Shambolic, farcical, grotesque, outrageous and simply unbelievable are just some of the words used to describe Manchester United’s botched attempt to sign Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera on the last day of a transfer window.
Here's what happened.
About three days ago my sources in Spain tell me Manchester United showed an interest in the Athletic Bilbao midfielder. A buy-out clause of 36 million euros seemed excessive (and would have more or less equaled the club’s record fee of the £30.75 million paid for Dimitar Berbatov), but United, in the eyes of those involved in the deal, appeared to indicate that they were prepared to meet it.
On the table for the player was a five-year deal, with an agreed four million euros a year. My Bilbao sources tell me Herrera was willing to put part of the wages first offered (five million) towards the deal. What an opportunity for a young man to move to such a big club.
The offer from Manchester United arrived—25 million plus five million more. But Athletic, a club that doesn’t need to sell, asked for the full buy-out clause. Whatever the value of the player was a matter of total irrelevance to the Basque club. If you want the player, pay the asking price; no money, no honey.
Enter Guillermo Gutierrez, Alvaro Reig and Rodrigo Garcia from the law firm Laffer Abagados, a large Bilbao-based legal firm with its own sporting section, claiming to represent United at the Spanish Liga’s offices to finalise the deal.
At this point it should be pointed out that we are not talking about three ‘anybodies’ picked up off the street, but representatives of a company with experience in such matters—having handled the tricky and convoluted transfer that took Javier Martinez from Bilbao to Bayern Munich.
They have also represented English clubs in the Premier League before, including Arsenal.
My Liga sources tell me they told officers that they were representing Manchester United and stayed in the offices waiting for communication about what to do, which is unusual behaviour (normally those that come to pay a buy out clause, just leave the cheque and go).
But, United say they don’t know who they are. The Herrera camp say they don’t know who they are. And a lawyer that United use to do deals says they don’t know who they are. Nobody knows why they were there.
The suggestion that senior representatives from the firm turned up in Madrid without having been invited to do so beggars belief. But allegedly, according to my contacts at Athletic and United, nobody knew why they went to La Liga offices.
In Bilbao at the moment, Laffer are keeping a dignified silence, despite having been effectively accused of being a trio of sharp-suited shysters. A statement from the company merely said they were unable to comment as they were investigating the matter and may, or may not, have something to say about it at a later date. In the meantime poor Ander Herrera, who was behaved entirely honourably, has missed out on a deal he wanted to happen.
When it was rumoured that Manchester United were sniffing around him, my Spanish sources tell me coach Ernesto Valverde looked to drop him for last weekend’s match at the Bernabeu. Herrera, who has never showed anything other than the greatest commitment to the Bilbao cause, told his manager that he wanted to play and was gutted when left on the bench.
United meanwhile, while perhaps feeling, maybe justifiably, that 36 million euros was a tad excessive would probably have realised in less than a year that they had bought not just a bargain, but an appreciating asset.
Within a year, Herrera would almost undoubtedly, injury permitting, have established himself as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League. A player in the Luca Modric mould, he would have blended in perfectly with Marouane Fellaini, and they would probably have worked tremendously well together.
The likelihood now, however, is that we’ll never know, and that’s a real shame. That said, if they do decide he's still a good option, they'll at least know where to find him.