Missing out on players is nothing new, even for the biggest and best of clubs, and United have had plenty get away for one reason or another. Whether it be an inability to compete financially (Arjen Robben), incompetent negotiation (Ronaldinho), or a certain callowness when dealing with local agents (Marcelo Salas), no team gets all the players they want. But to sign then effectively un-sign a player is rare, and the noises coming out of Fiorentina suggest that refusing to follow through on a deal for Adem Ljajic may well have been as costly as it was curious.
When United announced the signing, on 2 January 2009, of Partizan Belgrade’s “little Kaká” and his counterpart Zoran Tošic, the club were quick to announce that in Ljajic they had captured “Serbia’s brightest young talent”. The deal saw Tošic move immediately while Ljajic, then aged 17, would remain at Partizan for the rest of 2009, and head to Old Trafford in January 2010.
Except, of course, he never did. The deal became an option, and the option wasn’t taken. According to United, given the “wealth of talent” in central midfield, and having “closely monitored his development”, they had elected not to complete the deal. Which might have been the end of the matter; clubs choose not to sign players all the time, and sometimes that’s a mistake. (After all, if you believe the stories, Fergie turned down Zidane.)
However, at a press conference a few days later, Mike Phelan told the press that “We” — that’s the club — “looked at Adem and he has the potential”. Phelan went on to explain that United had opted out of the transfer on the basis that it would prove impossible to get a work permit. But faced with contradictory stories from the club, many observers, along with the officials at Partizan, concluded that the spectre of Glazernomics had nixed the deal.
As for Ljajic, he was, reportedly and understandably, devastated. Signing instead for Fiorentina, he made a low-key start, managing nine appearances in the second half of the 2009/10 season. Upon taking the Fiorentina job in the summer, Sinisa Mihajlovic criticised his young compatriot’s haircut, his predilection for his Playstation, and his affection for chocolate. Yet Mihajlovic was also happy to throw him into the first team following an injury to playmaker Stefan Jovetic, and Ljajic has blossomed, catching the eye of Inter’s scouts with displays of maturity and invention. Displays that throw the creative poverty of this United midfield into sharp and depressing relief.
Quite why United refused to seal the deal is mysterious and, given the silence that hangs around the club in these debt-drowned days, a full explanation may not be forthcoming for some time. None of the three accounts ring entirely true: the player’s clearly a talent, could have been signed then loaned back, and the deal was relatively small in financial terms. Though it is perhaps significant that the Glazers hadn’t yet issued the £500m bond.
Whatever the cause, at the Partizan’s director of football said “I think that they will regret this decision in future”. It’s early days, but Ljajic is beginning to prove him right.
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