Manchester United’s new era began with enormous promises and hope. So how did it end so disastrously, with only Marouane Fellaini arriving and England’s reigning champions becoming a laughingstock as they spiraled into a nosedive that would take nearly a decade to recover from?
Yes, Sir Alex Ferguson had left, but his hand-picked successor had ascended the throne, and fans were ready to back him up to the hilt at the request of the iconic manager. All that was required was a large summer recruitment spree to rebuild an aging group with which Sir Alex Ferguson had worked wonders to win a 20th league title. United had taken their knocks, but they were still the best. What possibly could go wrong?
As one would expect from the winners, big names were instantly linked, and even if only a quarter of them arrived, it would be a tremendous transfer window. Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo, and a slew of others are among them. It wasn’t just rumored either. With his audacious optimism, Ed Woodward, the new man in charge of transfers following the departure of David Gill, placed his neck on the line. He asserted that in United’s pursuit of “stellar” players, “there was no cut-off price.”
David Moyes, the new manager, matched his swagger. In his first press conference, when questioned about the potential of Ronaldo coming to Old Trafford, he refused to rule it out. Though he did not specifically mention the individual, he did say, “This club is always interested in the best players.” Ronaldo was never going to leave Real Madrid, and the club did nothing to temper expectations.
Wayne Rooney was never going away, and Moyes acknowledged the club’s interest in Barcelona star Cesc Fabregas while on a pre-season tour of Australia. “I’m in contact with the executive vice chairman, who is currently dealing with it,” Moyes said in Sydney. “Hopefully, I’ll know more in the next day or so.” Woodward had come to England for major transfer business,’ which was thought to involve securing Rooney’s future and signing the Spanish playmaker. Even in July, things appeared to be looking up.
But then everything blew up in their faces.
After United turned down three proposals for Fabregas, the former Arsenal man held a press statement to indicate he would not be leaving Barcelona. “My dream has always been to play for Barcelona, and that hasn’t changed.” “I’m very happy here, and I’ve never considered leaving,” he remarked. “I never had any reservations. It has cost me a lot of money to return to Barcelona, and now I want to win here. There have been inventions. It’s also not accurate that I requested a contract extension.
“I didn’t have to clarify anything because I knew I wanted to stay,” I informed the club that I would speak when it was my turn. I’ve always felt appreciated by the club. Everyone assured me they trusted me, and I never saw anything to suggest otherwise.”
It was only the start. Bale moved to Madrid to join Ronaldo. Ozil joined Arsenal after United passed up the opportunity to sign him. Moyes was not impressed by Thiago, so he jetted off to enjoy himself at Bayern Munich.
United, now scrambling to bring in much-needed midfield reinforcements, resorted to Ander Herrera. Of course, the combative midfielder would eventually come to Old Trafford a year later, but in the summer of 2013, he was the topic of yet another humiliation for United and especially Woodward, who would begin his tenure in control of footballing issues as ineptly as it would continue.
United accepted personal terms with Herrera, but despite the fact that there was “no cut-off price,” the club balked at the Basque’s £30.5 million buy-out clause. Athletic Club refused to yield on the price despite having limited time to locate a replacement and being further aggravated by their Basque-only player policy.
The embarrassment was compounded when it was revealed in Spain that three imposters acting as United representatives had approached the LFP administration offices in Madrid to try to seal the agreement.
It was a clear indication that Woodward and his negotiators had no idea what they were doing. It was now deadline day, and United had made no additions to a squad that had already been shaken by the retirement of their great manager.
Panicked and desperate, United made bizarre bids everywhere they could. An effort was made on Roma’s faithful veteran Daniele De Rossi, although he had little chance of leaving Rome. A bid for Khedira was turned down.
It all came full circle when United completed the signing that could have been completed months ago. Fellaini. Moyes had wanted to bring the lanky, versatile midfielder with him from Everton since he took over.
The huge Belgian had a £23.5 million release clause in his contract, which Moyes would have known about, but it expired on July 31. United made inquiries but did not sign Moyes’ preferred target. Instead of activating the clause and signing Fellaini in time for pre-season, they dallied, signed him late on deadline day, and paid an additional £4 million for the opportunity.
Even United’s approach to signing Fellaini was perplexing. They constantly attempted to compel a joint signing of Leighton Baines despite Everton’s refusal to sell the left-back. United eventually abandoned that strategy on the morning of the deadline, but they still made a separate offer for Baines, which was worth the same as the £40 million joint bid that had already been rejected outright.
Moyes sought a left-back to replace the aging Patrice Evra, but because United left their negotiations until the last minute, clubs were unwilling to sell because they couldn’t get their own replacements in. If Everton’s £20 million asking price was paid with plenty of time to spare, they might have let Baines go.
United began what would be the most critical summer in their modern existence with the purpose of sending a message: that even as Ferguson waved farewell, they were still champions, the largest club in the world, and they were not going anywhere. Instead, they demonstrated that they were a shambles of an organization not worth doing business with unless they were being drained dry for inferior players and that they were no longer a superpower to be feared.
United have yet to fully recover from the calamity and recapture a title, and it is only now, with Woodward gone and Erik ten Hag in control, that they are finally headed in the right direction.