Severe famine, disease, and bloody struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines brought a conjugation of disastrous events to medieval Italy. The earliest black death epidemics swept the north, while crop failure spawned a Flagellist movement out of a tenebrious epoque. It was a dark time, in a dark place.
Hope came in the public mortification of the flesh – a community of early Franciscans, led in spirit by St Anthony of Padua, seeking redemption in pain, preaching flagellation as a penance. Ask forgiveness of God, and He might look upon the sinner more favourably.
One wonders whether Manchester United’s public humiliation in the transfer market this summer is born of a similar wish to clean the soul. After all, so much of it is self-inflicted; and all public in it’s genuine indignity.
Certainly, there must now be a sense of desperation in the offices of Ed Woodward and David Moyes, with just four weeks until the transfer window closes and the febrile masses ready to condemn should the pair fall back on the excuses of the past. There may be little value in the market this summer, but United’s rivals at home and abroad care little of it.
It has been a summer of few positives at Old Trafford; one in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement catalysed tumult in the boot room and a change in the club’s most senior executive.
But it is in the transfer market where United’s strategy, or lack of it, has been laid bare. Incompetence? Perhaps. Insouciance? Sadly, it seems so. Groundwork? Apparently, none.
Indeed, it is hard to recall a more calamitous window – not, at least, since Peter Kenyon graced Old Trafford’s boardroom by offering Juventus just £8 million for Zinedine Zidane. Kenyon topped it by refusing to raise United’s bid for Ronaldinho a penny above £18 million.
Kenyon followed up by making public Barcelona’s £35 million bid for David Beckham only for the midfielder to choose Real Madrid in the most opprobrious fashion.
This summer has been worse though. Much worse.
First, the supremly gifted Brazilian-Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcântara very publicly turned down a move to Manchester, choosing instead to join mentor Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich.
Few could blame the youngster for choosing the European champions, albeit a club with such wealth in midfield that Thiago may struggle to get a game in Bavaria. Even so, retrospect affords clarity – and United’s interest, however solid, represents one of the most pointlessly futile moves in the market in recent years.
Having failed to heed the lesson United faxed over the club’s first official bid for Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas a mere 24 hours after his colleague’s departure to Germany was confirmed. As timing goes, United is no Tommy Cooper, although the farce still runs deep.
Deterred not by the predictably swift rejection of a £26 million opening bid, Woodward has overseen two further offers in £5 million increments, each rebuffed by the Catalan giants with increasing chagrin. And who can blame them?
“They have also understood our stance that we don’t want to sell him,” said Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta on Monday. “They have given up.”
On past evidence one wonders whether the message will reach Woodward’s desk.
The frustration resides not only in Spain, but north west England too, where United supporters have observed events with increasing embarrassment. The club, once famed for fastidious attention to professional detail during David Gill’s era as chief executive, has looked little short of amateur over the past three months.
Indeed, supporters’ disquiet at Woodward’s bumbling is magnified by the club’s apparent oblivion to clear noises emanating from both player and Catalan camps. After all, Fàbregas’ former manager Arsene Wenger has proffered more than once that the midfielder will remain in Catalonia at least one more season.
It takes not an insider to read between the lines: Fàbregas is happy to use United’s interest to strengthen his own position in with the Culés.
The Reds incompetence is not limited to incoming transfers though. That the club has mishandled the Wayne Rooney saga a summer long proves as much.
Quite remarkably United has maneuvered an increasingly political situation to the point where the player’s position is all but untenable. And yet with clubs a continent wide spending heavily on the few genuinely classy strikers available there is only one bidder, Chelsea, at the table. This for the preeminent English talent of the past decade.
Moyes is left in the unenviable position of retaining a striker who has little intention of playing for United again, or strengthening a major title rival. José Mourinho is surely laughing into a glass of Madeira tonight, even as Woodward rejected Chelsea’s second bid for the striker.
If only it ends there.
Elsewhere serial underperformers seem likely to remain with the club – Nani, Anderson and Bébé each joined United’s Monday afternoon flight to Stockholm for the club’s penultimate pre-season friendly. The £45 million spent on the trio is unlikely to ever bare a return on investment.
Rooney did not board, however, with a mysterious shoulder injury cited as reason for pulling the 27-year-old out of United’s fixture against AIK in the Swedish captain. It is an excuse even the player’s family will be pushed to believe.
Most disturbingly there seems little in the way of contingency for Rooney’s departure. Certainly, eyes fluttered in Robert Lewandowski’s direction will do little good – the Pole is almost certain to join Bayern Munich a year hence. Perhaps a cheeky bid for Victor Anichebe is in order.
This is a familiar tale of course. Rejected by Fàbregas and Alcântara, United will find no success delivering a bid for the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Luka Modrić, for example. Not with the Real in no mood to sell.
It leaves United looking at the only sure bet left: Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian’s is a limited talent that few supporters wanted to see in Red just a few weeks ago. Needs may now must.
Unsurprisingly, United’s ill-planning shines through once more, with the Belgian’s £23.5 million release clause lapsing on 31 July; the transfer could now cost United significantly more, proving that old misogynist adage that if you have to go ugly, go early.
It’s enough to drive fans to madness; or at least the self-abasing whip.