'Internecine feuds, defections, departures: the Tory leadership election has nothing on the summer of strife at Old Trafford'

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The Independent Online
Now that money runs the sport, the close season has become the most frenetic part of the footballing year. No one (except the poor saps in the Intertoto Cup) is actually playing the game; most players are on holiday, slowly basting on Mediterranean beaches, watching their thighs turn a colour which will nicely offset the new lime and aubergine away shorts they will be obliged to wear come 19 August. But since the arrival of the satellite dish and the all-seater stadium, the players have become irrelevant to the real issue facing football: getting as much dosh into the bank as quickly as possible from season ticket sales. Thus this summer, transfers have hogged most of the headlines which used to be reserved for Wimbledon and the cricket.

Which means they are doing their primary job. These purchases have long since ceased to be about team building. They are public relations exercises, designed solely to flog ever more expensive season tickets (though what Coventry City have done to justify a 63 per cent hike in prices in their East Stand remains to be seen). Never mind that Gullit can barely walk, that Gazza has not played a complete football season since 1990, or that Chris Armstrong is scarcely worth 4.5p, let alone pounds 4.5m. Playing was not why they were bought (it would be a bonus if they could). No, it was because their noisy purchases engender a kind of futile optimism which encourages fans to forget all about their holiday, new car or council tax bill and buy a season ticket instead.

But whatever the lottery-winner spending spree that has been unleashed in most Premiership board-rooms, it is the goings-on at a club whose chequebook has remained steadfastly unsullied that has engendered the most furrowing of brows. Internecine feuds, defections, departures, proven winners finding themselves no longer wanted: the Tory leadership election has nothing on the summer of strife at Old Trafford.

It began with Paul Ince, clearly furious and hurt at the personal slight, being sold to Internazionale. Then Mark Hughes was hived off to Stamford Bridge. Now it is understood that Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis are available to anyone with serious cash. So far offers have been tabled from Aston Villa and Newcastle for Sharpe, though the fax wires remain cold for Kanchelskis.

And the ordinary United fan, watching with incredulity as the team which won so much is dismantled, wants to know why. As usual, they are not being told.

The Mancunian rumour machinery, a source of colourful invention that would test the imaginative powers of Jeffrey Archer, has been in full operation in an attempt to seal the information gap. If you believe what you hear in the city's pubs, Alex Ferguson has spent the last week locked in a cabin in Florida with Roberto Baggio, thrashing out a deal; that Bryan Robson has bought Sharpe and Kanchelskis for Middlesbrough as part of a deal which will see him back at Old Trafford in two years' time as the successor to Alex Ferguson; and Paul Gascoigne's hair-dresser has been spotted checking out premises down King Street.

The most frequent explanation to surface was the old conflict-of-interest- between-the-needs-of-the-share-holders-and-the-needs-of-the-team chestnut. Faced with a bill of pounds 27m to build the new stand at Old Trafford - a project to be financed from profits - it was suggested that the chief executive Martin Edwards instructed his manager that if he wanted to buy new blood he had to raise the cash by selling first. This might pass muster were it not for the fact that Ince was sold. Surely the money men would realise that you don't sell a prime asset in order to buy an inferior one.

So what is going on? Richard Kurt, of the Manchester United Independent Supporters Association, believes there is a conflict between Messrs Edwards and Ferguson, but the opposite of the rumoured split. Edwards doesn't want to sell, Ferguson does. And he knows this because Edwards, who is generally prepared to suffer the bad publicity that is attendant with the job, has been sufficiently stung by the vehemence of fans' protests to write to Kurt's organisation (the first time he has acknowledged their existence). He has let it be known that his manager was solely responsible for the sale decisions, that money was always available for purchases and that the rebuilding work has nothing to do with the sales. Which, given the manner in which chairmen are increasingly sticking their Noades into managers' business, makes a change.

Alex Ferguson, it seems, believes he has got as far as he can with the team that won everything. Now, he wants to start again, with a team made up of Fergie's Fledglings, Eric Cantona, plus, if he can prise him from White Hart Lane, Darren Anderton. It is a bold, unsentimental and risky proposition. But this is where the fans worry. Is there any footballing need to be quite so bold, risky and unsentimental? Or are we going back to the Fergie dark days of '89, when crowd favourites were offloaded for reasons of personality clash?

Or is the motive here more about establishing Ferguson's position in history: the man who built not one, but two great teams? Just like Matt Busby.

We will soon know once the United squad return with their tans. Because, for once in this summer of madness, it is the players who hold the key.