ESPN FC’s Craig Burley admits Manchester United will be powerless to stop David De Gea leaving if he wants a move to Real Madrid.
“It doesn’t matter if you go somewhere and are still winning, it is always the wrong decision to leave a club like Manchester United,” — Patrice Evra.
Perhaps a United crowd favourite was playing to the gallery when he spoke to British television last week.
Perhaps he would have revisited that opinion if Juventus had won the Champions League to complete a Treble. As it is, and while Evra is enjoying an Indian summer to his career in Italy, his career peaked at Old Trafford.
His most successful season remains 2007-08 when he won the Premier League and the Champions League in United’s colours. His 2014-15 with Juventus is comparable to United’s 2008-09 campaign, when both sides won the league and a domestic cup but were outclassed by Barcelona in the Champions League showpiece.
But the left-back reflected a broader viewpoint and one that has particular pertinence now as David De Gea deliberates over his future. It reflects the notion that United are on a pedestal which their results in the last two years do not support but is supported by the evidence from history. “Where do you go if you leave Manchester United?” Andy Cole asked in 2008. “The only way is down.”
Given the movement of players between Manchester and Madrid — two clubs with legitimate claims to be the world’s biggest — many may disagree. Yet while De Gea is courted at the Bernabeu, the reality is that precious few players have collected more silverware after quitting Old Trafford.
It is not merely because many drop down a level to clubs who are less likely to challenge for honours. Most of those who sign for their peers acquire fewer medals. Even those such as Paul McGrath, whose form improves elsewhere, tend not to secure the major honours.
United have tried appealing to the purse strings and the heart strings with a contract that would surely make De Gea the best-paid goalkeeper in footballing history. Louis van Gaal told the 24-year-old that he would not be loved at another club as much as he is at United. He did not explicitly mention the notoriously fickle Real crowd. He should not need to.
Yet perhaps United should have pitched their plea in another way. Rather than looking to De Gea’s emotions, maybe they should have focused on cold, hard reason. Because even Cristiano Ronaldo has not experienced more success in Madrid.
The Portuguese is undeniably a better player in Spain than he was in England. His six seasons at Old Trafford brought an impressive 118 goals in 292 games. In the same amount of time in Spain, his return has improved to an astonishing 313 goals in 300 games.
Yet he has won the Champions League once with each club, reaching more finals for United. He has three Premier League titles, compared to one La Liga crown; he has three domestic cups in England and just two in Spain.
The record reflects in part on an extraordinary generation of Barcelona players who took the honours Madrid craved. Yet in an earlier era, Ronaldo’s predecessor in United’s No. 7 shirt, David Beckham, won a solitary major honour in Spain compared to nine in England. Gabriel Heinze’s time at United was marginally more productive than his spell in Spain.
Ruud van Nistelrooy at least won La Liga twice compared to a lone Premier League crown but later recalled: “I was lucky. Where can you go after United? Probably there’s only Madrid. Any other thing isn’t the same.”
His fellow Dutchman, Jaap Stam, who was unceremoniously exiled by Sir Alex Ferguson, may concur. The centre-back played for elite clubs without getting the same reward for his resilience.
Ronaldo stands alone and is the only United regular who has gone on to win the Champions League for another club after leaving Old Trafford. Even when bit-part players are included, he is a rarity: there was Jimmy Rimmer, United’s back-up goalkeeper in 1968 and Aston Villa’s preferred option, who was injured in the 1982 final 14 years later.
And there is Gerard Pique, who did not even make the bench for United in 2008. The centre-back is nonetheless entitled to term himself a quadruple Champions League winner but he belongs in a different category to De Gea. Like Paul Pogba and from another generation, Peter Beardsley, he left United in search of first-team football.
Pique only started six league games for United, which is six more than Pogba and Beardsley managed between them. Diego Forlan, who also prospered elsewhere, figured more but was still essentially a backup for United.
Consider the 205 players who possess a Premier League winners’ medal and only two gained them after exiting Old Trafford: David Platt, who was given a free transfer at 18, and Carlos Tevez.
Like Evra, the Argentine could have joined the elite group to conquer Europe after bidding farewell to United. He has won league titles in two countries, one with United’s fierce rivals Manchester City.
That swift transition from friend to enemy bears similarities with Johnny Giles, arguably the last regular to depart United and secure more silverware elsewhere. It says something that the Irishman, who became a Leeds icon, was sold in 1963.
But Giles and Tevez are rarities: established players who exited when they were at or approaching their peak. One reason why so few others have repeated or surpassed their exploits for United is that many retired at United.
Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Eric Cantona and Denis Irwin finished their career at the club. Cole, Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic left as their careers started to end.
At 24, De Gea is different — his best years lie ahead of him — and perhaps that will be the decisive factor. If United fail to regain their former pre-eminence, it will be easier for departing players to top their achievements in red when they head elsewhere.
And perhaps if there is a greater traffic of players among the world’s richest clubs, the model may change and football may generate more multiple winners for different sides.
But at the moment it is tempting to wonder if United’s great improvers this season, such as Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini, reacted after realising the only way tends to be downhill after leaving Old Trafford. History supplies a warning to those eyeing the United exit.