There are no winners in the David de Gea saga - only losers
Of all the weapons in a footballer’s armoury of aggressive self-interest, a reluctance to play because your club are obstructing your ‘dream move’ is perhaps the most risible.
David de Gea, following hard on the jet heels of Raheem Sterling, is the latest exponent of the art, not having competed for Manchester United this season because of a Chekhovian yearning for all things Real Madrid.
It hardly helped his position that his girlfriend, singer Edurne Garcia, also agreed with a TV host’s contention that Manchester itself was “as ugly as the back of a fridge”.
His employers, showing admirable commitment to defending the indefensible, have clarified that De Gea did not explicitly decline the chance to play for Louis van Gaal, but merely suggested that he was “not 100 per cent focused, due to all the rumours surrounding him”.
No matter. De Gea still emerges from this episode as more obstreperous than a teenager barricading himself inside his bedroom because his mates are all on a more expensive school trip than his.
For a start, the very notion of a ‘dream move’, as De Gea’s long-mooted switch to the Bernabéu is heralded, can be a slippery one. In July 2010, Javier Mascherano’s agent described his client’s potential transfer to Inter Milan thus: “Inter has a magical flavour. For him, it is a dream.”
One month later, after that deal had fallen through, the Argentine pitched up at Barcelona with some strikingly similar rhetoric: “The truth is it’s a great joy. It’s a dream.”
One could be forgiven for thinking Mascherano had more dream moves than Robbie Keane – he of an ever-malleable lifelong allegiance encompassing Coventry City, Leeds United, Inter, Liverpool, Celtic and, presumably, Los Angeles Galaxy – had ‘boyhood clubs’.
The ‘dream move’ theory can only ever be a cynical negotiating trick. In the winter of 2005, Robbie Savage, always a joker short of a full deck, submitted a transfer request to Birmingham City, explaining that he wanted to join Blackburn Rovers to be closer to his parents in Wrexham.
If his geographical knowledge had been any kind of match for his financial motivation, he might have noted that Blackburn was actually several miles further than Birmingham from the family ranch. When Savage’s exit ploy was blocked, he neglected, by his own admission, to make any effort in his final game against Newcastle United.
In 2015, the idea of contractual responsibility has been subject to ever more curious interpretations. Sterling missed a training session for Liverpool on the coincidental pretext of being ill.
Victor Valdés allegedly went on strike at United after being told to play for the reserves. And now De Gea, the man who denied Valdés his chance, is ineligible for selection until the transfer window has closed after having his head turned by Real.
United team-mates past and present have rushed to the defence of De Gea, who has continued to attend first-team training despite being marginalised by Van Gaal.
Rio Ferdinand said: “I know him well from my days playing with him at Old Trafford, and he is too professional to throw in the towel and sulk.” According to Juan Mata: “Anyone who knows him will know that he is very relaxed and calm – and that is how he’s dealing with this situation. He is training well and being professional as always.”
Surely, though, the purest definition of professionalism is to leave not the slightest doubt about your existing commitments until the ink on a new contract has dried. Never mind the excuse, to use United’s own words, that De Gea is “not 100 per cent focused” because of his emotional confusion at receiving a better offer.
As Bobby Barnes, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, told Asmir Begovic when the Stoke City goalkeeper became distracted by Chelsea’s overtures: “It is important for a player to realise he has a commitment to the club that is paying his wages. Any player has the obligation to keep giving his best for the club he is at.”
The argument by Van Gaal that De Gea is “not eager” to perform has given rise to a farcical situation, where the club’s best player for the past two years is out of the picture until further notice.
Their manager is supposed to be a fierce disciplinarian, but he has not acted decisively during the De Gea episode. Instead of trying to galvanise a goalkeeper whose concentration has wavered, he is treating the Spaniard like a young man who has suffered untold psychological trauma. The result? An embarrassing bind for both parties.
United’s supporters, regardless of collective goodwill towards De Gea for his displays last season, are entitled to feel affronted by this stand-off.
With the second leg of a Champions League qualifier to come, they would far rather see their 24-year-old star between the posts than the relatively untested Sergio Romero, especially when the only justification is that Real’s interest has unsettled him. This should never, by itself, be a pretext for not playing.
For United to grant De Gea a form of compassionate leave simply to clear his head sets an alarming precedent. He ought to be told, in no uncertain terms, that his duties have precedence over his dreams.