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The story of Man United’s failed £10m move for the ‘Serbian Kaka’ – Manchester Evening News

“Coming over to England allowed me to see how things worked. “So I know what to expect when I come here permanently. “And I hope that when I join in January, I will be involved with the first team from the start.” Hopes were high when Manchester United announced they had reached an agreement to sign one of Europe’s most exciting teenage talents, but despite so much promise, the move would never materialise. It was during the January transfer window of 2009 that United, then reigning champions of England and Europe, announced they had reached a deal to bring Serbian duo Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic to the club from Partizan Belgrade. Tosic, who was 21 at the time, was a regular in the Serbia national team and well-known to many fans across Europe. But at the age of 17, his apprentice, Ljajic was very much a raw talent. The teenager joined Partizan from his hometown club FK Jošanica as a 14-year-old and made his debut when he was just 16 in July 2008. It was during this breakthrough period that he was dubbed the ‘Serbian Kaká’ by the local press due to his dribbling style and ability to dictate the tempo of a match on his own. Soon, he’d have the opportunity to live up to such a reputation. Three months after his debut, the youngster was offered a trial at United that would cement their interest in his signature and accelerate talks to bring him to the club within the next six months. While the plan was for Tosic to arrive at United and challenge Nani for a starting role, Ljajic would return to Partizan, heading back to Manchester for regular training sessions and catch-up meetings before joining them permanently the following year. In order to get the young duo accustomed to life in the north west of England, compatriot Nemanja Vidic acted like a father figure, offering them advice throughout the process and even taking them out for a celebratory dinner ahead of signing their deals. Nemanja Vidic poses with Zoran Tosic (L) and Adem Ljajic (R) “I did not need to convince them to come to Manchester United,” he said. “This is the best team in the world. Everyone wants to be part of this squad. “They are having a dream. I know how they feel. I found it very difficult when I first came here, but I am here to help.” Vidic was well aware of the hurdles which lay ahead, but for the latest teenage hopeful, it was hard to not get carried away by the dangling carrot of a permanent United move in the following January window. “It has all happened so fast for me,” Ljajic said. “I am only 17 and have had some dreams in the past but can now have one more: the United shirt. However, I will spend the next year learning more at Partizan and I will be ready for Old Trafford next January.” The youngster returned to Partizan, where he continued his upwards trajectory, buoyed by the confidence boost of his impending transfer to the greatest team in Europe. Partizan did not lose another game that season in which Ljajic played, going on to win the Serbian league title at a canter with a 19-point lead over second-place Vojvodina. While his confidence was high, his compatriot Tosic struggled in his first half-season at United, playing only 34 minutes of first-team football as he adapted to his new surroundings. Sir Alex Ferguson had already played down the concerns over Tosic when he joined and also hinted at the exciting future Ljajic would have when he completed his move: “Tosic’s not played since December 10 and he’ll need time to adjust and we’ll give him that. “He’s a wide left player and we like wide players at this club. We’ve been watching him for over a year and hopefully he will do well. “The other boy is 17 but he’s a very good player. When we bring in young players we always think we can develop them.” Wayne Rooney and Adem Ljajic in training Ljajic carried this confidence over to the international stage when he shone for Serbia in the European U19 Championship, grabbing assists in a draw with France and a win against Spain. Inspired by his creativity, the side managed to clinch top spot in Group B before their dreams of a tournament win were ended by Ukraine at the semi-final stage. Ukraine would go on to win the entire tournament with a 2-0 win in the final against an England side featuring Danny Welbeck, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier. After such an incredible six months, the two Serbs headed into the 2009/10 season full of optimism that this would be their breakthrough campaign. It would be short-lived. Tosic was not in the squad for the Community Shield against Chelsea in early August and would only be named in one Premier League matchday squad that entire season, an unused sub for a 3-0 home loss away at Fulham in December. Instead, he spent the majority of his time in the reserves, netting four goals and notching three assists in six appearances, still not enough to earn him a first-team chance. His only two appearances of the campaign came in the League Cup, from the bench in a 2-0 win away at Barnsley and a late eight-minute cameo in the quarter-final victory against Tottenham. Back in Serbia, his understudy was still