Manchester United were not interested in Bruno Fernandes in the summer. It’s what the club routinely told their closest media, leading to repeated sneering at claims of interest coming from Portugal.
Having had a scout at pretty much every Sporting fixture for the second half of last season, and therefore having seen the midfielder break all kinds of records, the Red Devils weren’t bothered.
Indeed, there was thought to be anger at Old Trafford that the club was even being linked, and then later on the message was sent out that Bruno’s passing statistics weren’t up to scratch.
Fast forward to Thursday January 9th, and there were claims from Portugal that Manchester United interest (which they never believed didn’t exist) had been reignited.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was presented as reevaluating the player ahead of a potential January swoop. There was, however, a problem presented. Sporting have long been looking for a €70m headline figure for their star and United were ‘reluctant’ to match that.
On Friday January 10th, it was reported in Portugal that Solskjaer and Mike Phelan had recently travelled to a Sporting match to watch Bruno in person. The BBC’s Simon Stone was informed about the report prior to the manager’s press conference that day, and asked about it.
Solskjaer was vague, although he didn’t deny it. The Manchester Evening News later reported: ‘United sources are guarded about the renewed speculation and noted the ‘noise is being driven out of Portugal”
That evening, claims came from Portugal of Frederico Varandas, Sporting’s president, travelling to London for talks about the move. Everything inevitably got carried away and the transfer was presented as closer than it was, by sections of both the Portuguese and English media.
But there was interest and talks, clearly. This time it was too difficult to present the whole thing as a figment of Portuguese imagination. Whilst the sniping towards the country’s media continued, by many who then spent much of the coming days covering it, it had to be tempered.
Claims were flying around, and, as ever, Portuguese newspapers were reported as saying things they hadn’t. This wasn’t just restricted to social media, but also from websites and newspapers, one of which is named above.
For complete clarity, the Portuguese media aren’t completely blameless in the hype, they’ve played a big part, although not as big a part as some would insist.
Then on the evening of Thursday 16th, TVI24, who had been the first to break Varandas’ trip to London, reported the transfer was at risk.
Sporting were said to be demanding €65m guaranteed, with Manchester United not wanting to go above €50m.
The Red Devils were reportedly putting on the table a big amount in bonuses, which could make the deal reach up to €70m or €80m. However, they were too hard to achieve.
That was the first time the €80m figure was pushed, and it was clearly from the perspective of the English club, who were said to be trying to have a low base price and lots more based on fanciful additions.
Rui Pedro Braz was the journalist pushing the story, and whilst he didn’t know the exact clauses, he believed the bonuses could refer to Premier League and Champions League titles, besides Bruno winning the Ballon d’Or.
The €15m difference, between €50m and €65m, is what Braz said was holding the deal up. There was no point offering Sporting bonuses they knew would be very hard to trigger.
Given the frenzy that had built up, TVI24’s claims got a bad reaction, how could they believe the transfer was at risk when others said it was imminent? Their claims were later backed up elsewhere, both by the Portuguese and English media.
Friday 17th was the big derby day. Sporting were believed to be doing anything to keep their player for the Benfica match, and then it was assumed he’d say goodbye. Sky Sports sent someone to Lisbon, who gave the impression the deal was pretty much done. There was talk of a potential flight after the match, and even claims a Sporting official had said it was agreed.
It was nonsense, Sky weren’t going to send someone to Lisbon to then reply they didn’t have a clue what was happening.
As the match was approaching, BBC 5 Live put out a segment on the situation. Darren Fletcher said Tottenham had made a £45m offer in the summer, and that Spurs walked away when that was rejected because they didn’t feel Bruno was worth any more.
Fletcher then said he’d been led to believe Sporting want €80m, a figure he later put as £80m, ‘about €35m more than Spurs offered‘. He said ‘it begs the question how he’s upped his value by €35m’ in the time since then.
He hasn’t, obviously, and that wasn’t even being suggested in Portugal. Tottenham’s offer, which was actually €45m (plus fanciful bonuses), was rejected.
This was the first of a series of leaks, or a briefing.
Saturday saw almost all the journalists who usually have Manchester United briefings go with the line that Sporting had drastically upped their valuation. It was all the Lisbon club’s fault, they were being unreasonable, and it was clear Tottenham’s summer offer had been a big part of the message sent out.
Enthusiastically, people went to work fighting this corner for the negotiating team at Old Trafford.
The BBC said ‘Sporting Lisbon are asking for nearly double what Tottenham rated the Portugal midfielder last summer’.
The Manchester Evening News said United are ‘baffled by Sporting Lisbon’s sudden change in demand for Bruno Fernandes’.
The Guardian reported ‘Manchester United have baulked at Sporting Lisbon’s £68m valuation of Bruno Fernandes, with their valuation of the midfielder closer to £38m plus add-ons’.
That made it sound very much like Bruno’s club were asking for €80m flat.
It’s even been suggested that Tottenham were offered the player for €45m, which is frankly nonsense.
How do we know this? Because Sporting’s president mocked it publicly. There’s the possibility he made it all up, but it’s surely not a high one. In September, Frederico Varandas said: “The only serious proposal, which was still only verbal, was a €45m bid from Tottenham for Bruno Fernandes, plus €20m in goals.
“Twenty million in goals which were about Tottenham becoming the Premier League winners, which they never were, and winning the Champions League, which has also never happened. So I found these goals extremely imposs…. difficult to accomplish. And I understood not to sell Bruno Fernandes.”
Despite all of that, and despite it being made clear in Portugal for a long time that a headline figure of €70m including reasonable bonuses would be acceptable, with a request for €80m (especially as a flat fee) not thought to be the case, the United brief was parroted without question.
Is there not the suspicion that these briefings… may not be true? And if so, which surely has to be the case, does the responsibility not to parrot them then weigh enough?
The targeted leaks work, with a section of Manchester United fans now believing Sporting hiked their price up massively (almost doubled it according to some) and therefore their club can’t be held to ransom.
They believe it, they believe United are having a gun held to their head and that giving in to unreasonable demands would be the worst step they could now take.
Major and respected sections of the English media turn into an extension of Manchester United’s PR arm. Some United fans, choosing to believe their club has been wronged, then jump to their defence, without realising that’s the entire point.
You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.
Taking a step back, it makes little sense for Sporting to put the message out there, and spend months doing so, that they want less than they actually do.
Some of the willingness to sneer at the Portuguese press, from people who have never opened a Portuguese newspaper in their life, has a worrying slant to it. Same as the attitude towards Sporting, who aren’t quite in the financial emergency they’re being presented as.
It doesn’t take too much critical thinking to believe Manchester United are getting a PR stance out. The briefing is so transparent, and has been covered so dutifully, that it may as well have been published on the club’s website.
Sporting will have been doing similar when hyping their player, although it doesn’t appear they’ve done it to the same extent.
Should the transfer fail, then Ed Woodward and his negotiating team can blame Sporting’s unrealistic requests, and should they manage to get Bruno Fernandes for €60-70m then that can be presented as a win, given the message sent out this weekend regarding the asking price.
It’s all a game, but some people shouldn’t be so willing to help Manchester United play it.