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Football: They sent him to Coventry... he'll talk to Inter; EXCLUSIVE: The romantic tangle that left Ryan Giggs isolated - and may drive him from Old Trafford.

Byline: PAUL SMITH

IT all started with an affair - and it could end with Ryan Giggs playing away from home permanently next season.

When he dumped his long-term girlfriend Emma Gardner and took up with Emma's brother's girlfriend it sparked a rift in the Manchester United dressing room that has left Giggs out in the cold.

And it seems even his biggest admirer, Sir Alex Ferguson, is powerless to do anything about the divide between the Welsh international and his team-mates that is driving him into the arms of Italian admirers.

A United fan through and through, Giggs's hunger for success was matched only by his desire to stay at Old Trafford for all his career. And when he signed a new five-year contract last year it seemed he would see out his playing days at the club.

But when Giggs decided to embark on a relationship with the girlfriend of one of his closest pals, all hell broke loose.

Giggs had been best mates with Dave Gardner for years, as was England captain David Beckham as well as the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes.

Gardner failed to make the grade at United as a youngster, but the players were pleased when he found success at the Elite Sports Group Ltd which he co-founded with Ferguson's son Jason.

Giggs enjoyed a closer relationship to Gardner than most because he had dated his sister Emma for two years and made his mate chairman of his lucrative testimonial committee.

But just under a year ago Giggs began to take a risky interest in Gardner's girlfriend Stacey Cook. He even failed to heed warnings that the relationship could backfire when a national newspaper got wind of the affair and threatened to expose it.

The rifts began to deepen with team-mates as the affair became public and when Stacey became pregnant with Giggs's child it left the Welsh star isolated.

Beckham and several of his team-mates sided with Gardner, who was devastated by the affair. It was seen as the ultimate act of betrayal and Giggs was ostracised.

Inter Milan, long-term admirers of the Welshman, appeared to be alerted to his availability and in December they maintained he was offered as bait in an attempt by United to land two of their major stars.

Inter technical director Gabriele Oriali said at the time: "Giggs is fundamental to our plans of strengthening the team. We could have had him in part-exchange because under certain conditions United were available for this kind of deal.

"But our intention now is to wait until the summer when we will make a significant offer."

Publicly Giggs maintained that he had no interest, but Inter insisted they would not take no for an answer even though they set up an elaborate smokescreen later on to see off any competition for his signature. But their Italian rivals Juventus let the cat out of the bag last week.

After their Champions League match at Old Trafford on Wednesday president Vittorio Caisoggi di Chiusano was asked whether he would be interested in buying David Beckham.

He said: "We just do not have the financial muscle to compete for Beckham. It is perhaps only Inter Milan who could bring him to Italy. But I think Mr Moratti has other ideas. I think, at this moment, he is crazy for Ryan Giggs."

Giggs has suffered a marked dip in form while the relationship with some of his team-mates, including Beckham, shows few signs of healing. It has also been claimed that Ferguson intervened, telling his players to leave their private lives at home and stop shunning Giggs.

Amid the heated bust-up between Beckham and Ferguson after the FA Cup defeat by Arsenal came further claims that Fergie was forced to defend. If an e-mail currently doing the rounds is to be believed, Beckham responding from a rollicking by Fergie by suggesting Giggs should have been on the receiving end after his glaring miss. It is claimed Beckham said: "Why didn't you have a go at the pr*ck who missed the sitter?...Oh, I forgot, he doesn't get b*llocked."

The truth of that is questionable, but the fact remains that there is a genuine rift between players who were once the closest of team-mates.

And the only way to solve it may yet be for Giggs to walk out of Old Trafford and into the San Siro.

CAPTION(S):

FLASHBACK: Giggs with Emma Gardner. Right: David Beckham
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 23, 2003
Words:745
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