LET’S YOU AND HIM FIGHT

By Rob Hobson
Jul 31st, 2008

Is it possible to have sympathy for the self-professed “biggest club in the world”, Manchester United? Are we able to swallow our natural distaste for the Premiership’s biggest purveyor of double standards? Or are Ramon Calderon’s smug , self-serving remarks simply comeuppance for a club that has had its own way, time and again, in that most underhand of trading floors: the transfer market?

Type “united tapping up” into Google and you’ll be presented with the first page of 429,000 results. Try “ferguson” instead of “united” and that figure jumps to an impressive 1,150,000 results. Stam. Van Nistelrooy. Robben. Berbatov. On every occasion, the “selling” club has made accusations regarding contact with the player without their consent. A very brief amount of online research will find you the following quote from Harry van Raaij, former chairman of PSV Eindhoven, when talking about an alleged illegal approach for his then star player, one Arjen Robben:

“I have had good relations with Manchester United in the past over the Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam transfers but bad relations with Ferguson. I recognise here exactly the same actions as when he approached them both. It is Ferguson’s way of doing business but it is not my way. You can look back and see similarities to what happened with Stam and Van Nistelrooy. It just seems that, with Ferguson, a leopard never loses its spots.”

But has Nelson Muntz finally come a cropper when faced with an even bigger bully? For none of us can have missed the painfully protracted – but also faintly amusing – saga involving plat du jour and soi-disant “slave” Cristiano Ronaldo. And one can’t help but feel a little sorry for poor Ramon Calderon who, after all, has been a helpless spectator in this whole sorry mess.

“This is a problem that wasn’t created by Real Madrid. At the moment Manchester United and the player are in an argument and Madrid are waiting. We can’t do any more for the time being. Will he persuade the club to let him go? I can’t say that. That question’s for the player, who has publicly said his dream is to play for Madrid. We hear those words with pride and satisfaction, but his departure doesn’t only depend on Cristiano. United are the ones that have to sort it out and it will either happen or not.”

There’s something in these unctuous, self-satisfied sentiments that reminds me of the snivelling creep on the outskirts of the playground, egging the fight on to its nasty little dénouement. Big club Madrid may be, but the president seems to have all the backbone of baby diarrhoea.

Now compare and contrast, as the old exam papers used to say, the behaviour of the other members of the Big Three. There’s Arsenal, who seem to conduct all their buying and selling in some sort of sound- and press-proof alternate reality, and Chelsea, who… er… well, ok, the Ashley Cole debacle may have only just exhausted its long-lasting stink, and there’s still something fundamentally fishy about the whole Mikel saga, but on the whole, the club seems to be fairly sensible in how it conducts itself. The pleasant comments about Chelsea by chairmen from Eindhoven to Milan may be as much to do with the overpaying as with the manner of the deals, but… take the will-he-won’t-he Robinho bore-a-thon that seems finally to have ground its way to a halt. Chelsea did finally admit to an interest in the player, long after another party (either Madrid or the player’s agent) leaked the details to the press. Aside from that, Chelsea have studiously avoided the sort of seduction by media that is deemed acceptable in Europe at the moment. No casual mention of vast wage increases. No metaphorical appendage-waving. Certainly no orchestrated media usage to unsettle the little bugger before playing coy over figures and trying to talk the price down.

I guess the aspect of Madrid’s role in all this that irritates me the most is its refusal to actually engage. When it comes down to brass tacks, the club has the history and heritage to stand tall and the money – probably – to effect a fair purchase for an outstanding player. But will they act like adults and negotiate? It doesn’t sound like it. Far from punching their weight and trying to keep some measure of respect into the bargain, they dip their dainty toes in and out of the water. And remind us all, in the process, of a lesson that travelling Liverpool fans have taught us on so many occasions.

You can have history. You can have money. But neither of these things can guarantee you class.

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