An extract taken from A Season in the Red by Jamie Jackson, chronicles the eventful end to Louis van Gaal’s first transfer window as Manchester United Manager.
Transfer deadline day is like the opening scene of a high concept flick called The Radamel Falcao Incident that stars a gorgeous-looking Colombian footballer who jets into North West England with magic in his boots and Lazarus in his eyes to make Manchester United rise again. Following Ángel Di María’s arrival, the superstar striker becomes the second Galactico and confirms this new era of blockbuster footballers at the club. Falcao costs £6 million for a season-long loan from Monaco, plus £10 million in wages. That makes a cool £16 million, or £2 million more than Daley Blind’s permanent transfer fee when he lands on 1 September. From the moment the terroriser of defences with sleek black Tarzan hair and matinée-idol looks touches down in Manchester later than scheduled at around 5 p.m. on 1 September, there is a new sensation in town. There is a belief that after four winless matches Louis van Gaal’s team is at last ready for lift-off. Falcao is to be paid £190,000 a week and this is apparently tax-free. As United deny matching his net take-home of £10 million a year, Monaco may be agreeing to pay the fifty per cent tax that ensures the centre-forward suffers no loss of earnings.
Given the awful start to Van Gaal’s tenure, here is a statement of intent. The feelings are mutual. Falcao cannot wait to become the main man in the script that is being written for him. This would never have happened under David Moyes. His marquee signing was Marouane Fellaini: even in the hair-stakes the bushy follicles of the Belgian cannot compete with the Vidal Sassoon smoothness of the Colombian’s barnet. But the drama! The intrigue! Flying in late! Touching down! An hour after scheduled! The megastar salary of £10 million net! The sheer last-minute seat-of-the-pants, high-rolling, big-dipper thrill of it all! For a prologue, this opening scene is irresistible. This promises to be a smash-hit of a movie whether the twenty-eight-year-old succeeds or not. And Radamel Falcao Garcia Zárate does not disappoint. Manchester United is never dull and the former Lanceros Boyaca, River Plate, FC Porto, Atletico Madrid and Monaco predator is perfect casting for English football’s Hollywood of the North.
Yet the context, the sub-text, the backstory, is that Falcao is also a bit of a punt from United. The Colombian is tentative, nervous even, due to the serious knee injury he suffered last January and which ruled him out of the World Cup. Having been offered to Manchester City, Arsenal and just about every high-ranking club in Europe, only United made a serious play for him. He will prove a nice guy, popular among his team-mates and one of the few players who will offer a wave to strangers at the Aon Training Complex as he drives around in his white 4×4. But on the playing side, something is missing that Falcao spends all season trying to locate. His arrival, however, is further evidence for those who foresee the beginning of the end for a trumpeted youth policy last spied in vigorous health at Old Trafford on 6 May. Then, Ryan Giggs, the interim manager, gave full debuts to James Wilson, eighteeen, and Tom Lawrence, twenty, in the 3–1 defeat of Hull City. Indeed, Wilson scored twice. Van Gaal, though, has a proud record of harnessing potential. Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Xavi, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller . . . the list of stars of the recent and current European scene developed by the Dutchman is longer than United’s search for a decent central midfielder.
But does the £150 million-plus acquisitions of Di María, Falcao, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera and Blind not inform everyone what Van Gaal thinks of the current crop of United’s young thrusters? Or will Falcao, Di María and the rest of the new gang of six go the same way as the £37.1-million Juan Mata and the £27.5-million Marouane Fellaini to make it more than £200 million splurged on players still to make their presence known? Maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe what needs to be asked is what chance do Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María, Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, David de Gea and the rest have if first of all they are having their grey matter realigned to override the high-functioning instinct that has driven their talent to the zenith of their profession? After nil victories from the opening four matches one answer may be ‘less than zero’, especially as one growing theory is that Louis van Gaal’s playing corps may not have the requisite grey matter. This was a question Van Gaal bridled at outside Turf Moor when it was posed. Now is the time to wait and see. At least Van Gaal has managed to bring in six players, a six hundred per cent increase on the sole footballer signed under David Moyes, twelve months ago.
This may suggest that Ed Woodward has become smoother in the market. But the real gift to the executive vice-chairman’s manoeuvres is having the Van Gaal name behind him. Van Gaal 6, Moyes 1 is a resounding scoreline, especially when there is no Champions League football with which to entice recruits.
It is an international break. There is no Premier League action for a fortnight. But there is no cessation on the actual Manchester United business of Being Manchester United. The corridors and offices, lunch and dinner dates remain filled as the next piece of strategy is thrashed out. Despite the £150 million-plus just spent, the message from high up to the manager continues to be that more funds are available in the January window. ‘Carry On Spending, Louis!’ this very English movie might be titled. The acquisition of Falcao and Di María, in particular, is a sweet statement for the club and fans. And further succour is offered by the firm message from Old Trafford that there is to be absolutely no discarding of trust in young shavers.
The promotion of James Wilson by Van Gaal into the first-team squad is cited as evidence. Woodward is speaking to investors in the club via a conference call as the latest accounts are published. They show that David Moyes and his coaching staff walked away with a total of £5.2 million when they were ousted, and that United forecast the cost of failure to qualify for the Champions League as potentially as much as £50 million in lost revenue. This proves to be the most loquacious Woodward is all season. ‘Our budgets assume a third-placed finish, as is ordinarily the case. The 2013–14 season was a very challenging and disappointing one. But under Louis there is a real feeling at the training ground that we are at the start of something special. I’m confident with Louis as our manager, with a clear philosophy and a reinvigorated squad, we will get back to challenging for the title and trophies. Commercially we continue to go from strength to strength. The record deal with Adidas underpinned our attempts to compete for the next decade. The £750 million deal is a record, not just in football but in all sports. This is the culmination of four years of hard work. We had offers from more than twenty companies around the world.’ The kit contract, signed off in July, a few days before Van Gaal officially began, is indeed a watershed moment: £750 million over ten years represents a Luis Suarez a summer for the next decade. Serious money.
Yet given Louis van Gaal has spent north of £150 million, compared with the £27.5 million David Moyes did last summer, the Dutchman does not have the excuse of not being able to strengthen his squad that was the very reasonable explanation open to his predecessor. Falcao, Di María and company have to work. If not the team has to still be successful. Or Van Gaal is in trouble.
Relief. Manchester United and Louis van Gaal have conjured up their first competitive victory. At the fifth attempt. Single malts all around for this alchemising of method – philosophy – into the material matter of three glistening points. Queens Park Rangers have been downed 4–0 at Old Trafford and the Iron Tulip is again a deity. Ángel Di María, one of the few bright spots against Burnley, has again sparkled, scoring the opener. The Argentine is the star in an all-round display that has him thrilling the 75,355 crowd with artistry that also sets up goals for others.
Ander Herrera, another new boy, also registers, and the mesmerising attacking play of Di María suggests £59.7 million may be a bargain. From inside the United half, and with the ball apparently in telepathic communication with his boots, Di María runs at the visiting team in a shimmering act of dribbling that ends near the QPR area and a crafty ball inside to Wayne Rooney. This removes two defenders and allows the captain to unload. The shot is repelled but the ball is recycled to Herrera, who gives Rob Green no chance for a debut strike. This is what the congregation want. This is what it needs. The mainlining of adrenaline that flows through the system from player to fan and back again. When Herrera takes a step and from outside the area bangs a cannonball finish past Green, the surge from the Stretford End to the men in red crackles and whiplashes as if the club has just been given CPR and is bolting upright again at long last.