Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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How Blackburn Rovers’ Duncan McGuire deal fell apart twice

Duncan McGuire rushed through JFK airport to make his connecting flight, even as the reason he was taking it seemed to be falling apart.

The Orlando City striker, a recent USMNT debutant, had been the subject of transfer interest all winter long from the EFL Championship – England’s second tier, just below the Premier League. Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday were among the interested clubs, but Blackburn had finally come to terms with Orlando around 48 hours before the Feb. 1 transfer deadline. The deal was advanced enough that McGuire was permitted to say his goodbyes to his teammates and depart Orlando’s preseason training camp in Mexico, heading to Manchester with a stop in New York City.

But as McGuire sat on that first flight, Blackburn Rovers’ management team was told by the club’s owners in India that they would have to pull out of the deal. The finances, they said, simply weren’t there.

It would be the first of two times McGuire’s attempted winter move to Blackburn would be called off. The second came on Tuesday, when the club announced that the striker’s move had been rejected by the English Football League (EFL) due to late transmission of transfer documents.

“All of the necessary paperwork had been completed prior to 10 p.m. on Thursday February 1st,” Blackburn said in a statement,  “however due to an administrative error, the the forms were not processed in the prescribed times.”

Tuesday’s announcement extended one of the most bizarre sagas of the transfer window, and one that could have a direct impact on the USMNT’s chances at the 2024 Olympics. Blackburn appealed the rejection, but on Thursday the EFL upheld its decision, ending McGuire’s time in England.


What comes next for Duncan McGuire

He now returns to an Orlando City team that looks significantly different than it did when he departed preseason training last week. Blackburn said representatives from the club will also fly to Orlando in the coming weeks to finalize a pre-contract agreement for McGuire to join the Rovers in the summer window.

Discussions among relevant football figures have been ongoing for many days before Thursday’s announcement – a drawn-out deadline-day tale with a young player’s career hanging in the balance.

Days before the deadline, with the player yet to land at JFK and Blackburn in the middle of this deal’s first collapse, McGuire was up in the air in more ways than one as Blackburn executives apologized to Orlando City sporting director Luiz Muzzi, technical director Ricardo Moreira and McGuire’s agent Chris Megaloudis.

As that unfolded, Megaloudis had a little time and a little hunger to kill before his own connecting flight on his way to meet McGuire in England. He stopped in to P.F. Chang’s, a popular Asian cuisine chain, which accompanies its meals with the traditional fortune cookie.

Hoping for some bit of good news from somewhere, Megaloudis opened it. It didn’t say “Duncan McGuire Will Move To Blackburn” as he hoped, but it did say “a small act will bring happiness to the family”.

There was happiness, but not for long.

This account of the saga is according to multiple sources on both sides of the Atlantic who were either briefed on or directly involved with negotiations. The sources were granted anonymity to protect their relationships within the game.

Blackburn manager Jon Dahl Tomasson (Richard Martin-Roberts – CameraSport via Getty Images)

McGuire experienced quite the whirlwind 72 hours before the Feb. 1 transfer deadline – especially considering the player’s whirlwind rise, from collegiate soccer for Creighton University in Nebraska to the U.S. national team in the space of a year. A first-round draft pick by Orlando City, McGuire came in with modest expectations but greatly exceeded them, beating out Austrian international Ercan Kara to be his team’s starting striker and scoring 15 goals in all competitions in his first professional season. He made his USMNT debut in a January friendly against Slovenia, and should be in contention to play with the U.S. at the Olympics this summer.

Orlando City did not want to lose McGuire this winter. After all, he was on perhaps the most team-friendly contract in MLS: A paltry $77,360 guaranteed, according to the most recent figures released by the MLS Players’ Association. To put that salary in context: McGuire scored 13 league goals in 2023. The next six players behind him on the league scoring charts each make at least $2 million in guaranteed compensation, according to those same MLSPA figures.

Naturally, McGuire’s representation wanted a new contract, but McGuire and Orlando were not especially close to a deal as the club opened negotiations.

Blackburn had tracked McGuire during his breakout season in MLS, and saw him as a long-term target rather than a panic buy. Early in the January window, Blackburn made its first forays for McGuire – two loan offers that Orlando rejected. The English side didn’t have the money upfront for a loan or permanent transfer (first payment of a transfer fee or loan fee), which was integral for Orlando so they could have increased freedom to bring in a replacement for McGuire.

