How Manchester City nearly signed Xabi Alonso

The Premier League champions rivalled Real Madrid for the signature of the Spain playmaker but eventually had to settle for buying Gareth Barry from Aston Villa

By Wayne Veysey | UK Correspondent

Xabi Alonso will mark his 33rd birthday by attempting to put the final nail in Manchester City’s Champions League coffin on Tuesday.

But the Bayern Munich midfield maestro could have shaped City’s European challenges over the last half-decade had the club’s bid to sign him from Liverpool in the summer of 2009 been successful.

A year after the Abu Dhabi takeover that shook the foundations of British football, City had identified Alonso as their number one target to anchor the midfield after learning that he was set to end his four-year spell at Anfield.

“Of course there were many players we wanted and couldn’t get. There was also players offered to us who we didn’t want,” explained former head of player acquisition Mike Rigg.

“Naturally, we came close to big signings. There are loads and loads of players who I could name that we missed out on.

“I remember we came close to bringing in Xabi Alonso when he was on his way out of Liverpool. He was a player that we really liked and decided to target.”

But City faced strong competition five years ago from Real Madrid, who could not only offer the Spaniard a return to his homeland but the glamour and prestige of one of Europe’s established elite.

Crucially, there was also the carrot of the Champions League available at the Bernabeu, something City, despite their vast riches, could not offer.

Despite having already signed established international players of the calibre of Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Robinho, Nigel de Jong and Craig Bellamy, the Premier League big spenders had finished 10th in the 2008-09 season.

“We could have put more money into it than Real Madrid,” said Rigg, alluding to the type of contract the Abu Dhabi-based ownership was willing to fund. “That wasn’t a problem. Persuading the player was the issue.”

Rigg held extensive negotiations with Alonso’s representative Colin Pomford, a Madrid-based agent who originated from Liverpool and had cut his teeth as a sports lawyer. He also had a growing reputation as a fixer in deals involving the leading Spanish players.

Intriguingly, Pomford also represented Rafael Benitez, the-then Liverpool manager who was fighting internal political fires at Anfield and knew he was about to lose one of his premier performers.

“Colin and Xabi were brilliant,” recalled Rigg, who joined City from Blackburn Rovers days before the Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008 and spent four years at Etihad Stadium. “They were interested in what we had to say but we were not in the Champions League or playing top-level football.

“We could have put more money into it than Real Madrid but in fairness to Xabi he wanted to go to Real Madrid. It wasn’t always about the money, he simply wanted to play for them. You can’t do anything about that.”

The wheels were in motion for Alonso to join Real back in May of 2009, although a €38 million transfer was not completed until August 5 of that summer.

City, meanwhile, had a plan B in the shape of Gareth Barry, a player who, coincidentally, had also attracted interest from Liverpool.

“Gareth was a similar kind of player to Xabi, sitting in front of the back four,” said Rigg. “We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

Barry signed for City from Aston Villa early that summer and went on to be a key figure in the club’s emergence, most notably their 2012 Premier League triumph.

Alonso was a mainstay of the Real side for five years before making what is likely to be the final major move of his stellar career when he joined Bayern Munich on a free transfer this summer.

City supporters watching one of Europe’s outstanding midfielders of his generation could be forgiven on Tuesday for wondering what might have been.