Manchester United face a fight with Arsenal and Liverpool to secure the services of the prodigious Cardiff City midfielder Aaron Ramsey, though it is one they seem likely to win.
United announced yesterday morning that they had agreed terms with the FA Cup finalists for the transfer of the 17-year-old, though Cardiff made clear, in a statement of their own, that the player had "not yet agreed terms". United's willingness, under the terms of a £4.5m bid, to loan the player back to City, appears to make them the selling club's preferred bidder. United had already agreed to loan young goalkeeper Tom Heaton to City next season before Cardiff chairman, Peter Ridsdale, and manager, Dave Jones, met Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford to discuss Ramsey before the Champions League semi-final with Barcelona in April.
Though the decision rests with Ramsey, he is also thought to favour United. Liverpool had been hopeful that their late bid, also involving a loan-back of the player to Ninian Park in August, would succeed in securing Ramsey, while Arsenal – understood to be the second club Cardiff have allowed to speak to Ramsey – had been banking on their track record of nurturing young talent. Everton have also been monitoring his progress, while initially Tottenham Hotspur had seemed a potential buyer last December.
Cardiff, around £15m in debt, certainly need to sell and a sale of Ramsey could help them keep 21-year-old midfielder Joe Ledley, also valued by the club at £5m and subject of interest from Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers. "We can confirm the club has received formal bids from three top Premier League teams for Aaron Ramsey and that Aaron has been given permission to speak to two of those teams," a Cardiff statement read. "One of these is Manchester United though no deal has been done and the player has not yet agreed terms."
The earlier statement from Old Trafford said: "Manchester United is delighted to announce it has agreed terms with Cardiff City for the transfer of Aaron Ramsey subject to terms being agreed and the player passing a medical."
A player Sir Alex Ferguson already regards as the best young talent in Britain has made 16 appearances for Cardiff and became the youngest player in the club's history when he made his debut aged 16 against Hull City in April 2007. He played a significant part in their FA Cup run and came on as substitute for the final 30 minutes of the defeat by Portsmouth at Wembley.
Liverpool might have lost their pursuit of him, but intend to secure Gareth Barry's services – despite the diplomatic incident that their initial approach caused with Martin O'Neill. They have raised their initial offer of £10m cash plus players, and their ability to do so has been enhanced by Juventus' willingness to sign Xabi Alonso.
The Serie A club met Alonso's agent in Italy on Monday, with Juventus offering Alonso a five-year contract that he would accept – albeit reluctantly – should they agree a fee with Liverpool. Juventus' opening offer of £12m was turned down by Liverpool but the Italians seem ready to up their bid and deliver a five-year deal for the Spanish midfielder.
That would appeal to Rafa Benitez, whose transfer policy given the limited funds at his American owners' disposal is to sell to buy. Publicly, O'Neill is determined to hold on to Barry but given Steven Gerrard's encouragement it seems to be a battle the Villa manager is losing.
* The Football Association's board yesterday confirmed the long-awaited National Football Centre will be sited at Burton-on-Trent.