Every time Erling Braut Haaland scores for Borussia Dortmund, you can virtually hear the groans from Manchester United fans.
It looks like United missed out on the next superstar striker - a youngster whose value might be over £100 million in a matter of months. Their inability to close out a deal is another stick with which to beat vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
What makes it worse is United did not lose out on Haaland’s signature to Barcelona or Real Madrid. To neutrals - and the most critical United fans - it is a sign of their diminishing status in the transfer market that Haaland chose an aspirational Bundesliga side over a club of United’s stature. But this is a bandwagon I will not jump aboard.
It is often said in football there are three key parties in a transfer who must reach agreement - the player, the buyers and the selling club. That is an incomplete story. There is a fourth who can never be underestimated: the agent.
Whoever signed Haaland from RB Salzburg knew they were not only getting an amazing young talent - they were also inviting the circus into town in the form of his representative, Mino Raiola. United, like every club scouting the Norwegian teenager, had to weigh up the value of the player against the cost of the distracting influence of his high-profile advisor.
No matter what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said to Haaland to try to convince him to move to Old Trafford, it is a reasonable assumption the advice from Raiola mattered more to the player. It does not strike me Raiola would have been United’s ally given recent history. Not unless United paid a massive premium, with reports emerging at the time that Raiola was seeking a significant percentage of any future transfer fee for Haaland. I can understand if Woodward said there had to be a line in the sand with the deal, even if the player's success makes it look like it was a mistake not to push it through.
A few years ago, Liverpool’s sporting director, Michael Edwards, told me there is no more important relationship in his role than that between the club and the players’ agents. A fall-out can deprive you of one of your most valuable assets, or rule you out of the race for the next prime target. It is a sign of the changing times where many agents are guiding their clients when it should be the other way around.
Managers have never had to be so careful about keeping their biggest stars’ agents onside, otherwise there are negative repercussions.
Look at Solskjaer’s post-match interview after victory over Chelsea on Monday when asked about Raiola’s critical tweets about the United coach, in relation to the treatment of his client, Paul Pogba. He was desperate not to inflame the situation.
“There are things you want to comment on, but you would rather not,” said Solskjaer. “It is more clever you do not comment on many different things.”
He was tip-toeing through a minefield, knowing it is counter-productive to engage in a war of words when the player will take his agent’s side. I imagine many at United will speak more freely once Pogba has left the club.
Fans demand loyalty from their stars to the badge on their shirt. Many elite players’ most important footballing commitment is to their representative. Ask Pogba what means more - a manager he may only be working with for a short period of time, or the agent who will look after him for his whole career?
That is no longer unusual. The club is seen as a means by which a player can achieve their personal ambitions, and as soon as it seems those aspirations cannot be met the process of moving on begins.
I do not want this to sound like a tirade against all agents, who are indispensable to modern players. When I broke into the Liverpool team I employed one of my own who is still my representative. As a youngster I had no idea what kind of contract I should have. I needed specialist advice.
Power used to be wholly with the clubs. They see players as commodities to achieve success, and when they are not meeting the required standard they can be told they are surplus to requirements on a manager’s whim, frozen out unless they accept it is time to leave. This is the mutual understanding when contracts are signed. They are conditional, subject to immediate change.
Just as managers, owners and chief executives approach their job in a different way, so do agents, so you can’t tarnish all with the same brush. My view is you can usually tell which agents have their players’ best interests at heart - because generally they have no public profile. Mine would never speak to media about my contract or criticise Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez. If he had, I would have sacked him.
Raiola likes to be seen and heard, and you cannot argue with the financial results. He is not likeable, but he is successful. He has proven to be one of the best around at maximising the value of his clients. The flip side of that is he provokes negative headlines.
Those who choose to work with him - Jesse Lingard the most recent to join his circle - evidently believe that is a price worth paying. I have to admit I struggle with that. I find it staggering a player would sign up with an agent so openly critical of his club’s manager.
The world has changed and the clubs appear powerless to stop it. I was staying in the same London hotel as United on Sunday night before their game with Chelsea, and I was surprised to see players having a coffee with three or four members of their entourage. You never used to see that on the eve of a match - those close to you knowing they had to stay away. Where once you might have one advisor to assist with contract talks, now some of the top players have their own ‘team’ including family members and childhood friends. Players are the prime asset in a business independent from their clubs, with individual sponsors and investments to pursue.
Look at the table of agents fees published every season. In the last three years over £645m has been paid to representatives of Premier League players, and well over a billion over the last decade. In a week when Manchester City’s owners are being castigated after ploughing billions into football - independent of the debate about whether they broke rules or not - you cannot help but think the game’s governing bodies may have their priorities skewed and they should be focusing more on those who are taking billions out of it.
Raiola reportedly received £20m when he negotiated Pogba’s return to United from Juventus in 2016. Amid that background - and given what has happened since - you have to sympathise with Woodward when trying to strike a deal for Haaland, knowing Raiola was guaranteed to cash in again. I cannot help but think if Haaland was represented by someone else, he might be at Old Trafford.
Just because Haaland looks like he is the bargain of the century for Dortmund, it does not mean the cost of signing him was a price worth paying for United.