It turned out to be an extraordinary day of transfer activity, so soon into the summer window, as Sir Alex Ferguson closed in on £16 million Blackburn Rovers defender Phil Jones. The England Under-21 international has reportedly agreed terms on a five-year deal and is likely to become the first of several signings before the window closes at August’s end. Manchester United will likely also confirm the signatures of Aston Villa’s Ashley Young and the Spanish goalkeeper David de Gea in the coming weeks.
Yet, as Isaac Newton might agree, every action has a reaction, especially when wage budgets and squad sizes must be balanced. Not equal, perhaps, but for United the inbound talent ensures the revolving door marked exit remains busy this summer. Just as United supporters embrace the new-boy Jones, then a heartfelt goodbye will be heard for John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Darron Gibson, reportedly the subject of a £12 million bid from Sunderland today.
Supporters have, after all, been promised one of the busiest summers in recent memory, with significant deadwood cleared out of Old Trafford’s burgeoning squad, balanced by returning loanees and heavier expenditure than has become the norm under the Glazer family’s ownership over the past six years.
Indeed, this summer is promising to create more change in the United squad than has been seen for years. It is an accelerating evolution that will end a cycle at United in a less gradual way that is typical under Ferguson’s stewardship.
Moreover, in Brown and O’Shea, Ferguson is losing significant experience. One club men at that. Between them the latter pair has amassed more than 750 appearances in the Red shirt, adding to the departures of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Edwin van der Sar, which robs Ferguson of more than 1500 club appearances.
In experience’s place comes youth. Young, at 25, is the oldest of United’s most discussed signatures, while de Gea is just 21. Arguably though Jones, 19, is the most exciting of the trio; a classy centre half already noted for his leadership skills.
Indeed, some observers rate Jones ahead of Chris Smalling, who so thoroughly impressed during his debut Old Trafford season. With Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur chasing Jones’ signature, United has certainly paid top dollar for the player but one who could represent the club for more than a decade.
“I think he’s an amazing young talent and he could easily go on and become an England centre-half in years to come,” admitted Harry Redknapp today, with the Spurs’ manager admitting defeat over Jones’ acquisition.
“I was in for Phil Jones. We were interested in him but it looks like he’s gone to Manchester United. I think he’s a great singing for Man United. We’re struggling to find people that are better than what we’ve got. It’s not easy unless you pay massive money and massive wages.”
United has certainly spent ‘massive money’ buying out Jones’ reported £16 million release clause. And it is of course a gamble for a player with less than 50 senior games for Blackburn plus a dozen international age-group games.
But Ferguson has never been scared of risks in the transfer market, splurging up to £27 million on teenage Wayne Rooney in summer 2004. de Gea will also represent a significant gamble when the Spaniard’s signature is confirmed sometime after 1 July.
Not that the teenage defender Jones will go straight into the United side of course, with Jones likely to act as back-up to Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Smalling at centre-half next season. It is an area of United’s squad that felt threadbare at times, with Brown, Evans, Ferdinand and even Vidic injured during over the 2010/11 campaign.
Yet, while Jones may not be for the present, there is no little irony in a signature that will affect Jonny Evans most acutely. The Northern Irishman was once dubbed United’s future but has arguably forced Ferguson’s hand with a series of sub-par performances over the past year. Jones’ acquisition is unlikely to be terminal for Evans’ United career but the Belfast-born player may now find more opportunities at full-back than in the past.
While Jones, de Gea and Young begin their United careers Brown and O’Shea have earned both respect and gratitude for their efforts in the United cause over more than a decade. Both graduates of United’s academy, neither have fulfilled the glorious promise of youth but have served the club with distinction and pride.
Brown has always been one of the most naturally gifted English defenders over that time; a home-made Ferdinand whose talent was only ever limited by injury. It is no disservice to say that had it not been for one of the game’s most lengthy injury records Brown could have amassed more than a century of caps for England, rather than just 23. He would surely have also made more than 500 appearances for United bar for frequent trips to the treatment room.
Making his début in 1998, Brown earned rave reviews for early appearances at right-back, including the 6-2 thrashing of Brondby in Copenhagen during the treble-winning season. But it was at centre-half that the Longsight-born player was most natural, offering the Reds acceleration over 20 yards, a fearless competitive streak and perfect timing.
O’Shea has never possessed the same natural talent but won over United’s supporters with a vibrant début campaign largely at left-back. After all, it is no accident that United fans laud “Johnny marching down the wing.”
But O’Shea’s versatility undermined his United career, while also offering him a longevity that bemused some fans. The Irishman appeared right across the back-four, in central midfield and even in goal during more than a decade at the club.
Yet, while there is little surprised in Gibson’s departure, with United reportedly refusing to offer a contract extension beyond 2012, nor in Brown’s, O’Shea’s flexibity appeared to have guaranteed a place in next season’s squad. After all the Waterford-born defender started nearly 30 games for the club in all competitions last season.
And that is where the fun of transfer silly season becomes most acute. Sunderland’s is, at this stage, just a bid. Neither officially accepted by player nor club. One that could but seems unlikely to fail.