Manchester United must accept reality check in race to sign Declan Rice ahead of Chelsea and Manchester City

On joining Manchester United in 1978, Gordon McQueen made a claim that some supporters at Old Trafford still cling onto and parrot today.

Ask all the players in the country which club they would like to play for and 99 percent would say Manchester United. The other one percent are liars, ‘ said McQueen.

While clearly an exaggeration of sorts, McQueen was not too wide of the mark. Even during the barren years of the 1970s and 80s, United still held an allure and were able to attract the best players in the country. From Ray Wilkins to Bryan Robson, the country’s best still wanted to join the club in spite of its position. It goes without saying that the Sir Alex Ferguson era transformed the club, making United not only the biggest draw in England but – at points – the world too.

Declan Rice has enjoyed another outstanding season for West Ham

Declan Rice has enjoyed another outstanding season for West Ham (Picture: Getty)

The club’s financial power has meant that their drop-off in stature since Ferguson’s retirement has not been as drastic but the reality is that United are back in a similar position to where they were in the 70s and 80s, only they’re now competing in a far more competitive market. They are no longer realistic title challengers, only briefly flirting with the idea each season to end their nine-year wait for the championship. Even the ‘lesser’ trophies have dried up, with Jose Mourinho the last manager to bring silverware to Old Trafford in 2017.

United’s problem is that they’re no longer the biggest fish in the pond. Where once only Liverpool could offer the same pulling power as United, now the Red Devils are out-powered by the lure of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, the chance of playing under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool and the prospect of silverware at Chelsea. That’s before the likes of Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham even come into contention.

Accepting a new, much-changed landscape is difficult, particularly for a club that believes they’ll still be one of the biggest draws in the world, nevermind the Premier League. But delusions of grandeur do United no favor and will not help them to return to title-winning ways.

Declan Rice rescued West Ham during last weekend's FA Cup tie against Kidderminster

Declan Rice rescued West Ham during last weekend’s FA Cup tie against Kidderminster (Picture: Getty)

That’s why United’s pursuit of Declan Rice this summer will be an indication of whether the club are any closer to accepting their new reality. Rice embodies everything that United once stood for. While supremely talented, it’s his attitude and application that have taken him to where he is today. He’s an established England international, has vast Premier League experience and has his peak years ahead of him having been given time to grow elsewhere.

But where once United would have been favorites for Rice’s signature, they now need to convince the player that his vast ambitions can be met at Old Trafford, not Stamford Bridge or the Etihad.

But convincing Rice to move to Old Trafford is just one of the elements in this deal and work should already be underway in that respect. Transfers of this nature are not done overnight or rarely even in one window. United and Chelsea have tracked Rice for close to three years, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard both keen to sign him in previous windows.

Declan Rice praised the atmosphere at Old Trafford following West Ham’s recent defeat at Old Trafford (PIcture: Getty)

No longer can United rely on their name to gazump their rivals and to hijack deals at the last minute. They need to be cuter, better prepared and more realistic about their chances of pulling off signings of this magnitude.

What’s clear is that West Ham will attempt to spark a bidding war for Rice, knowing that a three-way contest between United, Chelsea and City for the midfielder could see him leave the club for a British transfer record fee.

The Hammers are understandably desperate to keep Rice and feel that a top-four finish could help convince him to stay but should they reluctantly let him leave, they would rather not sell to rivals Chelsea. Supporters are similarly sympathetic to Rice’s desire to regularly compete for silverware but joining Chelsea would threaten his legacy at the London Stadium.

United therefore have a limited window of opportunity to convince Rice to sign. He is believed to favor a return to Chelsea, where he spent several years at the club’s academy before being released at the age of 14. Rice, a Londoner, would prefer to stay in the capital and is reluctant to leave his family for a move up north.

In United’s favor is a virtually guaranteed starting spot in the midfield and a very realistic chance of becoming the club’s next captain. Though N’Golo Kante’s injury problems have begun to mount up in the last 12 months, he remains one of the best midfielders in the world and would provide stiff competition for a spot in the starting XI. Rodri would prove similarly difficult to displace at the Etihad, while Pep Guardiola often eases new signings into his set-up over the course of their first 12 months at the club.

This is the project that United must sell to Rice and they can not afford to rest on their laurels if they’re to land him. Against rivals in a better position, who have similar financial backing and long-term managers in place, United must work even harder to convince a player of Rice’s ilk that his future is best served with them rather than elsewhere. United are no closer to appointing a new long-term manager but Rice is the type of individual that any new appointment would want to have, whether it’s Mauricio Pochettino or Erik Ten Hag.

Manchester City and Liverpool can afford the luxury of walking away from deals that do not suit them. Their planning is methodical and long-term, with Klopp and Guardiola preferring to wait for the right deal for the right player rather than compromising their beliefs. United are in no position to afford such luxuries and they can not repeat mistakes of the past, where indecision and a lack of planning has cost them the likes of Jack Grealish, Sadio Mane and Ilkay Gundogan to their rivals in recent years.

I think every time I come to Old Trafford, I’ve always said it’s one of my favorite places to play. It’s an amazing stage and you’re playing against top opposition. The history of the stadium, you always want to do well and you always want to play well when you come here – Rice, 22nd January 2022

Rice alerted United bosses after Marcus Rashford’s last-gasp winner against the Hammers last month, when he spoke glowingly about playing at Old Trafford. The England ace had little reason to do so, particularly after the pain of losing in the last minute to a top-four rival.

It was an indication that Rice is aware of United’s interest and that he would be open to a move to the Theater of Dreams this summer. With the right tact and understanding of their position, United can land a game-changing signing ahead of their rivals. To do so, they must accept the reality that they must work harder than they once did in the transfer market, facing up to the reality that they’re not what they once were. A failure to do so will only prolong their years in the wilderness.

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