By Jonathan Birchall
Have you heard the one about the three men who pretended to act on behalf of one of the world's biggest football clubs in order to try and sign a £31 million player on transfer deadline day?
For those not fully familiar with the joke that was to become Manchester United's transfer deadline day late on Monday evening, the facts (or should they be punchlines?) are simple. The Premier League champions, despite having previously enquired and bid for Athletic's Ander Herrera, made no formal offer for the midfielder. There was no club delegation in Spain. The trio attempting to take the 24-year-old to Old Trafford for upwards of £30m had no mandate to do so. United didn't have a clue.
Funny? Not for those at Old Trafford. Laughable? It's hard to argue otherwise. But that negotiations over a transfer to United happened without the club's say-so, plus the fact that their only incoming player of the day in Marouane Fellaini did so for £3.5m more than the fee agreed with Everton less than 24 hours earlier, is indicative of a woefully mismanaged summer at Old Trafford. A summer in which the most polished, well run footballing dynasty in England was made to look hopelessly naive.
In the case of Herrera, the three men who spent time at the Spanish Football Federation were not by any means random imposters - rather, it is thought, well-connected representatives close to negotiations. However, that they falsely represented the club over a potential deal for a player whom United have shown genuine interest in is a far cry from the military-like precision by which Sir Alex Ferguson approached transfers.
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Under David Moyes and new assistant vice chairman Ed Woodward, who is seen as a far more commercially focused operator than Gill, basing himself at the club's Mayfair office as opposed to Carrington like his predecessor, United's strategy, if they've had one at all, has looked obtuse and confused in contrast. Woodward left the club's Australian tour early in July on "urgent transfer business". You are left wondering exactly what that was. A self-led internal examination of their failings will begin shortly at the club.
And yet, even with the signing of Marouane Fellaini, a semi-success given Moyes's long-held desire to bring his former Everton charge to Old Trafford, was messily done. Already clouded by the club's failed attempts to sign both Thiago and Cesc Fabregas in July, United were forced to spend £3.5m more than the verbal agreement which they had in place with Everton earlier on Monday.
With Toffees chiefs having themselves paid the same amount more than they had initially intended for Wigan's James McCarthy, United were forced to foot the bill, having both publicly and privately made clear that their options were limited. Everton knew, quite simply, that the Premier League champions had run out of options.
It held similarities to the Fabregas pursuit which, Goal understands, was heavily driven by representatives of the midfielder to bolster his own position at Barcelona. Knowing that Thiago had chosen Bayern Munich over a switch to Old Trafford, United had played their hand and were more than happy to see themselves linked to one of the finest midfielders in Europe, despite Arsenal having first option on their former captain.
In the end, with an almost sad inevitability for United, Fabregas stayed put with his own position strengthened having received necessary assurances from new Camp Nou boss Tata Martino.
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That Nike's six-month period of exclusivity with United to secure a further kit deal expected in the region of paying the club £30m-a-season was allowed to run down on Monday, with neither party said to be happy with recent negotiations, only furthers the point. United's monopoly over the global market, although still staggering, isn't as almighty as it once was. Money talks for the likes of Nike. If United were making them enough, would they really have risked cutting ties?
The financial constraints imposed by the Glazer regime - to whom Woodward remains very close - remain central to United's problems this summer. As Goal revealed in July, Moyes was handed a transfer kitty of just £40m including contract costs, with the club hierarchy having brought forward monies in January to pay for Wilfried Zaha's £10m move, as well as the significant outlay of £15m-a-year that will continue going towards Robin van Persie's salary.
Woodward, more so than Moyes, will become a convenient scapegoat for what has been a dreadful summer - and with some justification - but, with no saleable assets beyond Wayne Rooney, whom the club desperately and successfully tried to keep out of the hands of their rivals, his hands were largely tied.
After a summer of media briefings, U-turns and false dawns, United have contrived to overpay for a player whose release clause was inserted by their own manager. And that, essentially, is it. That word, 'laughable', again springs to mind.
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