July 15, 2013. The ides, it turned out, of Cesc. Ed Woodward, freshly appointed as Manchester United’s new executive vice chairman, made his first big move in the transfer market that day: a £25 million bid for Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas that was swiftly rejected. Woodward’s was a pursuit that ended in failure; just one in a summer of incompetence that still resonates at Old Trafford.
Indeed, it is hard to recall a more calamitous window than that of 2013. Not, at least, since Peter Kenyon graced Old Trafford’s boardroom by offering Juventus just £8 million for Zinedine Zidane in the late 1990s. Kenyon topped it by refusing to raise United’s bid for Ronaldinho a penny above £18 million in 2003.
While Fàbregas cannot match Zidane for class, Woodward’s virgin market was far worse than anything under Kenyon. After all, Woodward failed not only with Cesc, but Brazilian-Spanish midfielder Thiago Alcântara, Ander Herrera, Francesco Totti, Sami Khadeira and perhaps half a dozen others in a scattergun transfer policy that brought little more than embarrassment – and the lumbering Marouane Fellaini.
Having failed to heed the lesson from Thiago’s move United faxed over the club’s first official bid for Fàbregas a mere 24 hours after his colleague’s departure for Germany. As timing goes, Woodward is no Tommy Cooper, although the farce still ran deep. Deterred not by the predictably swift rejection of a £25 million opening bid, Woodward oversaw two further offers in £5 million increments, each rebuffed by the Catalan giants with increasing chagrin.
The ruse, as it turned out, was all Cesc’s; the Spaniard had not quite admitted defeat in pursuit of a more prominent role at Camp Nou and used United’s interest to bolster his position under incoming manager Gerardo Martino. It was a ruthlessly efficient strategy too – one that leaves a stark lesson from United’s failed pursuit of the now Chelsea midfielder. Like many a jilted lover, not all interest is requited.
That futile exercise remains in the memory amid the club’s reported £28 million bid for Real Madrid central defender Sergio Ramos this week. It is a bid that comes with a large measure of caution given the 29-year-old’s protracted and seemingly bitter contract negotiations with the 10-times European champions.
Ramos was signed from Sevilla as a teenager in 2005 and has played almost 450 games for the club in addition to earning 128 caps for the Spanish national side. Yet, with Madrid’s policy of signing world superstars unabating under President Florentino Pérez, the defender has slipped down Real’s wage table and now earns just over £5 million per season – about the same as Phil Jones’ new deal at Old Trafford.
In fact, once the most expensive teenage acquisition in Spanish football – at a touch under £20 million – Ramos now earns less than a quarter of Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual pay packet. And while the comparative wage has apparently sparked an ongoing pursuit of a better deal from the Ramos camp, it is the perception of Pérez’ dirty-tricks campaign that has unearthed seemingly genuine resentment. After all, Ramos has been painted as a mercenary in some sections of the Madrid-leaning Spanish press in recent weeks.
Yet, it is also a story that feels depressingly familiar: a player accused of greed and a club keen to play up to supporters’ perception of disloyalty. This is an equation so frequently solved when the wages demanded meets an equilibrium with a pay packet finally offered. It is a balance that few of the more cynical bent doubt will be found at the Bernabéu this summer.
Still, amid that now hackneyed analysis, some believe that Ramos’ exit strategy is actually genuine and that the player’s relationship with Madrid has come to a final end. Not least because of United’s need for an experienced defender this summer and the club’s new found muscle in the transfer market.
“I know Sergio has told the general manager to listen to offers they get from Manchester United,” former Real President Ramón Calderón told the BBC this week.
“He only wants to go to United. Things are in a very bad situation. As time has gone on, things have not only not improved, they have got worse. Now it is not a question of money. It is a lack of affection the player is feeling from Real Madrid.”
It is a situation all the more perplexing for Ramos’ increasing status and maturity at Real. Once a rash and petulant player, whose penchant for a tackle means he is the most red-carded in Madrid’s history, Ramos is now a cultured leader. The last of those 19 dismissals came against Barcelona in a 4-3 el Classico defeat 18 months ago, while the defender’s record remained clean throughout Real’s ultimately disappointing campaign under Carlo Anchelotti last season. Indeed, Ramos conceded just over 40 fouls in the La Liga campaign – the lowest number in any season spent at Madrid.
Meanwhile, United’s strong need for experience matches up to Louis van Gaal’s reported £150 million transfer budget. Last season none of Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcus Rojo or Johny Evans completed more than 30 games for the club. Form, and more often fitness, proved the quartet’s undoing, although Smalling emerged from the season in a stronger position than at any time over the past five years. Jones’ new contract reflects positive performances when the Englishman remained fit and Rojo impressed despite a series of frustrating injuries. It leaves Evans as the most likely to depart should United secure Ramos’ signature.
Still, that is a scenario that remains some way off, with both United, Real and potentially Ramos engaged in a classic summer game of brinkmanship. Throw Real’s pursuit of United’s goalkeeper David de Gea into the mix and this is a saga that may not come to a resolution before the Reds depart for a short tour of the United States in just over a week.
It remains to be seen whether Ramos’ interest is genuine, of course, despite Calderon’s assessment. After all, this week the player’s mother dismissed any chance of seeing her son in Red: “He loves Spain. Madrid has everything,” Paqui Garcia told local reporters.
Meanwhile, Woodward might do well to heed a lesson of two summers’ past. In the market not all truths are equal.