Rodwell at top of Fergie's summer wishlist
United boss eyes young Everton ace as part of his quest to rejuvenate squad
Manchester United are determined to beat Chelsea to the signature of Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell in the next stage of Alex Ferguson's attempt to establish a nucleus of young British players who can represent the club's long-term future.
United have already secured a £10m deal to sign Chris Smalling from Fulham and are eager to proceed with a bid for Rodwell, his England U21 team-mate, as part of Ferguson's commitment to ensure that a core of British players remains after Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have retired.
Aston Villa midfielder James Milner is another potential target, even though United fear it will be extremely difficult to persuade the Midlands club to sell him.
Although Neville, Scholes and Giggs are signed up to play on for one more season, Ferguson and his coaching staff have discussed the need to preserve a British nucleus as the club looks to move forward.
Talented young players will continue to be bought from overseas, at academy and first-team level, but sources at Old Trafford have indicated that a pro-British strategy is being encouraged not only because of Uefa's new rules on home-grown players but also because Ferguson believes it is essential to the spirit of the team.
Rodwell (19) is a player Ferguson has admired since before he broke into Everton's first team. The teenager came through the Toffees' youth ranks as a central defender, but has excelled in the centre of midfield, scoring Everton's third goal in their 3-1 victory over United in February.
Everton are eager to persuade Rodwell to a sign a new contract, but United's interest is strong and, with Chelsea and Manchester City also admirers, Ferguson is eager to ensure his club do not lose out if the player becomes available. Chelsea had a £14m bid for Rodwell rejected last year.
Ferguson's desire for young British talent means that United will insist on being kept informed of any developments surrounding Milner, who is emerging as a key player in Fabio Capello's plans for England's World Cup campaign, which kicks off on June 12 against the USA.
It is unclear at this stage whether Ferguson will be tempted to move to sign Joe Cole on a free transfer if the 28-year-old's contract negotiations with Chelsea break down. Ferguson has long been an admirer of Cole, but the club's stated transfer policy is to focus on young talent, even if such a deal could, like the signing of Michael Owen last summer, be classed as "low risk".
The United manager's plans in attack are also unclear, despite a watching interest in Wolfsburg forward Edin Dzeko and Karim Benzema, who is out of favour after only one season at Real Madrid.
Dimitar Berbatov has attracted tentative interest from Bursaspor, who are second in the Turkish league.
Berbatov, meanwhile, believes that United will sign another striker in the summer, but the forward said he had been given no indication that he could be sold to make way for any new arrivals and is confident he will be at the club next season.
United boss Ferguson is believed to be exploring the feasibility of offloading Berbatov, despite claiming last week that the Bulgarian has a future at Old Trafford.
A cash/swap deal involving AC Milan striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is thought to have been looked at, as have several other options.
Berbatov conceded that he has struggled to live up to expectations since his club-record £30.75m move from Tottenham Hotspur nearly two years ago.
But he is determined to see out the remaining two years of his contract and said he would not change his perceived surly demeanour by "grinning like an idiot" just to pacify his critics.
Berbatov, who this week announced his retirement from international football with Bulgaria, said: "I'm sure United will buy a new striker, but I am there and that's important. I will try to fulfil my contract because where would I go after United?
"In my two years, things could have been better, but they could have been worse, too. I have had my moments. I have won the championship and the Carling Cup, but people had great expectations for the money it cost to sign me. We do not know what will happen in the third year. I do not show any emotions but I'm really happy."
© The Times, London