Veron and Ferguson play the numbers game

Ronald Atkin hears the inside story on the deal that proves United are still one of the big players
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Considering he had just lobbed out enough cash to write off the national debt of a third-world country, Peter Kenyon was in bubbling form. The cheque for £28.1 million, made out to Lazio FC, brought Juan Sebastian Veron into the Salford Suite at Old Trafford on Thursday afternoon to be paraded as Manchester United's record purchase for British football, not long after £19m had been splashed on Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Kenyon, the club's chief executive, insisted it had not been difficult to persuade the board to stump up such sums. "Like any good business people, spending £10, £20 or £28 million, you have to do your homework, and we are satisfied that Sebastian represents value. He is recognised as a world-class player, somebody who will immediately make a difference. That's a great return on your investment." It should certainly, for a start, boost shirt sales at the Megastore, United's vast club shop, where all 20 checkouts stood empty for hours before Veron turned up at the ground. But they probably won't make a lot out of happy snaps; Juan Sebastian doesn't smile a lot.

With his earring, goatee, menacing stare and shaven skull, Veron is not the sort you would want to run into in a sunny meadow, never mind on a football pitch. As for dark alleys, forget it. He is soft-spoken, but hard men often are. Think of Vinnie Jones in Lock, Stock. Veron didn't even smile when a woman asked if he thought he could handle the physical football in England, though his new manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, winced.

"I think it will be no problem," Veron predicted. "There was a similar situation when I first went to Italy. People were telling me it was a very physical league, but after six months I felt I had adapted, and I was only 20."

Sir Alex addressed the questioner: "Have you ever seen Argentine football? They've all got mental toughness, physical toughness. Playing in English football will never be a problem for him." What might be a problem is playing well enough, quickly enough to justify the astronomical fee. "I never thought I would spend so much on a footballer," Ferguson admitted. "Peter has been on the tablets since Monday. We are running out of numbers – and pens."

What United are not running out of is ambition after three successive league championships. Other clubs are throwing around millions close-season but not, apart from Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane, all on one player. Ferguson defended the decision to put the million-pound eggs in one basket labelled Veron. "Juan Sebastian is 26. He is coming into his great years when he will peak and we will get the benefit. He is world class, he has a vision of the game which we can use.

"The team have done fantastic over the last few years but there came a point when they had to be challenged. Last year on a few occasions they didn't reach the level we know they can. When they see Juan Sebastian everyone will perk up in the dressing room and be impressed by the signing. I have always maintained that it can be one player who can make the difference. We have had instances of that with Cantona, Roy Keane, Barthez.

"We are bringing in the best and everyone has to compete with that. Barthez was one of the best signings the club ever made. He came here with all these medals and was clearly a bigger winner than anybody in the dressing room. His desire to win was unbelievable. You can't teach that to people, it is something born in them. Juan Sebastian is showing that all the time."

Veron would not be drawn on his forthcoming working relationship with David Beckham, sent off in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina. "What attracted me about Manchester United was the team itself, not individuals. Whether one player or another is more famous or has more space in newspapers doesn't bother me whatsoever." His own attitude towards that side of fame is unequivocal: "I don't need the articles or the cameras. I don't jump under a train if I am not in the magazines," said the man who once broke the jaw of an over-attentive Argentine photographer.

Kenyon also revealed that Sir Alex will still be around to see the long-term benefits of the purchase of Veron and Van Nistelrooy after his reign as manager comes to a close at the end of next season. On Friday a five-year contract as a consultant was duly confirmed.

As for players, "I don't think there is a need for any more signings", said Kenyon. "We have a big squad. There will be planned disposals and transfers, but when we're ready. It's not about balancing the books per se. We could spend more but we're not prepared to bust the company. This isn't about spending what you ain't got."

But would Veron's rumoured wages of £80,000 a week not cause jealousy among the others? All the squad, said Kenyon, had already signed new contracts except Beckham. "We are confident about him," he added, "confident that the signing of Ruud and Sebastian shows David we are still hungry. There is nobody who wants to be part of a winning formula more than David." With the possible exception of Juan Sebastian Veron, of course.