In December 2008 Sir Alex Ferguson famously said of Real Madrid that he ‘wouldn’t sell them a virus’.
History never recorded whether he did or didn’t sell them a virus – but six months later he did sell them his best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, for £80m.
It was a deal that Ronaldo had long-wanted, and one that United, for all their clout, could do little to prevent.
But Ferguson and David Gill did their business quietly, behind-the-scenes, and wrung every last penny possible out of the deal.
That was how United’s dealings in days gone by used to be: Fergie would say nothing – sometimes he’d even feed the press misinformation. When he said there would be no more signings, it meant there probably would be.
That is not how things appear to working under David Moyes, and his new executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, and the early results are less than promising.
United sense a pressing urge to make a marquee signing – as Martin Samuel puts it rather neatly in the Daily Mail today, they need to buy a big player to show Moyes is a big player – and they’re not backwards in coming forwards about it.
The press are being briefed, seemingly, on every step of the journey.
It came out via one journalist’s tweet after another that United had moved for Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas. It was then publicly confirmed by Moyes.
Details of the Chelsea offer for Wayne Rooney bid also leaked out rather suspiciously – a terse statement from the Blues followed, contradicting the original reports of an offer which included Juan Mata or David Luiz as a swap, which Chelsea claimed came from journalists ‘apparently being briefed in Sydney’ (where United were at the time).
There might be a few fans lapping up this new, bullish attitude. There will certainly be no shortage of hacks tucking in on these tasty titbits.
But what possible good can it do United’s transfer dealings?
If you want to destabilise a player, you can do it loudly, as Real Madrid and Barcelona routinely do, knowing that you’ll most likely back it up with money and the pull of your shirts. Or you can do it quietly, under the radar.
Here’s the problem: for all the money United are throwing at a Fabregas deal, it’s still a next-to-impossible transfer to pull off. Barcelona is his home, he’s only been back for two years, the old guard of the central midfield are on their way out, there’s a new manager to impress… need you go on? And that’s just the player’s perspective. Barcelona are adamant they don’t want to sell.
It leaves only one result likely: a public pursuit of a high-profile player ending in acute embarrassment.
What good will that do when they try to buy players of a similar calibre? Fabregas may have no doubts over Moyes or United; he may just be happy where he is. But for those who would then be approached, it would surely only punctuate those question marks about whether United are the right club – and Moyes the right manager – to join up with.
Make no mistake: if United are frustrated in their pursuit of Fabregas, they will need to land a player of the same kind of stature. It’s a small list of names to pick from, and a list which shortens with wage demands, being happy at another club of similar standing and so on. Sign Yohan Cabaye, and you’ve picked up a very decent midfielder. But sign him because you couldn’t get Cesc Fabregas, and you’ve won second prize in a beauty contest.
Perhaps Barcelona are more ready to sell than they’re letting on. Perhaps Cesc isn’t as happy in Spain as he makes out. Perhaps United will sign him after all. But even if that happens, what will make the fans happy is his arrival, rather than the fact that United did it in the public eye.
This, incidentally, is to say nothing of whether United are forsaking dignity and good taste in pursuing a player so aggressively when his manager has just had to step down to concentrate on beating cancer. As Barcelona were working on hiring a new manager, United were busy sending out another bid.
The Times’ latest report this morning on United’s transfer dealings states that there is a £100m kitty for Moyes to spend this summer, to give him the boost he needs as he settles in the job.
Can it be true? If it is, it is an interesting judgement to give him that kind of sum and only allow his predecessor, he of nearly three decades in charge and untouchable status in the job, to spend ‘only’ around £150m in the four years since the Ronaldo left (a deal which recouped over half that amount).
But while what United need are two or three top players to take the squad on another level, their tactics risk scaring precisely those figures away.
For the pragmatist that Moyes is depicted as, it doesn’t sit well. Since arriving at Old Trafford, everything Moyes has done has been so relentlessly sensible. Bringing Phil Neville and Ryan Giggs into the coaching set-up, talking tough on Rooney, appealing to the history and the tradition of the club – it all made sense.
Even his very appointment suggested continuity: hand-picked by Ferguson himself, all but agreed before the dust had settled on the news of Fergie’s retirement, six years on the contract.
Moyes could have raided his former club quietly for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines, adding a bit of risk-free quality to a title-winning squad.
Instead, he has reached for the stars. Vaulting ambition is admirable – but the looming risk Moyes and United run is discovering they don’t have the pick of the world’s elite players.
And that’s not something they want to be shouting about.
Mark Patterson - @Mark_Eurosport