Arthur RotmilComment


Arthur RotmilComment

At 11.20 on the night of Wednesday, May 9, Milan president Giuseppe Farina called for champagne and ended one of the most extraordinary transfer sagas of Manchester United's eventful history. United had sold, at considerable profit, a gifted England midfield player, but, ultimately, it was the 'other' one, Ray Wilkins, who made the move to Italy.

Italian football, faced with a freeze on imports, had scouts and agents scurrying around the globe all last season in search of reinforcements. The focus of much Italian interest was England's Football League, and in particular the international players of United. Last summer Milan, who eventually signed Luther Blissett from Watford, asked United for Norman Whiteside but the young Irishman rejected the move. Throughout the season, as Blissett struggled to rediscover his goalscoring form, Milan were said to be considering a fresh approach for Whiteside.

As the season progressed, however, so did Italian admiration for United's most treasured possession -- captain and inspiration Bryan Robson. It was Robson who had displaced Wilkins as skipper of club and country, and it was Robson who seemed more and more likely to head for Italy.

Robson, British football's most expensive player at £1.5 million, had repaid United magnificently on the field. His versatility and commitment are unrivalled. Yet from the outset of the Italian campaign to lure him from Old Trafford, it was clear he was attracted by the prospect of the challenge and the enormous rewards. 

United manager Ron Atkinson laughed off the early reports of likely Italian bids as "just newspaper talk. How much are they offering this week?" So does all this speculation worry you or the player? "No, we think it's just a giggle. Besides, Robbo is professional enough not to let it bother him. It won't affect his play." Robson knew his lines perfectly. "I am under contract with United for another three years and all that concerns me is giving of my best for this club. I am very happy here and am content to stay here. None of this talk troubles me because all I am interested in is leading United to the Championship.

"If, however, United decided they wanted to sell me I would understand. They spent a lot of money one me and I couldn't blame them for getting it back. I wouldn't stand in their way." There, then, the first clue. A couple of weeks later, the stories and the projected fee still growing, Robson was even more forthcoming. He said: "I've heard nothing definite, just whispers. But at the moment I can't go anywhere without them (United) asking me where I'm going. I've certainly nothing against Italy. Last year, when I was getting over an ankle injury, I went and stayed with Trevor Francis for a week. 

"I saw Sampdoria's stadium, watched the team training and then the match against Udinese. I liked the town of Genoa, the sea, everything about it. I don't think I would have trouble adapting.

"Italian defenders mark attackers man for man and that's hell, but for a midfield player it is far less difficult. I'm sure I would have no problem.

"There would also be the incentive of battling with Zico, Platini, Falaco and all the other great players who are in Italian football at the moment."

Sampdoria, with Liam Brady as well as Francis, looked the front-runners for Robson. Brady seemed to be intent on leaving and could be offered as part of a package. So, too, could Francis for that matter as Robson's value was quoted at anything up to £4 million. Juventus were also tracking Robson and Fiorentina were to join the chase later. Whatever Milan or Inter's interest, Robson made it clear that particular city wasn't for him.

Now, with Italian reporters almost a part of the furniture at Old Trafford and the club's training HQ, Atkinson decided to blast with both barrels, "Bryan Robson is going nowhere," he declared. 

"There isn't enough money in Italy to buy him."

Not so long after that statement Atkinson, perhaps influenced by his board, took a rather different line, effectively putting a £3 million price on Robson's head. "We wouldn't consider anything less," he said.

That was seen by the United faithful as a distinct indication that the club wanted to sell Robson. Thousands signed a petition demanding they keep their idol. United were accused of being greedy. Chairman Martin Edwards responded: "On the subject of Bryan Robson and whether he may or may not be leaving I have been annoyed by talk of our greed.

"I can tell you that it has nothing to do with greed. That simply doesn't come into it. If the offer is there it is there. We won't do any business unless we can improve the overall team situation. I am not interested in money for money's sake. I don't give a damn about the money.

"We have a manager to run our team and he stands or falls on results, so I'm not going to force him into anything. Robson would be sold only on Ron Atkinson's recommendation. At this stage, anyway, we have not received a formal offer."

A few days after those comments Robson produced a £3 million display to demolish Barcelona and send United into a European Cup-winners Cup semi final against Juventus. Such irony, such possibilities. Then, suddenly, cruelly, Robson pulled a hamstring in training. He was to miss the Juventus tie, a crucial phase of the Championship, and United were to lose both contests.

United stated that there would be no transfer negotiations for Robson until the end of the season. Indeed, there was a new target for the Italians to aim at. One Ray Wilkins.

Wilkins had enjoyed an outstanding season, re-establishing himself in the United midfield and marking his return to England duty with a splendid performance against Northern Ireland. Reports of his form filtered through the Italian league and were greeted with particular enthusiasm by Milan. They were anxious to make a major signing and keep up with their neighbours. Robson was expensive, Wilkins probably not so.

They made an offer of £750,000, which United turned down. But all three parties were willing to pursue negotiations and Farina flew to Manchester to clinch a £1.5 million deal. All that was required was for Wilkins to visit Milan and complete the formalities. He arrived at Linate Airport a little before 2 pm on May 9 to an ecstatic welcome; hundreds of chanting fans crammed the arrivals hall. Wilkins was driven out to Milanello, the club's superb training camp, to meet the players and begin talks over a leisurely lunch. The lunch went down well, but not so Wilkins' demand of what amounted to a cut of the transfer fee.

Discussions were resumed that evening at the club's offices in Milan. Wilkins had agreed a salary of £600,000 over three years and now his lawyer was claiming an extra £100,000. United, by telephone, agreed to pay up and effectively lose £100,000 of their fee. Handshakes all round, bubbly all round. A weary Wilkins said: "This has been the most difficult decision of my career. We have reached a state of compromise and I am happy.

"I have done this for myself and my family but it is not just for the money. The past season with Manchester United was a great challenge for me -- now I have another.

"It has been a tough last eight hours and I've not gone through this getting a headache, for nothing. It is easier to play eight hours against Gentile than go through this.                                 

"It is a wrench for me, leaving United. They are a great set of lads and can achieve great things. One important thing now, though, is that my contract assures my release for all England matches."

Earlier in the day, back in Manchester, Gordon Strachan defied Cologne and signed for United, a move which clearly suited Aberdeen. So United, having already secured the transfer of Danish international Jesper Olsen from Ajax, were well satisfied with their business transactions thus far. Atkinson insisted he was still searching for a striker and that he was also keen on strengthening his defence before launching another attack on Liverpool's Championship supremacy.

This article first appeared in the September 1984 edition of World Soccer magazine. Subscribe here.