Andy Mitten has been the editor of fanzine United We Stand since 1989
Ander Herrera should be lining up in Manchester United’s midfield against Barcelona on Tuesday night.
The Spaniard has an excellent record against the Catalans – he was instrumental in helping his former side Athletic Club beat them 1-0 at home in his final season there, although they lost 2-1 away after Barça came from behind with two late goals. Some kid called Messi got the winner.
Herrera had also scored a 90th-minute equaliser against them the previous season; that, after Lionel Messi and the once-effective Alexis Sanchez had put the Blaugrana in front.
In 2014, the Basques of Athletic were fourth in La Liga and on top of their game. Herrera, however, gave up the rare chance to play Champions League football for his hometown club to join Manchester United.
The transfer took some time. In 2013, it was aborted amid curious scenes of three lawyers – representing nobody in particular – showing up in a Madrid office to push the deal through. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t happen. Herrera’s eventual move the following season was right for him.
And now his time at Old Trafford is likely to end.
He’ll be remembered as a decent, determined player at a club in a state of flux. He’s a down-to-earth lad; a football fan who’d rather post a picture of his dog than a diamond-encrusted Daimler. This is a man who goes to watch Real Zaragoza with his mates when he’s not playing. Ander will return to Spain one day (and to Zaragoza, where he is having a house built for when he finishes), but he’s been happy with his family in Manchester.
He doesn’t want to leave United, and there are several versions of ‘the truth’ as to why he’s set to do so – common in football, with each party briefing their side of the story.
United, the player and his people are all putting out their spin. Herrera is popular among fans and in the dressing room, but how far does that go when his agent is trying to renegotiate what would be his last large contract in football?
Head over heart
On one hand, he knew Ander was popular, knew his manager wanted to keep him and also knew the obscene wages United are paying the underwhelming Alexis Sanchez. On the other, United – who have the second-highest wage bill in world football – want to show that they’ll not be taken for a ride with wages, and especially by agent’s fees.
United have offered to make David de Gea the world’s best-paid goalkeeper, but are stung by his agent’s inflated demands. The club have the right to say no, too: United are already overpaying compared with the results they’re getting for their money. Both Manchester City and Liverpool have smaller wage bills.
Fans may say ‘pay him what he wants’ when it comes to players wanting new contracts, but they don’t have to watch the balance sheet – which would be badly hit if United fail to reach the Champions League next season.
Besides, it’s not just about money. Herrera, whose contract extension was activated by letter in November 2017, a few days before he would have been allowed to negotiate with other clubs, then went months without getting any firm indication whether United wanted him to stay or not. That sowed uncertainty in his mind. Other clubs were alerted – it’s an agent’s job to make sure their players are in work, after all – and some of them bit. PSG, for one.
By the time United came back with an offer along the lines of what Herrera had asked for, it was too late.
To the future
United might have done it deliberately – Herrera’s stats aren’t particularly impressive. He’s started 15 league games this season, significantly fewer than his usual midfield contemporaries Paul Pogba (28) and Nemanja Matic (25). The club also felt that he wasn’t going to improve as he ticked over 30.
If United bring a midfielder or two in and they prove to be better than Herrera, then the club’s procrastination could have been right. They’re looking at other players who could do a better job.
Scott McTominay, another midfielder, has improved to the point that he’s been one of United’s best players at Chelsea, PSG, Wolves, and then Barcelona at home. He’s 22 and deserves more chances on such form.
Just as United were under no obligation to tell Herrera of their intentions, so the player is under no obligation to tell United what he wants to do either. There’s a contract and it runs until the end of this season.
If Herrera leaves, then he’ll do so with good wishes. Whether a player capped only twice by Spain is even good enough to play regularly for PSG is another issue, but he’s not going to shirk a challenge. Whether it’s right that someone with such a purist’s view of football is prepared to take PSG’s Qatari millions is another point, but it’s his choice.
He hasn’t been Roy Keane, but the 29-year-old is a decent player, a decent person and a decent professional. Manchester United have got many players wrong in the post-Ferguson era, but Herrera wasn’t one of them.
Whether they’ll get it right in letting him go remains to be seen.
Want more Mitten? Players, coaches and pals explain why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was able to save the Red Devils’ ailing season, in your latest FourFourTwo magazine. Out now!
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