Manchester United fans have been here before. Recent summers have been scarred by transfer sagas and the outcome is never good. In 2013 David Moyes and the bumbling newbie Ed Woodward conducted a naive and ultimately embarrassing pursuit of Cesc Fabregas, then of Barca. Feeling unloved and taken for granted the Catalan wanted his employers to show that they valued him, which they subsequently did to his satisfaction and United found themselves having been led down the garden path.
Without a coherent back up plan the farce continued until the final seconds of the transfer window, as Marouane Fellaini, the most anti-Cesc footballer in the Premier League, was signed for significantly more than the £23.5m release clause stipulated in his contract that had been allowed to expire a week before.
Fast forward twelve months and the first saga under Louis Van Gaal concerned Juventus’ Chilean midfielder Arturo Vidal. To this day we still don’t know if the club even had an interest in the player, but media reports from two continents fuelled the idea that a move was afoot. Ultimately nothing came to pass and a year later the player moved to Bayern, where he has continued to excel.
In 2015 United engaged in a long and painful pursuit of Real Madrid’s Spanish defender Sergio Ramos. Ramos too felt undervalued and unloved and wanted his club to demonstrate that they valued him. Van Gaal and United played patsy, clinging on to a belief that he may agree to move, also revelling at the opportunity to cause the Spanish club some unease at a time when Florentino Perez was involved in a long-term pursuit of David De Gea. Ultimately neither side got what they wanted. United and Van a Gaal, however, appeared to have no Plan B and thus his team and the fans were forced to endure a season of a midfielder playing at centre back. Another summer, more disappointment.
Given the history it is unsurprising that some United supporters are viewing the chase of Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba with some cynicism. Their club is willing to offer a fortune for the 23 year old. It is not even clear how committed the Frenchman is to join or if Juve are willing to sell. What is apparent, however, is that this chase is different to those that have come before it. Those failures ended in acute embarrassment because there was no alternative strategy. The club went all in and lost. Jose Mourinho, however, has made it clear that intransigence is not acceptable and patience is in short supply. He will not be willing to wait endless weeks for Pogba or Juve to blink, and will have alternative plates already spinning. This summer United have been a different animal, canny and decisive, powerful rather than tepid, focused, not rudderless. They have gone from behaving like hopeful wannabes to acting like playground bullies. The first battle, to price the mighty Real Madrid out of the race has already been won. This is unprecedented and appears to have sent journalists close to the Champions League holders like Guillem Balague into a tailspin. Real usually get what they want. Much has been made of the staggering valuation United have put on Pogba, but a player’s market worth is what a club are willing to pay for them, and in this case Ed Woodward clearly feels that the on-pitch and commercial benefits of such a purchase make it good value. At only 23 and with a generally accepted desire to play in Spain for Real at some point in his career, United also know that should the player wish to leave in three or four years time that they will be able to extract a significant fee from the Spanish club, recouping much of their money.
What the move has achieved, whether it happens or not, is to spook fans and pundits affiliated to other clubs. Many have lined up to suggest that Pogba is overrated, over-priced, not the player they need, that the fee is obscene, a sign of the abhorrent money driven culture that football has become. £100m, of course, and £350,000 a week, could employ soldiers or nurses, front-line staff who give much and earn little. Such concerns are, however, not so apparent when their own club signs a player for half the fee on half the wages, because £50m and £175,000 per week is definitely not an obscene amount of money compared to the sums our forces, NHS staff and teachers earn. No matter that their team continues to operate in the same capitalist world and drinks feverishly from the Sky Sports golden goblet. The competition are scared of United again, a focused, financially powerful juggernaut, with Jose Mourinho at the helm and an Executive Vice President who appears to be energised by his manager’s guiding hand (or the fear of not giving what he craves).
The offer for Pogba has concentrated the minds of opponents and observers. They know that the midfielder would be a game-changer, one of maybe only ten or fifteen such players currently in world football.United mean business again and have vast resources. The Frenchman may not join, sending Richard Keys scurrying back onto his banter bus, headed straight for the desert, but that would not be the disaster that the failed bids for Cesc and Ramos represented. Fear has been injected into rivals which will not dissipate, whilst Jose Mourinho will plough on with his vast squad restructuring. Another midfielder will be quickly targeted and there will probably be further acquisitions after that in what the Portuguese framed as the ‘supplementary’ market. There are also likely to be numerous players trimmed from the squad, the dead wood that Louis Van Gaal was supposed to have purged. There will be no intransigence or decisions to stick with what he has and try to fit square pegs in round holes. There will be no staring at the fax machine in desperation, hoping that a late transfer of a Southampton or Everton midfielder has gone through. This summer is different and so are United, and whether Pogba returns to Old Trafford or not, they are already showing that they are now acting like the financial and historical behemoth that they are. Rejection in early July is not embarrassing. What is is blindly trailing an unlikely target all summer only to inevitably fail and end up with nothing. You don’t get if you don’t try. The knack is knowing when to concede and where to look next. Failure to sign Pogba is not in itself humiliating. It is what happens next which will define it.