticise his players. Keane was withering about the way Arsenal took the championship at Old Trafford two years ago: "Men against boys, they killed us". Yesterday, perhaps given the circumstances, he was more conciliatory. This time last year Arsène Wenger declared that, although Arsenal had lost the title to United, they still had the best team. Did Keane feel similarly in a season where they are likely to finish further adrift of the leaders than at any time since 1991, when George Graham's mechanical side steamrollered their way to the title while losing just one game?

"Without a doubt. You have to give credit to other teams. You have to be humble. The best team won the League this season; nobody at this club is denying that. We have lost too many games but sometimes you have to take a step back, play out our last three League games, win the FA Cup and regroup again next season. That's what this club is all about. We will come back stronger than ever next season, we have done it before when we have lost championships and we'll do it again."