Gather round, children, gather round as the Mill is older than you think and wants your company on a journey back to a simpler time in English football.
The year is 1996 and Arsène Wenger is speaking on an oversized mobile phone from a Japanese hotel room. The then Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, is a little taken aback at the forthright demands of the relative unknown he has just helped appoint as the club’s new manager and who is yet to even arrive in London to start the job, but ends the conversation with six words written in front of him. Go. To. Milan. Stop. Buy. Patrick. Vieira. Stop.
Dein followed Wenger’s orders. The 20-year-old Vieira arrived to little fanfare and for £2.5m. He left Arsenal nine summers later for seven times that amount having played a rather sizeable role in a side that had won three league titles and four FA Cups in under a decade. The Mill wonders if Wenger ever sits back at the training ground with a wistful air: those were the days. When foreign players were such a rare commodity even Arsenal only had a handful of them, when you could tap your intimate knowledge of the youth system in your own country, and then just say: ‘me French, you French, shall we parlez?’
Ah, yes, 1996, when Chelsea were a mid-table club with no money, when Manchester City had just been relegated from the top flight. Things were different then, you could buy a midfield enforcer who would help dominate the game for years that nobody had heard of in a deal nobody else tried to gazump. And everybody would think you were a genius.
Fast forward almost two money-spinning decades and Wenger is casting glances to northern Italy for a powerhouse French midfielder once more. The only problem this time is that everyone knows about him, and he will cost an awful lot more than £2.5m.
The agent of Paul Pogba, once the enfant terrible of Old Trafford, now the player driving Juventus to a Serie A title and the latter stages of the Champions League, has let it be known that his client, despite signing a contract extension at the Italian club last autumn might – just might – be available this summer, if the price is right. And the wages are right, and the agent’s commission is right, and the image rights are right.
Wenger may have been in London so long he is a little out of touch with the French market but he knows all about Pogba. Everybody, of course, knows all about Pogba. Manchester United know about him despite letting him slip from their grasp three years ago, José Mourinho knows about him, and Manchester City know about him too.
But with Wenger having (finally) realised after spending money on Alexis Sánchez last summer that sometimes you really do get what you pay for, he is ready to say adieu to his failed French enforcers Mathieu Flamini and Abou Diaby, and bring in the real deal instead, to complement, not replace, his latest young gun, Francis Coquelin. Unlike 1996 however, this move will cost him a little more than £2.5m. Approximately 20 times that amount, to be precise.
However, that sum could be used by Juve to intensify the chase for their principal transfer target, which is none other than Liverpool’s own enfant terrible, Raheem Sterling. The 20-year-old England forward will be almost as in-demand as Pogba but Juve are confident they can tempt him from Anfield despite the interest of Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and the Manchesters City and United.
And Sterling is not the only player spying the Anfield exit door, as one narrow defeat in an FA Cup semi-final has sparked talk of a mass exodus, with Rickie Lambert and Kolo Touré interesting Stoke City, Glen Johnson possibly returning to West Ham, and Mario Balotelli off to whoever will have him. Javier Manquillo will also be returning to Atlético Madrid after his loan deal has proved a little less than mutually beneficial.
Elsewhere Paris St-Germain have decided to flex their considerable financial muscle in the direction of the Liverpool and Manchester United target Memphis Depay of PSV Eindhoven, while Real Madrid are to step up their interest in persuading Spain’s next Iker Casillas, David de Gea, that the Santiago Bernabéu and not Old Trafford is really the fitting place for Spain’s No1 to reside.
And, lastly, to Newcastle United, where the for sale signs are set to be plastered on most of the squad whether or not they manage to get another point and, indeed, stay in the Premier League come the end of May.
Those include Jonás Gutiérrez, whose recovery from testicular cancer has touched the hearts of the nation, but who is now surplus to requirements at St James’ Park following a ‘bust-up’ with his manager, John Carver. “I don’t want to talk about Gutiérrez any more”, said Carver, whose temporary stint in charge, it seems, will also be coming to an end the moment the final whistle on the season is blown on 24 May.