The intended career path of Gabriel Heinze lay in ruins last night after the Premier League rejected his claim that Manchester United had to sanction a hugely controversial transfer to Liverpool.
United were vindicated in their assertion that a letter signed by their chief executive David Gill, agreeing to sell the Argentina international for a fixed sum of £6.8m this summer, did not constitute a legal commitment or allow for a move to the champions' closest rivals for the Premier League title.
Chief executive Gill had described the letter's legal value as "meaningless" having stated verbally to the player's agent, Roberto Rodriguez, that United would not sell to Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal, while Heinze and the Anfield club, who are the only outfit to meet the £6.8m asking price, contended otherwise. Now the 29-year-old is in turmoil after a three-man Premier League arbitration panel ruled United had not given a binding undertaking to sell to any club prepared to meet their valuation.
Both Gill and United manager Sir Alex Ferguson attended the two-day hearing as they sought to prevent Heinze from becoming the first player since Phil Chisnall in 1964 to complete the acrimonious move from Old Trafford to Anfield. "We are pleased that the panel has endorsed our case," said an Old Trafford spokesman, although United now risk losing an asset for significantly less than the price Liverpool had offered.
Heinze and his lawyers, who were advised by a leading legal representative for Liverpool, Richard Green, were last night considering an appeal to the Premier League appeals committee, another three-man body comprising an independent chairman with a legal background, a member of the Premier League panel and a representative of the Professional Footballers' Association.
However, the £6.9m signing from Paris St-Germain is more likely to move abroad to secure the regular first team football he has been unable to claim at Old Trafford since rupturing his cruciate knee ligament at Villarreal in 2005 and losing his place to Patrice Evra. Though Heinze has been touted around Europe all summer by his agent, only Lyons have declared a firm interest.
The possibility remains that Heinze will be forced to abide by the final two years of the contract he signed upon arrival at Old Trafford in 2004, but the defender would be able to buy-out that deal next summer and move to any club of his choosing, while the reaction of the United faithful to his stated desire to join their rivals could also have a bearing on his future.
In a statement, the Premier League said: "The hearing concluded that the nature and intention of the disputed 13 June 2007 letter, especially when taken in context of verbal discussions and Manchester United's transfer policy, was unambiguous in that it envisages only an international transfer.
"The hearing finds the letter constitutes an 'agreement to agree', and did not create an obligation or binding agreement for the club to transfer the player to any particular club. In other words the letter is evidence of an intention to negotiate, both between the parties and with potential buying clubs, and not evidence of any intention to create legal relations."