At this stage in his career, it is understandable if Leighton Baines is particularly keen to get the opportunity to prove himself at a higher level.
Having established himself as one of the most consistent and reliable full-backs in the Premier League since moving to Everton in 2007—no mean feat for someone plying their trade at a club outside what was once "the big four"—Baines has crafted a respectable reputation around the league for his professionalism on and off the pitch.
At international level, he has had the misfortune of coming up against arguably England’s finest position-for-position player of the last decade, Ashley Cole, for the left-back berth. Yet he has remained a valuable understudy, picking up 18 caps since his debut in 2010 (including a trip to the 2012 European Championships, albeit without featuring in a match).
Now 28, Baines appears to be at something of a crossroads. Cole, while still relied upon at club level by Jose Mourinho, is clearly not quite the imperious defender he once was, opening the door for a potential coup at the position in a World Cup year.
Moving to a top side would undoubtedly advance his ambitions in this area (rightly or wrongly, considering he would presumably remain broadly the same player).
At club level, he currently finds himself being courted by Manchester United—he's been the subject of three bids (some as part of a package that would also take Marouane Fellaini to Old Trafford) already this summer.
On Thursday morning, in what can only be considered a timed leak from those around him, The Independent and various other newspapers reported that Baines had requested (but not demanded) Everton reach an agreement with United for him. The left-back would like to achieve his ambition of playing Champions League football (and, presumably, add a trophy or two to an otherwise barren CV).
A couple of those reports noted that the former Wigan Athletic player had told manager Roberto Martinez in their very first meeting, back in July, that he would like to join United if possible.
That seems feasible, even if the Spaniard denied it after the club’s Capital One Cup victory over Stevenage on Wednesday night. According to Greg O'Keeffe of the Liverpool Echo, when asked about the renewed speculation surrounding Baines and Fellaini, Martinez responded:
No. You are going to get so many stories
The two players have been true professionals and that is what I want, players that are dedicated to the club and dedicated to the team. I am not going to entertain any rumours or speculation. At the moment I really feel for the game. We are concentrating on rumours too much.
There is nothing to tell. If there is anything to tell, we will tell our fans straight away.
By all accounts Baines is regarded as a consummate professional, one who will not publicly agitate for a move in the same way other high-profile transfer targets—Luis Suarez, for example—have done already this summer. Man United boss David Moyes, who brought Baines to Goodison Park six years ago, would presumably be as aware of this as anyone.
As the Daily Telegraph notes: "Moyes understands Baines’s character well enough to know he is one of the players least likely to demand a transfer."
Yet perhaps that is exactly what Baines will need to do if he is to get his wish. As good as he is, circumstances are not necessarily in his favour.
Right now, the move only makes moderate sense for United. Like Cole, current United left-back Patrice Evra is clearly past his peak but remains a more than viable option at the left-back position.
At 32, that will not remain the case for much longer, but replacing him with a 28-year-old—for an eight-figure fee—would hardly seem the most economical of moves (admittedly, signing him as part of a double-deal with Fellaini changes that dynamic slightly).
It would strengthen their depth at that position, but it wouldn't necessarily improve their first-choice XI.
A deal for a younger, rawer (and, in all likelihood, cheaper) option—Southampton’s Luke Shaw, for example—would perhaps have more to commend it. Shaw could learn behind Evra for a season or two before claiming the mantle for himself.
Baines’ contract situation also does not help him much. With two years remaining on his current deal, his club hold the stronger hand. That will change next summer—when the spectre of losing Baines on a free in the summer of 2015 rears its ugly head—but it is hard to cultivate that fear 12 months ahead of time.
The current Premier League rights deal has alleviated some of the pressure on Everton’s finances, but it hasn't erased the issue entirely. Martinez may have said recently that the club does not need to sell its stars to finance other business, but that is very different from being willing and able to let your finest players leave the club for nothing.
Next summer Everton may prove more willing to allow Baines his wish, and at a reasonable price.
The window of opportunity for joining an elite club can be very small, however, especially once a player nears his 30s. By the time Baines’ expiring contract becomes an asset to his negotiating position, Moyes may have already found an alternative successor to Evra.
Baines' window appears to be now. By refusing to publicly demand a move, forcing the hands of others, that is the risk Baines may be taking.
Requesting a move is a first step, but it is one Everton can easily ignore. He may find he needs to be more forceful to get their, and Manchester United's, full attention.
An unsavoury path it may be, but it may just be the only one that leads to him being unveiled at Old Trafford.
Then again, in an age when players show scant regard for the teams that employ them when a bigger fish comes calling, it seems churlish to criticise him for showing some respect.
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