“I wanted him to be my first signing at Manchester United,” the manager said. Not Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2019, but David Moyes, lamenting the one who got away in 2013. “We came close,” Moyes said, which is not the way Gareth Bale’s camp recall it when, as the Scot accepted, his heart was set on Real Madrid.
It is a reminder of how long the spectre of Bale has loomed over United. A player who dismantled them towards the end of Alex Ferguson’s reign has felt the great lost United player, the signing his three immediate successors did not make, though at least two tried, their dream buy, marrying commercial value, stardust and a skillset that suggested he belonged in a tradition at Old Trafford.
All of which placed Real Madrid in an enviable position. They benefited from Bale’s services – and with four Champions League wins in five years, two of them aided by decisive goals, gained hugely – while in the knowledge that they could have recouped their £85 million (Dh396m) investment, and perhaps made a profit, courtesy of United’s ongoing obsession.
Until that five-year guarantee, the best warranty in football, expired without Real cashing in on it. As late as last summer, they could have enjoyed the best years of his career and still been in the black.
Now, when they could require that £100m or so to sign Eden Hazard, that failure to sell could rank as a costly misjudgement. For all the talk of mismanagement at United, it could be fiscal error by Real.
The context has changed. Partly because Bale has become the Real pariah, the unused substitute in internal exile, the man Zinedine Zidane has discarded. But partly also because there are different noises from Old Trafford.
Ed Woodward remains a high-profile admirer and interest from United cannot be discounted, but nor should it be taken for granted. Bale no longer tops the shortlist. Or not the current Bale, pushing 30 and with a reputation for being injury prone.
It is notable that, in the nostalgic reboot of the Solskjaer era, United have set their sights on players with Bale’s characteristics, wide men with pace, but who are around a decade his junior, whether Jadon Sancho or Daniel James.
It is entirely possible that United will sign a Welsh winger this summer and it will not be Bale. There is a vacancy on the right wing and he might fit with the executive vice-chairman’s ethos, but probably not Solskjaer’s.
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United should be scarred by their last raid for a supposed Galactico. Alexis Sanchez is a chastening failure who could represent a colossal drain on the wage bill for years.
Even United ought to hesitate before lumbering themselves with two Sanchez-style salaries for players with limited resale value and whose dynamism is being reduced by the years.
The Chilean is a one-man warning not to sign the declining and, given Solskjaer’s fondness for youth, United’s age profile is an increasing issue.
They are one of the few clubs who could afford his pay cheque, which limits the market for potential buyers. Bale’s earnings are so far above Tottenham’s wage ceiling, for instance, that any return to former employers could only come with Real subsidising it.
One of the most successful players of his generation may have to be loaned out. And while United erred by borrowing a semi-fit, ageing Radamel Falcao, at least their expenditure on him was limited to a season.
While Bale lingers in limbo, United could feel a loan deal is a worthwhile gamble. But while Real seem keen to kick him out, they should be kicking themselves. Had they sold Bale in time, they could have used him to fund a superstar replacement.