Sheffield Wednesday had a few offers declined, too, as they looked at McGuire to save their season from relegation. Upon learning of these rejected offers, McGuire visited Muzzi, telling the Orlando sporting director he wanted to go, and he wanted to go now. There was no guarantee another offer would arrive in the summer. He wanted to bet on himself.

For Blackburn, circumstances were changing. The club had initially offered a loan deal due to a lack of cash, but Crystal Palace’s interest in Blackburn midfielder Adam Wharton grew serious and a deal was getting closer. Blackburn wanted to use that money to get McGuire. In the days before the close of the transfer window, Wharton’s deal to Crystal Palace for £22 million ($27.8 million) was nearly done. Blackburn returned to Orlando with an offer for a permanent transfer.

Negotiations between Blackburn and Orlando intensified to the point where a deal had finally been verbally agreed late Tuesday night U.S. time (early Wednesday U.K. time), with just enough hours left before the deadline for McGuire to travel to England. The sides agreed on an initial fee of just under $4 million (around £3 million) plus add-ons that could see the deal rise north of $6 million (around £5 million). Orlando would retain a sell-on clause, another crucial negotiating point.

Wednesday morning, Orlando authorized McGuire to depart the team’s preseason camp in Cancun. He did. Blackburn had booked and paid for his flight. McGuire stepped on board, took off, and things changed yet again: Venky’s, the Indian firm that owns Blackburn, called chief executive Steve Waggott, director of football Gregg Broughton and coach Jon Dahl Tomasson, telling the group that there was no money to do the deal.

Disappointed and apologetic, Broughton called Muzzi and Megaloudis just as McGuire was nearing New York City. The deal, McGuire’s future, Blackburn’s relegation fight and Orlando’s offseason plans all laid in the balance. There were 30 hours until the transfer window closed.

As McGuire rushed to catch his flight to Manchester, Muzzi told Megaloudis that the club would welcome the forward back. Orlando tried to contact McGuire directly to tell him to come back as well, but he proved to be unreachable. If McGuire returned to preseason camp, there was no way he could travel to England in time to complete any move. If he didn’t get on that flight to Manchester, it was over.

McGuire landed in England on Wednesday evening, with about 24 hours until the window closing. By that point, Sheffield Wednesday had re-opened talks with Orlando. Several other Championship clubs, including Plymouth Argyle and Ipswich Town, also expressed interest in making a deal happen, sources say. Ultimately, though, Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn were the only serious bidders.

Megaloudis assumed that Sheffield Wednesday was the most likely destination, so he eventually settled with McGuire at the Mercure Sheffield Kenwood Hall & Spa hotel in Sheffield on Wednesday evening. McGuire was spotted by a reporter in the lobby on Thursday morning, a mere 13 hours before the window closed. A deal still had not been finalized. He sat in a chair in the lobby – a purple one, like the primary color of Orlando City. At this sleek, relaxing hotel and spa, it was difficult to take even momentary breaks from reality.

Blackburn currently sits just above the relegation places in the Championship (Richard Martin-Roberts – CameraSport via Getty Images)

In addition to being a trying time for McGuire, the episode has intensified the focus on Blackburn’s ownership: Venky’s, an Indian poultry and pharmaceutical conglomerate, which had assets seized as part of an Indian government clampdown on investment overseas.

Since the turbulence that followed Venky’s’ acquisition of the club in 2010, when they were in the Premier League, Blackburn had found a measure of stability, with investment having helped the club through the difficult years since their relegation from the top flight.

However, there are now serious doubts about whether Venky’s, under growing pressure from the Indian government over the past 12 months, can keep funding Blackburn.

Last week Blackburn issued a statement insisting that legal proceedings in India “will not impact the day-to-day funding of the club in any way”, adding, “The owners have given assurance to the board and executive of BRFC that they will continue to fully support the club, as they have done since they acquired the club in 2010.”

This year, though, Blackburn was struggling to complete deals, even as the sporting staff scrambled to continue pursuing McGuire and other deadline-day targets. One of them, Slovenian international center back David Brekalo, just so happened to be on the verge of a move to Orlando when Blackburn swooped in, creating another messy situation between the two clubs. Orlando City, for its part, certainly wasn’t thrilled to learn Blackburn was trying to hijack the deal, which would have worked in Wednesday’s favor. The Athletic reported on Thursday that Orlando was finalizing a deal to sign Brekalo. Blackburn ultimately signed center back Billy Koumetio on loan from Liverpool on deadline day.

