You didn’t hear much about it but make no mistake – Real Madrid were back at Manchester United’s door, asking about David de Gea for a second time, last summer.
The player said ‘no’ to the idea of a move to back to the Spanish capital, 12 months after the side’s first approach for him ended in administrative disaster. He simply didn’t want to leave and that was testament to the air of anticipation surrounding Jose Mourinho’s arrival as manager at the time.
In the early weeks before the transfer window closed, Mourinho was seen as the nearest the club had got to Sir Alex Ferguson, the individual who took a punt on the gangly 20-year-old after watching him play for Atletico Madrid against Valencia in 2011. A “lightning rod for criticism” is how someone at the top of United described Louis van Gaal's successor in those early months, explaining how the new manager would throw up a protective shield around his man.
The season hasn’t progressed along those lines, of course. Mourinho just does not seem to be the motivator he once was. The frequent public criticisms of his own players are eccentric and odd, rather than evidence of the manager’s selective use of the press conference as a psychological weapon.
There is still enthusiasm from De Gea for the United cause – “Nos vamos a la final!” was his most recent football tweet – but he expected to be facing Ajax in Stockholm next week, when he posted that. Instead, Mourinho has said that Sergio Romero will play in the Friends Arena, having also saved the penalty which spared United from defeat to Southampton on Wednesday night. The closing Premier League match against Crystal Palace on Sunday is such a nonentity for the manager that third choice Joel Pereira will play.
Mourinho seems to have reached the decision that the 26-year-old is minded to go and is certainly not lending much support to any last ditch negotiating effort on the United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward’s part. What we have witnessed in the past month is a United unrecognisable from the entity De Gea knew under Ferguson. They have not won in the Premier League since the win at Burnley on April 23 and the performance levels in the defeats to Arsenal and Tottenham have been poor. It is thought that Mourinho’s effective concession of the Premier League season in the weeks since late April has left the Spaniard unimpressed .
Real’s need of a keeper compounds the likelihood that he will go. Navas – that individual whom the Spaniards were stuck with on deadline day 2015 – is serviceable but has conceded 39 goals in 34 league matches. Rafa Benitez certainly did not stand in Florentino Perez’s way when he came looking for De Gea as a Keylor Navas upgrade two years ago.
The events of that summer suggest you would be unwise to bet the house on Madrid making it third time lucky with De Gea this summer. Such was Real’s sense of entitlement last time that they waited until 12.45pm on deadline day before making an offer which was derisory: £11m plus Navas. They sent documents to United minus the signatory page at 22.32pm, less than half an hour before the deadline, then resubmitted the document minus a significant technical change.
It is unlikely that United will stand in the player’s way. There is profound respect at the top of Old Trafford for the way he knuckled down to the task in hand last season and there has not been a flicker of insurrection these past two years, though in the words of one source Real’s attentions have made it “less than smooth at times.”
The ability De Gea has demonstrated during his six years in Manchester is testament to the value of sticking with young players and not being swayed by the doubters. Swapping him for Barcelona’s Victor Valdes or a move for Liverpool’s Pepe Reina was being touted in January 2013 after the then 22-year-old’s physical weakness was targeted by Tottenham, who equalised at White Hart Lane in a late aerial onslaught. Ferguson, who had been persuaded against his initial instinct by goalkeeping coach Eric Steele to sign De Gea, simply accelerated the behind-the-scenes work to bulk the boy up.
It’s hard to imagine Mourinho displaying the patience for a young goalkeeper now that Ferguson did back then. A manager with a sense of United’s history, who intuited its love of this superb goalkeeper, would provide him a swansong in Sweden next Wednesday - Ferguson, certainly. But he and the world have moved on.
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