De Gea tweeted: “Good luck, Chiqui! I wish you success, my friend. You deserve to be treated well in your new challenge. Enjoy.” That was an undeniable and justified dig at United’s shabby treatment of Romero.
The post was in English and no translation was required. Romero’s wife, Eliana Guercio, Instagrammed in Spanish but the message was clear: “THANK YOU DAVID!!! You understood EVERYTHING!!!”
Romero was dubiously dropped for the 2020 Europa League semi-final and then denied a transfer. For a period, the United photographers were instructed to keep their lenses off Romero during training sessions as if he did not exist.
The bond between De Gea and Romero was so tight the Spaniard was the first to leap off the bench to celebrate Paul Pogba’s opener in the 2017 Europa League final, when Romero started ahead of him.
Romero had earned the honour, having lined up in all but three of United’s Europa League ties en route to Stockholm. He has been one of a handful of successful signings in the post-Ferguson era yet the club’s Twitter account only mentioned Romero once last season to wish him a happy birthday.
United thanked Romero for his ‘service to the club’ in a perfunctory statement that was addressed to all eight released players. He merited more gratitude than Arnau Puigmal and Aliou Traore.
Just about everyone in the goalkeepers’ union at United has felt slighted over the last year, including Lee Grant, who is out of contract in 13 days. Dressing room sources said De Gea’s relationship with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a ‘problem’ at one point and Dean Henderson confronted his manager over reneging on plans to drop De Gea sooner.
Solskjaer was so indecisive over De Gea and Henderson he never made a definitive decision on the goalkeeper. Henderson’s eight-game Premier League run was sparked by De Gea’s paternity leave in Madrid and, in the final six matches prior to the Europa League final, the goalkeepers started every other game.
It was as if Solskjaer had planned the pattern to limit the fallout, even though De Gea was a certain starter in Gdansk on the strength of his preventing a Rome ruin in the semi-final second leg.
Neither ‘keeper had unconditional support, though, and the lack of rhythm made errors inevitable. Henderson was culpable for three of Liverpool’s four goals and De Gea unconvincing for Gerard Moreno’s breakthrough in the Europa League final.
The duel has become so psychological Henderson was overly eager to dart off his line, mindful De Gea is known for being rooted to his. Henderson ended up on the edge of his area against Burnley and the ball ended up in the net, only Chris Wood was marginally offside.
Whoever the ‘keeper, United have been as watertight as a sieve from set-pieces and that is a symptom of the goalkeepers being stripped of absolute authority.
The United goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis has incorporated distribution drills into De Gea’s warm-ups, the kind of passes Henderson pings perfectly. Hartis was said to have fretted over a Manchester Evening News story that Henderson had returned for pre-season training, as he felt he had to explain to De Gea why Henderson was back before him.
It is difficult to recall a goalkeeper with a worse penalty reputation than De Gea and United could have done with loaning in Louis van Gaal against Villarreal. Solskjaer suffered stage fright in his first major final as a manager and was never going to be brave enough to hook De Gea for Henderson.
If you are prepared to send on players capable of scoring a penalty then put a goalkeeper on who can save one. Henderson saved penalties in a Play-off final and against Manchester City and De Gea should not have been put in that position. Tragicomically, the Europa League specialist Romero saved one of the two penalties he faced in regulation time with United and helped win a Carabao Cup shootout against Rochdale. He was also victorious in shootouts with Argentina in the Copa America and World Cup.
Some sources saw De Gea’s selection against Villarreal as Solskjaer settling on his number one for next season yet Henderson has provisionally got the nod for the start of 2021-22.
From a football and financial perspective, it is logical. There was little between De Gea and Henderson last season and the latter was guilty of committing more egregious errors, yet De Gea’s confidence has waned the last three years and Henderson is six years younger.
Henderson is on a longer contract and is United’s first academy number one since Gary Walsh in 1987. De Gea has two years remaining on his deal and is the club’s highest earner on £375,000-a-week. A permanent sale this summer seems remote.
De Gea is not a busted flush and plenty of elite clubs would be improved by him, namely Juventus. A loan fee and compromise on the percentage of the wages with any suitor should be doable after the tawdry treatment of Romero and, if Henderson failed his season trial, De Gea would still have up to two years left on his contract.
Henderson was one of the first players to console De Gea and it would be galling if the United great’s last dance was in Gdansk. They say there is no room for sentiment in football but De Gea at United is an exception. He should have received the captaincy for the return of matchgoers at Old Trafford – potentially De Gea’s last home game for United – but Bruno Fernandes had the armband strapped to his bicep.
Like Romero, De Gea deserved better.