Man Utd created transfer problems by wanting ‘peanuts’ for Beckham as ‘tax’ complaints mount

Matt Stead
Man Utd players England players Mason Mount and Harry Maguire
England players Mason Mount and Harry Maguire react during the World Cup

Man Utd cannot value players properly, summarily fail to get much of anything for their Academy graduates and complain of a ‘tax’ they always end up paying.

The story goes that an ‘obsessed’ Jose Angel Sanchez, marketing director at Real Madrid, had to stifle his excited disbelief. That prior to a high-powered meeting with Peter Kenyon in Sardinia, he and Los Blancos president Florentino Perez had reluctantly agreed it would surely take upwards of €50m to get their man.

Yet the Man Utd chief executive sat across from him at the negotiating table made an opening gambit valuation of €35m for the most recognisable face on earth.

“Peanuts, they’re asking peanuts!” was the line Sanchez giddily relayed back to Perez in Madrid, only for his boss to suggest he try and drive a favourable fee down even further. Man Utd have struggled to shed a reputation of transfer incompetence in the two decades since.

READ MOREMan United and the unmitigated disaster of a 2009 policy

It remains the fourth-biggest sale in the club’s history, the £24m received for David Beckham in 2003. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku and Angel di Maria have been moved on for more by Old Trafford chiefs – and two of those were for less than Man Utd paid to sign them no more than two years before.

Completing a truly miserable top five most expensive departures in club history is Daniel James, one of the few examples of Man Utd seeing someone coming from a mile off instead of being the ones spotted lumbering in the distance.

It is almost impressive to have recouped no money whatsoever for David de Gea, Phil Jones, Ronaldo, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani over the past year. Harry Maguire, priced at a ludicrous £50m and with two years remaining on an inflated contract, is following a similar path. Jadon Sancho (£45m), Scott McTominay (£40m), Anthony Martial (£25m), Donny van de Beek (£20m) and Fred (£20m) are among those suffering for the club’s inability to properly gauge and grasp a market which has grown beyond them.

When not even Saudi Arabian clubs are sniffing around your cast-offs, there is a significant problem.

The issues exist away from the first team. While Manchester City are making a habit of selling Academy players with no senior experience whatsoever for eight-figure sums, Man Utd have released supposed future captain Axel Tuanzebe and scrambled £850,000 together for Zidane Iqbal this summer.

There are levels to this game and Erik ten Hag’s side are operating towards the lower end of that spectrum; Manchester City are getting £10.5m, sell-on, buy-back and first-refusal clauses for Shea Charles.

And it works the other way. Man Utd frequently complain of having a ‘tax’ imposed on their transfer targets by clubs who increase their rates purely because of Old Trafford speculation. They blamed Chelsea and walked away from a deal for Mason Mount for that very reason, feeding that line to the usual press pack, before quickly walking back and agreeing a transfer at £55m rising to £60m – the maximum fee they had set internally when formalising their interest in a wantaway player with one year remaining on his deal.

As journalist John Carlin wrote in his book on Beckham’s move to the Bernabeu: ‘The more a player wants to come to your club, and your club alone, the lower the price you’re going to pay.’

Man Utd are the perennial exception to a rule they helped create.

The summers of 2022 and 2019 were spent trying to haggle over money with Ajax and Leicester, who set their stalls out early, stood firm in rejecting lowballing bids and ultimately got precisely what they wanted for Antony and Maguire respectively as Man Utd started to panic late in the window.

‘Ajax have dramatically upped their asking price for in-demand winger Antony in a bid to stave off interest from Manchester United,’ claimed the Daily Mail last year, adding that ‘the Dutch side have raised their fee demand from £68m to £84m to underline he is not for sale’.

Yet they were only ever setting the bar ridiculously high but tantalisingly within reach for a flailing Man Utd, the sole interested party. Little over a month later, the demand was inevitably met.

As Ajax chief Edwin van der Sar later explained, there was no specific need to sell but “the fee got so high” because “we challenged United to go as far as possible”. And almost every time they do.

Ten Hag has started to address an imbalance to the on-pitch elite through his coaching but that might forever be undermined if Man Utd do not confront the biggest gulf of all. Their compulsion to blink first in every negotiation, to grumble about extortion while emptying their wallets, to moan about the existence of a ‘United tax’ they themselves try and summarily fail to charge, makes the biggest club in the world on many metrics look comparatively minuscule.

Man Utd being horse-whipped in a transfer scenario is nothing new; it was a weakness formed under but entirely masked by the brilliance of their most successful manager. But when buying and selling well is a modern prerequisite for success, they remain an age away from the top.