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The transfer that created a clique

“Who is Diego?” During United’s comfortable 3-0 win at Sunderland in April 2017, then-manager Jose Mourinho turned to Michael Carrick, perched behind him on the bench, to enquire about the song emanating from the Stadium of Light’s away section.

“He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry!” continued the terrace anthem.

When United’s then-no.16 explained that the song was in reference to former Red striker Diego Forlan, Mourinho chuckled to himself. The Portuguese’s reaction was standard for the uninitiated.

The headlines of Forlan’s time at United don’t stand out as spectacular: two-and-a-half seasons, 98 appearances, 17 goals, one Premier League title and one Community Shield.

On the face of it, a Reds striker mustering less goals than Chris Smalling and fewer appearances than Neil Webb would appear unremarkable, but the essence of Diego Forlan’s United tale runs far deeper.

As the 2001/02 campaign progressed, Sir Alex Ferguson had cause to consider his attacking stable.

Teddy Sheringham had rejoined Tottenham before the season, while Ruud van Nistelrooy had arrived from PSV Eindhoven and was steadily establishing himself as a masterful piece of business.

The simultaneous arrival of Juan Sebastian Veron had posed more questions than answers, as Ferguson shuffled his team around in order to accommodate the Argentinian playmaker while also keeping his established quartet of Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and David Beckham in the team.

This often meant a switch to a 4-4-1-1 formation, with van Nistelrooy invariably the spearhead, limiting opportunities for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.

While Solskjaer retained the same patience that had been a feature of his previous five campaigns at the club, Cole left in December 2001 to join Blackburn Rovers, with Yorke, who was struggling to sustain his finest form, following him to Ewood Park seven months later.

Mindful of the need to inject youthful vigour into his attack, Ferguson made a late move to sign a 22-year-old forward who had been tearing up the Argentinian top flight with Independiente.

Forlan had been heavily scouted by Middlesbrough over the course of the previous year, and was set to sign for the Teessiders when United swooped.

Having flown to London from Buenos Aires with a Boro representative, the striker was informed by his agent that Independiente had received a new proposal.

United had offered to pay the transfer fee in one lump sum, rather than the instalments Middlesbrough had agreed, so Forlan had a choice to make.

He cancelled his connection from Gatwick to Newcastle, flew to Manchester instead and quickly agreed a £6.9 million transfer.

“It was a massive blow to the club,” admitted Boro chief executive Keith Lamb, while manager Steve McClaren said: “When we first initiated negotiations with Independiente for the player we did realise that there was an awful lot of competition throughout Europe for his services. Nothing is over until everybody has signed on the dotted line.”

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