‘We even had a helicopter waiting’ – How Manchester United missed out on signing Gareth Bale

Bale joined Southampton as a schoolboy and made his debut for the Saints as a 16-year-old in April 2006. Unsurprisingly, given how highly he was regarded, his first senior cap for Wales followed just a matter of weeks later. His career then took him to Tottenham Hotspur and Real Madrid, before his move to Los Angeles. He finished his career having won the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield towards the end of last year – the 21st trophy in his cabinet.

His first competitive appearance for Spurs actually came against Manchester United in August 2007, and he gave Ryan Giggs a difficult afternoon on that day. He was so blistering the visiting fans heckled Giggs with cries of &aposYou&aposre just a s**t Gareth Bale&apos. It was somewhat fitting that his Premier League debut came against the Reds, considering the fact that the club had tried desperately hard to sign him while he was at Southampton.

The Welshman had been linked with United on a number of occasions, and Sir Alex Ferguson, speaking 2013, admitted that United were first in the queue to sign Bale from the Saints, but that they were let down by officials at St Mary&aposs Stadium. The Scotsman never held a grudge against Bale on a personal note, but he was, understandably, frustrated that the winger was playing for Spurs, rather than the Reds.

The legendary United manager – discussing how brilliant Bale had become after quickly making his name in the game – suggested that the attacker reminded him of a light heavyweight boxer. Ferguson&aposs comments came after Bale was named the Professional Football Association&aposs player and young player of the year. At the time, he was truly at the peak of his powers and almost untouchable.

“We were disappointed in Southampton at the time, because we were first there, but they never came back to us,” Ferguson said. “We were disappointed in that. Gareth was a left back when we tried to sign him. It wasnt until Harry (Redknapp) went to Tottenham that he converted him into a wide left player.

“He reminds me a bit of when we signed Lee Sharpe. Lee was a six foot, gangly slim boy, but all of a sudden he was built like a light heavyweight American boxer. Bale is the same, the way he has developed physically in the last two years. He has matured very well.”

Ferguson&aposs suggestion that he was close to signing the player was reiterated by Patrice Evra, who also suggested that the Scot was &apos99 per cent&apos sure he was going to sign both Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale for United in the summer of 2013. The Reds boss had huge transfer plans, but they ended up being for the same summer in which he eventually retired.

When asked about Ferguson&aposs retirement, Evra revealed that Ferguson had mentioned managing for another decade, and even discussed his plans to sign both Ronaldo and Bale in the same summer. Of course, the Scot ultimately missed out on Bale, but he did retire having won 38 trophies. Not all bad, then.

“You know, you talk about the hardest moments [in my United career], I would say maybe this is the one,” Evra told the UTD podcast. “Two weeks before that, I remember there was a lot of media saying Ferguson will maybe retire next year, and he said, &aposPatrice, I will never retire. I will be here another 10 years.

“He then said: &aposMy target is I&aposm 99 per cent sure we will have Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. I just need these two players to win the Champions League again. Ninety-nine per cent. And to be fair, when I speak with Cristiano, I ask him and he said yes to the boss, and was coming to join United. He told me this.”

Ronaldo and Bale did go on to play alongside each other. However, it came in a different shirt, for a different club and in a different country altogether. The pair played together on 157 occasions during their time with Los Blancos, combining for 41 goals. They were a captivating duo, not entirely close, but incredibly impactful.

Ironically, David Moyes, who had replaced Ferguson at Old Trafford in 2013, claimed that he came close to making Bale his first signing at United that summer. The Scot, who lasted just 10 months in the job before being sacked by the Reds, revealed that he was hopeful of concluding a deal to bring the Welshman to Old Trafford, but that he was ultimately unable to tempt the player away from making a then-world record move to Real Madrid.

“I wanted him to be my first signing at Manchester United,” he told eirSport in 2019. “We came close, spoke to him, but he had his heart set on Real Madrid and we couldn&apost talk him out of it. It was a real disappointment because I saw him as a Manchester United type player.

“He carries himself well, I think he&aposs a terrific player. He can play wide, we can play as a striker now that he&aposs developed that. I just think all round he&aposs a terrific athlete and a brilliant footballer so I think that he would have fitted what we wanted but I couldn&apost talk him out of it.”

Asked if United had held talks with Bale about a move to Old Trafford, Moyes replied: “Yeah, we did. I think we even had a helicopter at the training ground waiting to go down and get him at one point.

“I think we had a bigger offer in and we had sorted things out but I think his heart was already on going to Real Madrid at the time.”

The Manchester Evening News understands that United made at least four attempts to sign Bale – from Southampton, Tottenham and twice from Madrid – during his career. The club were unable to move past him, even all the years after he had first demonstrated his quality as an 18-year-old at Southampton. While Moyes thought he was close to being the United manager who would finally secure the deal to sign the dazzling Welshman, he, in reality, was not very close.

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy had encouraged United to enter the auction for Bale in 2013, even though he had already decided that Real Madrid was his desired destination. The Reds actually outbid Real with an 86m offer, which might come as a surprise to many people. It was ultimately down to Bale, and he had already decided.

So, Ferguson had tried and failed. Moyes, despite thinking he came close, had tried and failed. Therefore, it came as no surprise in 2018 when United – once again – were linked with a move for the Welshman. Considering the drama of the 2015 Spanish deadline day, it would not have been surprising if United would have ended all communication with Madrid. Los Blancos, at the time, were interested in David de Gea, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba. In return, Madrid said they would potentially offer the Reds first dibs on some of their own first-teamers, and Gareth Bale was inevitably mentioned.

The Welshman&aposs last few years in Spain did not go how he – or Madrid – would have hoped for. His last season making more than 20 La Liga appearances for Los Blancos came during the 2015/16 campaign, and the last time he made more than 30 was in 2014/15 – his second season at the club.

After United beat Real on penalties in California in 2017, a source close to Bale noticed how unconvincing he sounded about his situation at Madrid. “His body language screamed that he wasn&apost completely convincing in his answers,” the source said. The suspicion was that Bale actually wanted out at Madrid at that point, but his &aposabsurd&apos 350,000 wages simply made him unattainable.

Interestingly, Mourinho suggested that he didn&apost make an official approach for Bale because he felt that the Welshman was happy in Madrid. He didn&apost want to waste any energy chasing the winger – and you can&apost really blame him.

“You have contacts, you have feelings, you understand things. I think it was clear that Bale likes Madrid, the challenge, the situation,” said Mourinho, per the Daily Mail.

“Hes in a club in a very good situation now. I never felt a desire from him to leave, so why lose time and energy on that?”

When it became clear that the Welshman would be leaving Madrid on loan in the summer of 2020, United were once again touted as a potential destination for Bale. It would have been fitting for the player to don the famous Red shirt at least once in his career, but unlike in previous years, the club, despite contemplating it, opted against a loan deal for the player. He ultimately chose to return to Spurs, but he struggled to make the desired impact.

Evidently, Bale&aposs career has come to an end without the Welshman having ever played for United. It certainly wasn&apost for a lack of trying, but the Reds were never able to tempt the player to Old Trafford. He came up against the Reds on 14 occasions as a player – and thankfully, for United, only managed the one goal.