Alex Ferguson was last night dismantling his Manchester United squad as a radical summer rebuilding programme swung into action, with Darron Gibson and Wes Brown destined for Sunderland and a more reluctant John O'Shea likely to be heading in the same direction.
On the day when Ferguson foiled Arsene Wenger's pursuit of a central defender for the second time in 18 months by securing the £17m services of Blackburn Rovers' Phil Jones, United accepted a £12m bid to part company with the three players, who include two of the longest-serving members of the squad.
Ferguson's £17m move for Aston Villa's Ashley Young was also understood to be moving close to fruition late last night.
Though Brown and Gibson were ready for the move away -- Brown started only four league games last season and Gibson's torrid relationship with fans forced him to remove a Twitter account he established in April -- O'Shea is more reluctant and is understood to be dragging his heels.
O'Shea, a far more integral part of the United set-up, started 18 Premier League games last season and may hanker for a better move.
One Irish international who will definitely be at the Stadium of Light next season is goalkeeper Keiren Westwood. Manager Steve Bruce fought off competition from Manchester City, Everton and Wolves to sign the 26-year-old on a free transfer from Coventry.
However, Ferguson -- who has already furnished Bruce's side with Fraizer Campbell, Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley -- may ensure that all three of the United players depart for Wearside.
The potential departures capped a dramatic day which began early with the conclusion of the deal for the England U-21 defender Jones, whom Liverpool had been interested in adding to Sunderland's £20m midfielder Jordan Henderson in their own ranks.
Wenger was aware of the £16m escape clause in the five-year deal Jones signed 13 months ago and made an 11th-hour attempt to sign the player, who told manager Steve Kean on Monday that he wanted Champions League football. Wenger made contact on Monday evening, in a repeat of the overtures he made to secure the services of Chris Smalling last January. It was to no avail.
Jones was overwhelmed by Ferguson's assurance that he can be the next Rio Ferdinand at Old Trafford. Money did not come into the equation -- the defender is likely to earn about £50,000 a week on a five-year deal -- only a sense that his ambition can be far better fulfilled at United than either Liverpool, Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur, who were also interested.
Manchester City also looked seriously at Jones but decided £16m was not good value for a player they felt made too many defensive mistakes.
Wenger is left hoping instead that he can add Blackburn's Chris Samba or Bolton Wanderers' Gary Cahill to his ranks, but neither has been as consistent as Jones, whom Ferguson first became aware of during his fine performance for Rovers in the 0-0 draw against United at Ewood Park in April 2010.
Ferguson immediately told the then Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce that he thought Jones was the real deal and Allardyce's chairman, John Williams, privately predicted at the time that the Chorley-born defender would soon become a United player.
Liverpool were being linked to the defender until yesterday morning and some bookmakers had even suspended bets on him signing for Kenny Dalglish.
But the Anfield club are understood not to have been confident of securing his services and Ferguson has been adamant for some time that the signing of Smalling, concluded last summer, was not enough.
The fitness of 32-year-old Ferdinand, who has started a total of 31 league games over the last two seasons, has been a growing concern.
Jones has played in midfield for much of his time at Blackburn but he arrives at Old Trafford as a centre-back, his preferred position. When he signed the new five-year deal with Blackburn in May 2010 it was on the understanding that he would assume a role in the centre of defence.
Jones underwent a medical at Carrington yesterday in time to be with the England U-21 squad as they begin their European Championship campaign in Denmark today. His arrival throws into doubt the future of Jonny Evans, whose form last season was fairly wretched.
The deal to bring Young to United may possibly be concluded this week and though Wesley Sneijder's representatives are understood to have been in contact with Barcelona, the Dutchman is believed to be intrigued by the idea of a move to Manchester. (© Independent News Service)