Last updated : 25 January 2004 By Editor

The civil war at Manchester United has intensified with a call by John Magnier and JP McManus, the Irish tycoons who own 25 per cent of the club, for a halt to contract negotiations with manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

The demand by the Irishmen came in the form of a recent letter from their company, Cubic Expression, to Sir Roy Gardner, the chair man of the United holding company. Magnier and McManus want Gardner to stop talk with Ferguson on the terms of his new contract - believed to be worth millions of pounds - while the United directors carry out a probe into his business affairs, and especially his dealings with his football agent son Jason.

Last night a spokesman for the club rejected the Irish call, and said that talks would carry on - and if anything would be accelerated: 'We value his [Ferguson's] services, and we are very keen to secure his services for a further period.' A deal between Ferguson and David Gill, the United chief executive, is expected shortly, said the spokesman.

But last night there was speculation that only a one-year contract would be on offer, despite the Manchester United manager hoping to agree a deal that would be worth £4m a year and extend his reign to 2007. The current deal runs out in 2005.

Relations between Gardner and Ferguson on one side, and the Irish shareholders on the other are at an all-time low. The club has accused them of a 'dirty tricks' campaign againstFerguson, in which they used the corporate sleuthing agency Kroll Associates to dig up skeletons from his past and blacken his name. The Irish, and Kroll, deny this.

The Sunday Times writes today that Coolmore have also wrote to United expressing concern about transfer dealings - see the related story.