For now, at least, Antoine Griezmann joins the list of top players who, after being heavily linked to Manchester United, didn’t sign for the club. From Ronaldinho to Wesley Sneijder, Cesc Fabregas to Patrick Kluivert, Mats Hummels to Alan Shearer, plenty have been “on their way to Old Trafford” down the years. And then there’s the many names that were never made public at the time; did you know that United once tried to sign Xavi Hernandez?
Griezmann had let United know he was interested in a move and had also told friends that he wanted to join. The little hints from Paul Pogba and Griezmann’s brother weren’t by chance either, but the French forward had a change of heart after spooking Atletico Madrid with the seriousness of his intent to leave.
Once Atletico were aware that their transfer ban had been upheld and that they wouldn’t be able to sign new players in this transfer window, Griezmann called United and explained that he wanted to stay in Madrid.
For their part, United saved face by saying they weren’t looking at him as a transfer target, much like a boy claiming he’s no longer interested in the high school sweetheart at prom because she rejected him after initially suggested she wanted to go with him.
Griezmann said it would be a “dirty move” to leave a club banned from signing new players and he’s right; he would have been perceived as jumping from a ship where he’s happy. His actions tally with what a journalist close to Atletico told me in January: “He’d likely go if it can be a clean break.”
Players are more aware of their image than ever and, while there are some exceptions, most don’t want hassle for them and their families if a move comes with condemnation. In Griezmann’s case, it’s not as if Atletico fans could have been sold any argument other than he was leaving for more money: They have a better team than United. For now, at least.
Having United as a suitor does your negotiating position no harm, as Sergio Ramos found in 2015 when United wanted to sign him and he led them to believe that he wanted to join, before deciding to accept Real Madrid’s increased contract offer.
United have been used as a bargaining chip by several players, but they’ll continue to pursue the best reasonably realistic targets, knowing they can likely pay more than anyone else. Not that money always triumphs in sport, as United’s sixth-place Premier League finish last season demonstrated.
Jose Mourinho knows he needs new players, while executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward knows who the manager wants and is responsible for trying to get the deals done.
United have money, Champions League football, prestige and Mourinho. While Griezmann won’t cease to be of interest any more than did Ander Herrera after his transfer fell through in 2013, there are other fish in the sea. United will get some of their targets and miss out on others. It has always been that way.
In 2003, Ronaldinho was so close to a move that he told his Brazil teammate Kleberson that he should definitely join United and join him in England. Kleberson did sign but Ronaldinho has his head turned by Barcelona, who United were convinced didn’t have the money to complete the deal.
Eleven years later, Fabregas didn’t ask for a transfer from the Camp Nou but United wanted him and half of Barca’s decision makers wanted to sell. The midfielder even rang United manager David Moyes to talk about a move.
There have been many more near misses. Convinced that Ajax striker Patrick Kluivert was on the way, some United fans sang his name at a preseason friendly in Milan in 1996. Sir Alex Ferguson later revealed that the striker refused to speak to the club.
German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was approached in 2011 after being identified as the man to replace Edwin van der Sar. United staffers considered him arrogant, though, when he told the club that, if he wanted to go to Manchester, he’d visit on holiday.
Attention shifted to David De Gea, who has done so well that United will struggle to keep him after six years as the first-team goalkeeper. The club will say they’re confident that De Gea won’t force a move but, if a player wants to leave then it’s difficult to keep him, regardless of his contract status. United can hold out for a lot of money, but Madrid have plenty. The Spanish, European and world champions also play in De Gea’s home city.
In the murky world of football transfers, there are often several versions of “the truth,” with different sides — from clubs to players to agents — briefing to suit themselves. One reason United appointed Mourinho was because they were confident that he could help bring in top players. That proved true a year ago, but even the greatest managers lose out.
“When I woo a player on behalf of Manchester United, I do it wholeheartedly,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “But rejection doesn’t leave me broken hearted. I know that there may be a more fruitful relationship around the corner.”
Paul Gascoigne’s decision to join Tottenham in 1988 meant Ferguson signed Paul Ince, while missing out on Swedish defender Glenn Hysen a year later led to Gary Pallister’s arrival at Old Trafford. In 1992, a lack of success attracting David Hirst saw United buy Eric Cantona, one of the greatest players and personalities ever to wear the red shirt.
It all looks simple in hindsight, but replacing footballers is not like replacing a car. There are so many variables; even the best intentions can be skewed. For example, Wesley Sneijder dominated transfer talk in the close season of 2011 but did not join. Ferguson was asked why he hadn’t pushed to sign the Dutch midfielder.
“The young boy Pogba is showing great promise,” said United’s manager. “We are quite positive about him. If we hold him back, what is going to happen? He will leave in a couple of years’ time when his contract has finished. We have to give him the opportunity to see how he will do in the first team. He has great ability. He has the physique and athleticism. He is a possibility.”
That didn’t quite go to plan either.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.