making headlines, starting every week for Partizan as they embarked on an unbeaten start to the new campaign, though he was finding it difficult to add numbers to his impressive overall game. Still, the teenager was a regular visitor to England for his regular check-up sessions and was gaining priceless experience sporadically training with some of the biggest names in world football. “The quality in England is very high because you are training with such great players, but the main difference is it’s much quicker,” Ljajic said at the time. “I really enjoyed it and training with such top players can only help me improve. “Coming over to England allowed me to see how things worked so I know what to expect when I come here permanently. ‘I hope that when I join in January I will be involved with the first team from the start.” Adem Ljajic continued to impress at Partizan It was a dream he would never fulfil. Ljajic’s final training trip to England took place in November 2009, less than two months before he was set to join the club in the following January window. Things had gone well, and the 18-year-old returned back to Serbia with no indication that there were any concerns about his dream transfer being completed. What was not revealed at the time of his signing was that United stipulated that a get-out clause be written into the contract to cover themselves before Ljajic moved to Manchester, a trigger they pulled only two days into December. At the start of the year, United dubbed him ‘Serbia’s brightest young talent’ during the original announcement, but now claimed he had not shown enough during his training periods at Carrington to be offered a deal. A United spokesman said: “We had an option to buy the player but, having closely monitored his development over the past 12 months, and taken into consideration the young players emerging through the ranks at the club, we have not chosen to pursue the transfer.” Partizan claimed it had fallen through because of a “financial crisis” at the English club. Ljajic had been viewed as the more promising of the two when he signed, and as news of his failed move spread, many fans pointed the blame at the Glazers for terminating a deal for the raw teenage talent. The statement came at a time when Ferguson had been informed he would be operating under tight restraints in the January transfer window, despite the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo for £80million in the summer, only months after the Glazers had implemented wide-ranging cuts across the club. In response, Ivan Tomic, Partizan’s sporting director, hit out at United, claiming they had missed out on an ‘excellent, young player, a footballer of big potential’, adding, ‘I think that they will regret this decision in future.’ The thoughts were echoed by Partizan head coach, Goran Stevanovic, who praised his player for ‘handling the situation well’ and ‘overcoming the psychological shock’ of having his dreams dashed at the final hurdle. Adem Ljajic trained plenty of times with the United first-team Further confusion was added to the matter when United assistant Mike Phelan revealed the failed deal was not down to a U-turn from the club, but actually because they had struggled to get him a work permit in time for a transfer. “I don’t think money is an issue,” admitted Phelan. “We made a tentative approach to getting a work permit and the word we got back from the Home Office was we couldn’t get that through in time to get Adem signed in January. “We have a platform that allows young players to develop and get into the first-team. We looked at Adem and he has the potential to do that. “But sometimes you cannot fight these things. Sometimes you can get work permits, other times you can’t. Adem fell into the latter category, which is why we made the decision.” While the club tried to pass it off as their decision, Phelan had revealed the truth, which was soon to be backed up by a shell-shocked Ljajic as he came to terms with his grief. Adem Ljajic is now a star with Besiktas having had spells with Roma and Inter “Stories about stagnation in my football development are nonsense,” he stressed. “If Manchester United were really not satisfied with how much I’ve progressed in this year, I would not have been with Ferguson two months ago at the end of my last cycle of mandatory training at the club before moving to England. “The reason for the transfer not happening is that I couldn’t get a work permit. Who knows what I will do next? I have heard already that clubs are interested and that Partizan want to sell me. We’ll see.” What had been hailed as a transfer coup now looked like a transfer failure, yet it was testament to Ljajic’s character that at a time where his career could have drifted to the obscure, he instead dug deep and fought for the chance to prove himself in a top European league again. A year after United had boasted the signings of two of Europe’s most promising talents, Ljajic instead found himself signing for Fiorentina on a five-year deal, while compatriot Tosic joined FC Koln on loan before departing for CSKA Moscow on a permanent deal at the end of the season. Tosic never managed to take his chance, and Ljajic never even got his.

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