Fergie’s big gamble

English football made a mockery of the credit crunch with the most remarkable 24 hours in transfer history on Monday.

As the clock ticked towards the midnight deadline, deals and drama unfolded with every passing second.

And at the centre of it all was the city of Manchester, which emerged as English football’s big spender.

Two of the world’s most sought-after and expensive strikers – Dimitar Berbatov and Robinho – ensured the north-south divide in football is as big as ever.

And it is London’s big-time charlies – Tottenham and Chelsea – who were the losers. City started the day with a Cinderella-like takeover by the billionaire Royal family of Abu Dhabi.

Within minutes, the new owners were declaring war on neighbours Manchester United by plotting an audacious £34 million (US$62m) bid for Berbatov.

But while City fans began to gather at Eastlands, asking each other if it could be really happening, Berba was busy with other plans.

Just after 11am he arrived by plane in Manchester, where Alex Ferguson took a huge risk by personally picking up the Bulgaria striker in his Bentley and driving him to United’s Carrington training HQ.

Fergie did not need to make such a public show of his target but it was all part of his master plan.

The Red Devils boss was determined to put down a marker on Spurs, who have refused to agree a fee for the player all summer.

Berbatov was whisked off from Manchester Airport and spent the next five hours going through rigorous medical examinations and fitness tests.

But as he was huffing and puffing, Spurs accepted City’s bid and gave the Sky Blues permission to speak to the player and negotiate personal terms.

Just a few hundred metres from where Berbatov was running in the United gym, City boss Mark Hughes was feeling the real power of the club’s new owners.

But attempts to contact Berba’s agent Emil Dantchev were fruitless and City instructed bids to be made elsewhere.

Valencia received a £30m ($55m) offer for striker David Villa but City’s representative was told turned down flat.

Meanwhile, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy began to hear that Berbatov was in Manchester – and talking to United – without his permission.

By 8pm Levy had pulled the plug on a deal – furious at United’s audacity but also thwarted by the fact that one of the players Spurs hoped would replace Berbatov – Espanyol’s Sergio Garcia – was joining Real Betis instead.

United, however, still ferried 27-year-old Berba to Old Trafford, where his agent had already agreed the terms of a $200,000-per-week contract.

Meanwhile, across town, City were encouraged by news of a deal that they never dreamed would be possible.

A couple of hours earlier they had contacted Real Madrid and asked if Robinho was for sale.

Real Sporting Director Predrag Mijatovic told them that their asking price had always been the same – $60m.

He was shocked when the voice on the other end of the phone simply said: ‘OK, we’ll send a fax.’

And in the blink of an eye, City’s new owners staked their claim as the new rich kid on the Premier League block.

Respected radio station Cadena Ser then reported that Real had agreed the transfer of Robinho to Mancheste, only it was the City side.

While half the city went wild with expectation United officials closed ranks. An improved offerhad been agreed with Spurs.

As part of the agreement, United forward Fraizer Campbell, who thought he was heading to Wigan on loan, was told he would be loaned to Tottenham instead for a year with an option to buy.

But as Fergie sipped a celebratory glass of wine in his office, alarm bells rang at Chelsea who had to decide whether or not to up their bid for Robinho.

Calls between chief executive Peter Kenyon and owner Roman Abramovich took place.

In Madrid, Robinho agreed that his agent Wagner Ribeiro should speak with City officials about his personal terms.

Any deal had to be agreed subject to a medical and the contract being agreed. However, Ramon Calderon confirmed the news on Spanish television.

He said: ‘We have agreed to sell Robinho for human and footballing reasons and for a substantial amount of money.

‘This was the best deal for the club and for the player.’

Maybe so, though there is certainly one man who would disagree – Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Having chased the Brazil striker all summer, Big Phil probably can’t believe he’s now second to Man City.

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