On March 8, 2012, Athletic Bilbao handed Manchester United a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford.
Placing twice as many shots on target as their hosts and dominating possession, they returned to Basque country with a much-deserved 3-2 win and seven days later completed the double, beating the Red Devils 2-1 at the San Mames to book their spot in the next round of the Europa League.
In neither match did United’s midfield even resemble a match for the Primera Division side; on both occasions Javi Martinez and Ander Herrera harassed, dispossessed and simply out-performed their opponents in the middle of the park—a showing that had more than a little to do with Martinez’ €40 million move the following summer.
On Monday, it looked as though it was Herrera’s turn to make a high-profile move, and with Manchester United having opened the bidding for him at €30 million earlier in the week, they had only to add €6 million to their offer to trigger the 24-year-old’s buyout clause.
But some way, somehow, they managed to mess the whole thing up, adding an embarrassing final chapter to a transfer window story that, despite the late capture of Marouane Fellaini, will provide upsetting reading to the club’s fans for some time.
Just how they failed to get their man remains unclear, although some of the reports out of Spain that followed the deal’s collapse were nothing short of bizarre.
With under four hours remaining until the transfer deadline, and with an additional hour of negotiating time having been agreed (Spain’s registration period ended at midnight, while England’s finished at 11:00 p.m.), representatives from United were spotted entering the offices of the Liga Nacional de Futbol Profesional (LFP), presumably to conclude Herrera’s buyout.
But they left without doing so, and while initial reports had the reining Premier League champions unsettled by a tax issue, it later surfaced that the club’s representatives were not actually registered to do business with the LFP.
Less than an hour later, The Guardian reported United had tabled a €40 million bid for Real Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira which, once rejected, saw them turn their attention to Everton’s Marouane Fellaini, who had handed in a transfer request earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, in an effort to push the transfer through, Herrera reportedly offered to take a pay cut at Old Trafford, although by this time United had adopted the line that his valuation was incorrect. They pulled the plug on the deal and dedicated what time remained in the evening to securing the services of Fellaini, who joined for £27.5 million, and Coentrao, who moved from Real Madrid on a season-long loan.
Nevertheless, the Herrera debacle casts a shadow over what was a mostly disappointing transfer window for United, who first sought Barcelona’s Thiago in an effort to bolster their midfield, and then made failed approaches for each of Cesc Fabregas, Daniele De Rossi, Khedira and Herrera.
At times their intentions during the summer seemed confused, their strategy muddled. And with the club so used to landing their transfer targets there will no doubt be a lingering feeling that former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, in tandem with long-time chief executive David Gill, would have finalized their signings sooner rather than later—succeeding, as they do often did, where Moyes and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward did not.
And that they didn’t—that a recognized negotiator with a history of success in big-money transfers wasn’t present as they fumbled from one target to the next—is less an indictment on them than on an ownership group and board that hung them out to dry.
Embarrassments such as Herrera are supposed to happen to other clubs—not to United. This is new territory to many United fans, and no doubt they’ll not soon forget it.