Manchester United fans needed a good transfer window. The league may have been won with an 11-point gap, but they were nervy after the departures of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill.
United have performed well in the transfer market in the last decade. Sure, there have been the Djemba-Djembas and Bebes, but they’ve been outweighed by well-scouted emerging talents, as well as the coup of Van Persie’s acquisition.
Financially, United were in a strong position this summer. Revenues, driven by burgeoning television incomce and sponsorship deals, are at an all-time high. The huge debts attached to the club in the 2005 takeover are receding.
United had money to spend, but spending it proved more difficult. Cesc Fabregas was the number one target and United chased him for over a month. It didn’t happen. Other players were offered to United such as Mesut Ozil. United saw his mandate on August 16. The combination of high wages, a £40 million transfer fee and excessive demands from the agent meant United said no.
United felt that they could always sign Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines. They got one at the last minute. But they also turned back to Spain last week, specifically Ander Herrera, Athletic Bilbao’s 24-year-old midfielder who usually plays behind the forward in the Basques’ 4-2-3-1 formation. He’s similar to Cesc Fabregas, though he’s nowhere as near prolific in front of goal. He can also play as a defensive or central midfielder.
Herrera has scored two league goals in 61 Athletic league games. He’s not shy of seeing cards either – 12 yellows and two reds last season. He’s 1m 82cm, yet slight at 73 kilos. United bulked up Shinji Kagawa and David de Gea to better deal with the physical demands of the Premier League.
Herrera’s a complete footballer, the man who sees the final ball United have been lacking in their last two matches. Reliable too. He played 54 games for Athletic in 2011-12 when they reached the Europa League final – and hammered United home and away en route.
He’s bright on and off the field. On it, he transmits information from the coach to the team. He’s played for Spain at U21 and U23 level. He’s from a well grounded football family, his father was Real Zaragoza’s sporting director, where Herrera started his career rather than in the Basque Country. Some fans initially accused him of nepotism but such criticisms vanished as he became one of their best players and moved back north.
After training well yesterday, Herrera will tell his side of the story today - that he never angled for a move away from Athletic - for he fears a backlash from his own fans. But, he’s a footballer, and when bigger clubs show genuine interest footballers tend to be interested in turn. It’s natural ambition and could Herrera be blamed for wanting to play Champions league football, for more money and on a bigger stage?
Herrera wanted to go to United. He claims that United were his favourite non-Spanish club (don’t they all?) and rates his two games against United in 2012 as one of the highlights of his career. United fans have never seen a European following so loud and numerous as the 7,000 Basques who travelled to Manchester that night.
Herrera saw two stars of that team, Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, move on. He isn’t desperate to move himself and is happy in Bilbao. He plays for a huge club in his home city alongside friends. But it was United. He was up for the move. As was his agent. Knowing that, United put a €30 million bid in on Thursday night. Clubs won’t bid for players they don’t think will want to come. Agents provide that information.
Athletic knocked it back publicly on Friday morning through their president. He gave the usual fan-appeasing guff about Athletic being a special club, different from the others. And they are. They’re also very wealthy and don’t need to sell any player. It’s not like they can go and buy a replacement, unless he’s Basque.
Llorente wasted last season because obstinate Athletic wouldn’t sell him. Martinez got out to Bayern Munich in a complicated deal, which took a month to conclude. United didn’t even have a week.
The parties kept talking. Herrera, a regular starter, was benched on Sunday for Athletic’s game at the Bernabeu. United verbally met the €36m buy-out clause on Sunday night. That figure is on all four copies of a Spanish players’ contract, one which is registered with the league. It’s indisputable.
That’s also when David Moyes was doing more homework on Herrera. He likes to know as much as possible about a player. With just 24 hours remaining until the transfer window shut, it was very late in the day, but United had missed out on earlier targets and declined others. Moyes thought the deal was doable.
At 11am on Monday there was an impasse. Money. United were haggling. By 3pm Spanish time, the deal was on. Herrera’s side again understood that United had agreed to meet the €36m buy out clause, aided by the player agreeing to a reduced five-year contract of £3 million a year, not £4 million as originally agreed.
Herrera was prepared to fly to Manchester. With no direct flights, it would have to be by a private plane. Unless he fancied rowing very quickly. (It’s actually possible to row between both stadiums.)
As far as Herrera’s side could see, there were two issues which needed resolving: a medical and the actual transfer of money. One United fan joked: “It’s all sorted, Ed Woodward has just wired all €36m direct to Real Sociedad’s account.”
There were other secondary issues to sort: a payment to Real Zaragoza and talk of a friendly in Athletic’s about to open new stadium. Herrera thought he was going. And then it went quiet.
Spanish newspaper AS reported that three United representatives were at the Spanish league’s offices in Madrid to pay Herrrera’s buy out clause. Three pictured men were from Basque lawyers Laffer. This was news to Herrera’s agency, who also look after Gerard Pique, David Villa and Sergio Canales. Herrera was with IMG for several seasons until this summer when he moved to the new agency. The agents wondered who they were.
Bizarrely, United claimed that they were being falsely represented by fake officials. It will be interesting to see where the lawyers send their invoice. Rodrigo Garcia, one of the three men, said: "We went to see the league over two technical issues. We were not representing the player or his agent."
Rather than deposit the money, the three representatives (of who?) left after an hour at 7pm, citing extra paperwork. They said they’d be back. They didn’t return. The deal fell apart in confusion. By 9.10pm, Herrera’s people thought it was over. They couldn’t explain why. United had pulled out, but Athletic weren’t blameless.
They obstructed, they agreed, they obstructed, they agreed. They’ll say it’s their right to be obstinate. Herrera is their player, not United’s. The player and his agent weren’t happy, neither were United. It was embarrassing and frustrating for everyone.
Herrera’s agent was contacted by a journalist colleague at the Daily Telegraph and asked if he was frustrated by the collapse of the deal. “No frustration,” he replied. “Man United would have been a possibility if the club had agreed but it didn’t happen. Ander continues at a club where he’s very happy.”
That’s the official line. Think of a swan who has been paddling across the Bay of Biscay in a storm. All may appear calm above the surface.
United’s line was that they couldn’t persuade Athletic to bring down the buy-out clause. And by 9pm, United, confident that Fellaini was going to happen, shifted attention to Madrid’s Sami Khedira. Their behaviour was reminiscent of someone buying all their Christmas presents from a petrol station on Christmas Eve.
Madrid rejected it immediately. United went back to Madrid, this time for a loan deal involving full-back Fabio Coentrao. United thought the deal was going through and completed the relevant paperwork. Madrid didn’t.
Thiago Alcantara, Fabregas, Herrera, Khedira and Coentrao. Five players, five attempts, five failures. Not just United fans are baffled and angered by these farcical events, the players are hardly jumping with delight either.
Moyes remains keen on Herrera. He’ll watch him closely and United may return. This time earlier and without the rush. It will make it easier for all parties concerned.
Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten on Twitter