There were staff at Manchester United who believed signing Harry Kane would transform their team into title challengers. Erik ten Hag’s thinking was along the same lines. That’s why, as striker options were being assessed towards the end of last season, Kane was top of the United manager’s list.
But on Wednesday night, when United face Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena to start their Champions League group campaign, Kane will be playing for the serial German champions rather than Ten Hag’s side, giving immediate cause for reflection about why the much-touted transfer never happened.
United had looked at a move for Kane at various stages over the last few years but, back in May, the stars finally seemed to be aligning. Kane was about to enter the final year of his Tottenham Hotspur contract, and United had qualified for the Champions League while Spurs missed out on Europe altogether.
United were aware Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy had two choices in the summer window: sell Kane, or somehow get him to sign a new contract. Losing Kane for nothing at the end of the 2023-24 season was not an option for the north London club.
Kane made it clear he would decline to extend his deal until the new season was well underway and he’d had a chance to assess what life was like under new Spurs’ head coach Ange Postecoglou. So that left a sale as the likeliest outcome, and even though Levy let it be known he would be against allowing the England captain to join any of their domestic rivals, Ten Hag wanted United to test the waters.
By mid-June however, United had decided to go for Rasmus Hojlund as their big signing up front rather than Kane.
For a start, football director John Murtough always felt it was unwise to get drawn into a protracted negotiation with Levy that had no guarantee of reaching a compromise, having been stung by the extended pursuit of Frenkie de Jong from Barcelona in 2022 that ended in disappointment for United.
Murtough believed Levy would not sell Kane to another Premier League club and preferred to focus energy on more realistic targets. There were, though, people close to United who thought the only way they would truly find out on that was by asking the question to relevant people around the player and Spurs.
Yet there was a more fundamental issue.
In United’s model, either the recruitment department or the manager has the right to veto targets, and scouts pushed back against the idea of signing Kane.
Ultimately, co-owner Joel Glazer and chief executive Richard Arnold decided going for Kane was not a reasonable use of resources when factoring in his age. United had been told Kane was seeking £30million ($37.1m) in annual wages, about £500,000 per week, and after adding in an expected transfer fee of more than £100million, the club ruled the cost to be too high for a 30-year-old.
Ten Hag may not have agreed with that calculation, given Kane’s proven pedigree, but he accepted the decision in the context of the budget once the realities of financial fair play had been mapped out to him. But Ten Hag stayed full of praise for Kane whenever asked about the player.
In August, as Kane’s move to Bayern for more than €100million (£86.4m, $110m) was being confirmed, Ten Hag said: “He’s a great striker, clear, a goal-maker; and apart from that he has all the conditions and abilities that you want to see in a striker. It’s a miss for the Premier League, absolutely.”
By that stage, United had agreed a deal worth £72million with Atalanta for Hojlund. While the Dane’s transfer fee was closer to Kane’s than had been anticipated, his salary was much lower, which became a major factor. At 20 years old, so did his age. Ten Hag has spoken glowingly about Hojlund’s abilities.
Despite all the anticipation over Kane in April and May, there were never any real talks between people at United and Tottenham, or with the player’s representatives, led by his brother Charlie.
Instead, there was an approach from Saudi Arabia, with a club there indicating they were prepared to offer a scale of transfer fee that Tottenham would instantly accept. But Kane’s camp declined talks as they didn’t want to be disingenuous about his intentions. He wanted to continue his career in Europe.
And three of the continent’s biggest clubs were interested.
Real Madrid put together a £60million bid, and Paris Saint-Germain also made an approach. But it was Bayern who engaged with Levy to negotiate over several weeks, leading to an announcement on August 12. An agreement was reached the previous midnight for a fee of more than €100million, although there was one late bump in the road when the Germans were asked to pay another £20m at 2.30am. Spurs insist there were no further negotiations.
Bayern had booked a plane for Kane to depart to Munich at 7am, but at 5.30am Bayern executives instructed him not to fly. Kane told Spurs he was prepared to turn up to training with them instead if it wasn’t sorted.
Ultimately the price originally agreed was kept and Kane, having barely slept, flew to Germany later in the day.
If that kind of 11th-hour gamesmanship was predicted by United, some close observers felt the club could still have used Bayern as a stalking horse, sensing a rare opportunity to bring in a player of singular talent. Their argument was that once Tottenham had agreed a fee with Bayern, United should have matched it. If Levy had then refused to sell, it could have been a case of restraint of trade for Kane.
But that prospect was over once United signed Hojlund, who was also on Bayern’s list before they pressed ahead for Kane.
There was an element of irony in United’s pleasure at getting their transfer work done earlier than is usually the case. Kane ended up making his debut for Bayern three weeks before Hojlund played for United owing to the Dane arriving with a back issue.
Kane might not have chosen United anyway. He was open to moving up to Manchester but he also made enquiries about the state of the club and was not sure it was the right place for his next step, especially amid the uncertainty over their ownership. Bayern, as genuine Champions League contenders, were a more appealing prospect. So too was the chance to experience a new country.
“Over the summer I know there were some talks between a few clubs in the background,” said Kane. “Bayern were a team I was really interested by, excited by; there weren’t really too many other discussions once they came in.
“It was down to Tottenham and Bayern. Manchester (United) are a great club, a really big club, but I decided to come here and am really glad I have.”
The reaction has been seen across Germany.
The Bundesliga’s Twitter account posted about Kane’s availability for their fantasy football game and to date Bayern have sold 220,000 shirts bearing his name, with an annual target of one million.
“It’s a big thing, we took the skipper of England out of England,” said Bayern manager Thomas Tuchel. “Anyone looking for a (No) 9 would’ve been happy to have Harry in the team. He makes the team better and gives you what you want from a nine.
“I’m not sure what’s going on at other clubs, but we’re more than happy that he finally took the decision and came to make us better.”
For Kane, the Bayern move was as much about respect as anything: taking on a fresh challenge and having the pressure of needing to win. He has made a good start, scoring four goals and assisting once in his first four Bundesliga games.
“There is a reason that Bayern Munich brought me to the club,” said Kane. “They were eager to get back to winning the Champions League. They feel I can be a big help and I feel I can help the team as well.
“Time will tell how the game (against United) plays out. We have to first focus on the group stage and starting well tomorrow will be important. That is why I am here, I want to play in competitions at the highest level.”
Kane has not ruled out the possibility of returning to play in England again. He believes he has seven or eight years left at the top level in Europe, and breaking Alan Shearer’s Premier League scoring record (he trails by 47, 213 to 260) by playing a couple more seasons is plausible.
For now, though, he has the opportunity to show United first-hand what they could have got had they taken the plunge.
(Top photo: Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)