It had the potential to become a history-making transfer for Liverpool.
Instead, it was someone who would see them on the losing side of a bitter feud.
It was the summer of 2007 when Rafa Benitez considered a bold move for Manchester United’s Gabriel Heinze.
Benitez was a big fan of the then 29-year-old no-nonsense brand of defense and felt that the Argentine national team player could offer coverage and experience in a range of positions.
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Liverpool had just arrived after a failed Champions League final, and Benitez’s daring – and very public – threw the glove, after Athens, until the relatively new owner pair of Tom Hicks and George Gillett appeared to have cut through.
Benitez had demanded that the Americans flex their financial muscles in the transfer market if they believed Liverpool were to become serious players in the long run.
A barrage of deals were completed within the first few weeks of July, with Ryan Babel (GBP 11.5 million), Yossi Benayoun (GBP 5 million) and Fernando Torres (GBP 20 million) all joining in to give Liverpool’s attack something of a new look along with free transfer Andriy Voronin.
The message was clear; Liverpool were ready to build on their continued improvement under Benitez.
For the upward trajectory to continue, however, Benitez also needed more strength in the depths at the back, and United’s Heinze crossed all the boxes.
He had Premier League and Champions League experience, was as uncompromising as they came, and could play in a number of different roles behind. An ideal addition in Benitez’s eyes.
As the defender intended to leave Old Trafford, the Anfield hierarchy felt they could bring him over the M62 by triggering what had been privately set as the asking price.
In June of the same year, Heinze received written permission to move clubs if a bid of £ 6.8m.
For Benitez, such a deal was an indifferent deal, and Liverpool felt they could make Henize the first player to move directly between the Reds and their fiercest rivals since Phil Chisnall in 1964.
A bid was made and then rejected with United boss Sir Alex Ferguson refusing to entertain the opportunity to see Heinze leave for Anfield.
“I can assure you that Liverpool will not get Gabriel Heinze,” Ferguson said at the time.
“We can put it to bed right now and we have done that. We have had a few offers on him and we have rejected them.
“Heinze’s agents roll the ball all the time, but no matter what his agent thinks, we’re in the driver’s seat.”
United would argue that their fixed price for Heinze excluded domestic rivals, which of course included the Reds.
Liverpool, however, believed they had a completely valid case.
They had complied with the written clause and felt that they should have been able to talk to the player about personal matters.
Heinze went to a Premier League panel with his letter, which he believed allowed him to talk to Benitez about becoming the first player ever in the Premier League era to move directly between English football’s two biggest clubs.
In late July, Benitez said: “We made an offer which they rejected. The lawyers are working on it now so we have to wait.”
About a month later, a three-man arbitration panel met to resolve the dispute and joined in favor of Ferguson and United.
It was determined that Heinze’s written permission was given outside the iron-clad clauses of his contract and a switch to Liverpool would be off the table.
“The hearing concluded that the nature and intent of the disputed letter of 13 June 2007, particularly when taken in the context of verbal discussions and Manchester United’s transfer policy, was unequivocal, as it only foresees an international transfer,” read a Premier League statement. .
“Furthermore, the hearing finds that the letter constitutes an ‘agreement to agree’ and did not create an obligation or binding agreement for the club to transfer the player to a particular club.
“In other words, the letter is evidence of an intention to negotiate, both between the parties and with potential buying clubs, and not evidence of any intention to create legal relationships.”
The panel had heard evidence from then-Crystal Palace director Phil Alexander that he had been contacted by a representative of Heinze with a plan for the defender to join the Eagles before immediately switching to Liverpool.
“The card of the conversation was that this agent wanted Crystal Palace to buy Gabriel Heinze from Manchester United and then immediately sell him on to Liverpool,” former Palace chairman Simon Jordan wrote in his book, Be Careful What You Wish For.
Liverpool, it was reported at the time, regarded these allegations as extraordinary and Benitez was both furious and amazed at the panel’s results.
With the transfer window to the last 10 days, time was running out if Heinze had to move to Anfield, and an appeal was lodged.
The player’s lawyer, Richard Green, argued that an agreement could still be reached outside the regular transfer window using Rule M4, which allows the Premier League to grant a transfer outside the agreed dates.
Mr Green told the BBC in August 2007: “My client and I were hoping the appeal would be concluded by the end of the window, but it is clearly not going to happen.
“It’s too early to say what could happen. I do not know if there will be other teams interested.
“I do not know if United’s attitude will change or if they are happy that he will stay or not.”
Other teams were interested, however, and one of them was Real Madrid. Within hours, a proposal from La Liga had been accepted.
Shortly before making a move to the Bernabeu, Heinze admitted that his dream move to Anfield had simply become unattainable due to the bitterness that existed on both sides.
“It’s been complicated,” he said. “I’m convinced my move to Liverpool would have worked and I think I had a case and needed to defend my rights.
“I am grateful for what Rafa Benitez said and tried to do.
“I did not want more controversy with Sir Alex Ferguson. It is logical now for me to take this leap. I have always said that I would go to one of the big clubs in Europe and Real is one of them. . “
On 23 August 2007, Heinze moved to the Spanish capital and joined Los Blancos for around £ 2 million less than the fee would have been if he had turned up on Merseyside.
“There was never a chance for Liverpool to win that case,” Ferguson said later.
“So Rafa clearly did not read the Premier League rules. It’s just silly. We’re looking at the whole of Liverpool’s role in this.”
A bitterly disappointed Benitez would hamper the outcome as he tore himself into the Premier League for results he called “incredible”.
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And the then Liverpool boss also questioned how Carlos Tevez had been able to sign for West Ham under a controversial cloud, while a player like Heinze was to be denied a move he clearly wanted.
In a passionately exclusive interview with ECHO at the time, Benitez said: “I would like to ask the Premier League a number of questions. How can a player with a signed contract be treated like that?
“He has a document that is clear, but the Premier League prefers to believe the word of someone else who made a mistake. I know there were allegations against Liverpool during the hearing which were incredible. How can this be allowed?
“Then I would like to ask the Premier League, why is it that Liverpool always play the most matches away from home in an early kick-off after an international break?
“We had more than the top clubs last season and we have four already to prepare for this season.
“Then I would like to ask the Premier League why it was so difficult for Liverpool to sign Javier Mascherano when we had to wait a long time for the paperwork, but it was so easy for Carlos Tevez to come to Manchester United?
“It will be very difficult for us to win the Premier League because the other teams are so strong, but I want our supporters to know that despite the disadvantages we have, we will fight all the way.
“We will fight to cope with our tougher start times and all the other decisions that go against us.”
In the last week of August, it was too late for Liverpool to find a replacement, meaning Heinze’s place in the squad would remain vacant until the arrival of Martin Skrtel in January, a player who did not have the same ability to play on several positions. as Real Madrid’s new £ 5m man.
Years later, Heinze would express regret over how the saga developed, but admitted that he was fully aware of the importance of crossing the divide between the two giants in English football.
He said: “There are many things I regret from the last few months, but I am a strong personality, Sir Alex is a strong personality.
“I made the decision and when I look back I regret it because it meant leaving a great club and their supporters.
“I was aware of the rivalry [with Liverpool], I knew the risk of going from Manchester to Liverpool and what that means.
“I hope it does not stain the road [the supporters] see me and they will remember the three years I had in the team. ”
A version of this article was first published in January 2021