Perhaps it will prove the £99.2 million mistake. Because if Paul Pogba joins Manchester United for a world record fee of £100 million, his will be the costliest case of the one who got away in football history. United received just £800,000 in compensation when the midfielder left Old Trafford in 2012, disillusioned by a lack of opportunities.
If United’s millions could buy them a time machine, they may want to rewind to many a day in their last three years, to rewrite history and remedy the many faults they have made. Yet Pogba’s eventual return highlights earlier errors. It illustrates the expensive element of some of Sir Alex Ferguson’s late-period decisions; their cost did not become apparent until he entered a paradoxically lucrative form of retirement.
Ferguson made United billions, facilitating their transition from a club with a turnover under £30 million when the Premier League started to one with an annual income over £500 million now. His prowess enabled the Glazers to borrow against the club to finance their takeover. From Eric Cantona to Cristiano Ronaldo, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Edwin van der Sar, he found a host of bargains.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Cristiano Ronaldo receive awards while at Manchester United
Image credit: Reuters
He had the aura to camouflage mistakes while he remained in office: his United remained competitive in the Premier League, whereas his successors’ sides have stumbled. Yet past and present were connected; on-field regression was a delayed consequence of choices.
Recommending David Moyes as his replacement was a move that, in a failure to qualify for the Champions League alone, cost at least £40 million. His final signing, Wilfried Zaha, arrived for £15 million, never started a league game and left for £3 million. Then there is Pogba, a £99.2 million faux pas compounded by the reality United spent £120 million on other central midfielders during his four years in Italy.
There have been problems on the balance sheet and the football field alike. They can be traced back to Ferguson’s 70th birthday, to a selection that even Louis van Gaal might have deemed odd and a result that, ultimately, cost United the title in 2011-12 and delayed the Scot’s retirement by 12 months. At home to Steve Kean’s hapless Blackburn, Ferguson fielded Ji-sung Park and Rafael da Silva together in the centre of midfield and lost 3-2. “I didn’t understand,” Pogba told Canal+ in 2013. “There was Rafael in midfield and I was disgusted.” Five years on, no-one chooses Rafael ahead of Pogba in midfield any longer. Five years on, Pogba may belatedly start a game for United.
Ferguson’s falling out with Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola – “he and I were like oil and water,” he wrote in his book, Leading – may have dictated the Frenchman’s departure. So did his omission against Blackburn. So did the subsequent return of Paul Scholes from retirement, placing another roadblock in Pogba’s path. Ferguson preferred to pick the older Paul. He planned for the future when signing David de Gea, but there were signs short-termism prevailed at the end of his reign. Robin van Persie arrived, delivered the title and declined under his successors.
Ferguson has rebuffed charges that he bequeathed difficulties. “There was a consensus that the group was too old – nonsense,” he wrote in Leading. “A squad that won the championship by 11 points included the following players, all aged 25 or under – [Jonny] Evans, De Gea, [Phil] Jones, [Chris] Smalling, [Javier] Hernandez, [Tom] Cleverley, [Shinji] Kagawa, Rafael and [Danny] Welbeck.”
Yet, three years on, only two players he bought in his final five years, De Gea and Smalling, rank in United’s strongest 11. By way of comparison, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City could all field at least five signed in the same period in their best team.
They have had a core. United have required a major rebuild. It has been compounded by something that is not Ferguson’s fault: an inability to secure premium prices for the departing players. They have been the antithesis of those expert salesmen at Chelsea. Ed Woodward strikes far better commercial deals and United have been short-changed because they have lacked a professional negotiator in footballing transfers. Pogba’s £800,000 fee was set by a tribunal because he was out of contract. Darren Fletcher’s free transfer may have been an admirable gesture, considering his fine service.
Javier 'Chicharito' Hernández had a good record at Real Madrid in those few matches he started
Image credit: AFP
Yet United brought in just £2 million for Robbie Brady, now tipped to join Leicester for £20 million. They only made £5 million for Nani, whose value has gone up since his departure. Van Persie went for a cut-price £3.8 million and scored 22 goals for Fenerbahce. Hernandez only cost Bayer Leverkusen £10 million and delivered 26 goals. Rafael, a 25-year-old Brazil international, went for just £2.5 million. Mame Biram Diouf, Dimitar Berbatov, Wes Brown, Shinji Kagawa, Welbeck, Zaha: all arguably went on the cheap. Put those 11 moves together and United only earned £60 million, or 60 per cent of Pogba’s proposed cost.
Their generosity has been apparent at both ends of the transfer market, paying over the odds to recruit and selling at a discount. Woodward’s commercial acumen and Ferguson’s extraordinary success made it possible but three years of financial and footballing missteps merit scrutiny. Pogba’s return will be presented as a coup. It is also the game’s costliest comeback, a nine-figure deal that was eminently avoidable.