Thankfully for Blackburn, funds were coming in – Palace’s deal to sign Wharton was about to get done. Once again, the club’s circumstances had changed.

Meanwhile, that picture of McGuire at the hotel in Sheffield made rounds on X, previously known as Twitter. Wednesday fans recognized McGuire, showed up and started asking for autographs. McGuire signed a few, though his future was far from decided.

With time ticking and nothing quite set with Wednesday, Megaloudis called Broughton, and asked if Blackburn could come back to the table now that the deal for Wharton was done. It was the first communication between all parties since the previous deal was scrapped. Broughton said they were still interested in a loan. It was a question of whether they could make an offer that would tempt Orlando back to the table. Orlando remained open-minded, if surprised. Blackburn said it could only do a loan, and Orlando said it would only sanction the deal if it included a sizable loan fee and a purchase option higher than the previously agreed deal.

After a bit of haggling, Blackburn agreed to pay a $700,000 loan fee (£550,000) with a purchase option near $7 million (around £5.5 million). The purchase option included another $2.5 million add-ons (£2 million), and Orlando would still retain a sell-on percentage. The on-again/off-again hassle had, in effect, netted Orlando a few million more in transfer and loan fees.

Yet still, the deal wasn’t done, and Wednesday remained in the picture. Eventually, both Blackburn and Wednesday sent cars to McGuire and Megaloudis’ hotel, hoping theirs would be the one to take the forward to his medical. A decision would come soon and time running out, plans needed to be set.

Broughton sent data points to Megaloudis about why Blackburn was a better home for McGuire than Wednesday. They showed that the club created more scoring chances than Wednesday, more clear shots per 90, and far more open play expected goals. And most important of all: Blackburn was eight points clear of relegation at the time, with Wednesday five points below the relegation line.

Muzzi ultimately accepted Blackburn’s offer. Megaloudis and McGuire called a taxi, spurning both club-sent cars, and began the two-hour drive to Ewood Park. As they traveled across the Peak District, the final agreements were hammered out and contracts drawn up. They arrived around five hours before the window closed for the medical and final steps.

Blackburn reimbursed Megaloudis for the cab, offered the contract, and with 100 minutes to go before the deadline, all parties had signed. McGuire was Blackburn’s newest player. The clubs announced at 11 p.m. UK / 6 p.m. ET — The exact time the transfer window shut (or so they thought).

But the following day it emerged that something was amiss. Suspicions were first raised when Tomasson was blocked from speaking at Blackburn’s pre-match press conference on Friday lunchtime. Local media were encouraged to speak to new signings Kyle McFadzean and Billy Koumetio, who had arrived from Coventry City and on loan from Liverpool respectively, but Tomasson and McGuire were not made available for interview.

McGuire and Megaloudis were in the stands at Ewood Park the next day as Blackburn fell to a 2-1 home defeat to Queens Park Rangers, their eighth Championship match without a win. In his post-match press conference, Tomasson responded to questions about McGuire by saying he was “not allowed to speak about” it.

“I think you should ask Steve (Waggott), Suhail (Shaikh, the club’s operations and management consultant and the ownership about the Duncan McGuire case,” the coach added.

Blackburn officials remained silent on the subject of the McGuire deal. But The Athletic revealed on Saturday evening that the player was in limbo once more due to an administrative error.

Although numerous documents relating to the McGuire transfer were signed and uploaded onto the EFL’s online player registration system well before the transfer deadline on Thursday evening, some of the paperwork had not been submitted in time. It was there on the system, but not submitted.

It was particularly embarrassing for Blackburn given the collapse of a deal to sign midfielder Lewis O’Brien on loan from Nottingham Forest 12 months earlier. On that occasion, Blackburn officials felt the deal had been thrown into confusion by a late administrative request from the EFL. With the McGuire deal, it was entirely down to human error at the Blackburn end.

Blackburn requested special dispensation on the basis that they had signed and attempted to submit all the documents in good faith ahead of the deadline. They cited FIFA’s willingness to approve the transfers of Said Benrahma and Pablo Fornais, who have joined Lyon (on loan) and Real Betis respectively despite difficulties processing the paperwork in time, but the EFL rejected Blackburn’s request and upheld that decision on Thursday.

The morning after the deal seemed to have gone through, one Premier League owner told Megalounis the fact that McGuire got on that plane changed his life.

(Photo: Alex Bierens de Haan/USSF/Getty Images)

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