“Coming to England allowed me to see how things worked.
“So I know what to expect if I come here permanently.
“And I hope that if I join in January, I will be involved in the first team from the start.”
Hopes were high when Manchester United announced they had reached an agreement to sign one of Europe’s most exciting teenage talents, but despite so much promise, the move would never happen.
It was during the January 2009 transfer window that United, then reigning champions of England and Europe, announced they had reached a deal to bring Serbian duo Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic to the club from Partizan Belgrade.
Tosic, who was 21 at the time, was a fixture in the Serbian national team and known to many fans across Europe. But at the age of 17, his pupil Ljajic was a raw talent.
The teenager joined Partizan from his home side FK Jošanica as a 14-year-old and made his debut when he was just 16 in July 2008. It was during this breakthrough period that he was dubbed the ‘Serbian Kaká’ by the local press. to his dribbling style and ability to dictate the pace of a match himself.
Soon he would have the opportunity to live up to such a reputation.
Three months after his debut, the youngster was offered a trial period at United, which would cement their interest in his signature and accelerate talks to bring him to the club within the next six months.
While it was intended that Tosic would come to United and challenge Nani for a starting role, Ljajic would return to Partizan and return to Manchester for regular training sessions and catch-up meetings before joining them permanently the following year.
To accustom the young duo to life in the north west of England, compatriot Nemanja Vidic behaved like a father figure.
“I didn’t have to convince them to come to Manchester United,” he said. “This is the best team in the world. Everyone wants to be part of this squad.
“They have a dream. I know how they feel. It was very difficult for me when I first came here, but I am here to help.”
Vidic was well aware of the hurdles ahead, but for the last of the hopeful teens it was hard not to get carried away by the dangling carrot of a permanent United move into the next January window.
“It all happened so fast for me,” Ljajic said. “I’m only 17 and have had some dreams in the past but can now have one more: the United shirt. But next year I will learn more at Partizan and be ready for Old Trafford in January.”
The youngster returned to Partizan, where he continued his upward trajectory, buoyed by the confidence boost from his imminent transfer to the best team in Europe.
Partizan didn’t lose another match that season in which Ljajic played, and went on to win the Serbian league title at a gallop with a 19-point lead over second-place Vojvodina.
While his confidence was high, his compatriot Tosic struggled in his first half of the season at United. He played only 34 minutes in the first team as he adapted to his new environment.
Sir Alex Ferguson had already brushed aside concerns about Tosic when he joined and also hinted at the exciting future Ljajic would have if he completed his move: “Tosic hasn’t played since December 10 and he needs time to adjust and we give him that.
“He is a broad left player and we like broad players at this club. We have been following him for over a year and hopefully he will do well.”
“The other boy is 17, but he is a very good player. When we bring in young players, we always think we can develop them.”
Ljajic carried this confidence to the international stage as he shone for Serbia in the European U19 Championship, racking up assists in a draw with France and a win against Spain.
Inspired by his creativity, the squad managed to take first place in Group B before their dreams of a tournament victory in the semi-finals were ended by Ukraine. Ukraine would go on to win the entire tournament with a 2-0 win in the final against an England side that included Danny Welbeck, Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier.
After such an incredible six months, the two Serbs entered the 2009/10 season full of optimism that this would be their breakthrough campaign. It would be short-lived.
Tosic was not in the squad for the Community Shield against Chelsea in early August and would only be named in one Premier League roster that entire season, an unused sub to a 3-0 home defeat to Fulham in December.
Instead, he spent most of his time in the reserves, scoring four goals and providing three assists in six appearances, still not enough to give him a chance in the first team.
His only two appearances of the campaign came in the League Cup, from the bench in a 2-0 win over Barnsley and an eight-minute late cameo in the quarter-final win against Tottenham.
Back in Serbia, his understudy was still making headlines, starting every week for Partizan as they got off to an undefeated start to the new season, though he found it hard to add numbers to his impressive overall game.
Still, the teenager was a regular visitor to England for his regular checkups and gained invaluable experience by training sporadically with some of the biggest names in world football.
“The quality in England is very high because you train with such great players, but the main difference is that it is much faster,” Ljajic said at the time. “I really enjoyed it and training with such top players can only help me improve.
“Coming to England allowed me to see how things worked, so I know what to expect if I come here permanently.
“I hope that when I join in January I will be involved in the first team from the start.”
It was a dream he would never fulfill.
Ljajic’s last training trip to England took place in November 2009, less than two months before joining the club in January next year.
Business had gone well and the 18-year-old returned to Serbia without any indication of any concerns about completing his dream transfer.
What was not revealed at the time of his signing was that United stipulated that an escape clause would be included in the contract to cover themselves before Ljajic moved to Manchester, a trigger they only made two days into December.
At the start of the year, United called him “Serbia’s brightest young talent” during the original announcement, but have now claimed he hadn’t shown enough during his training periods at Carrington to be offered a deal.
A United spokesperson said: “We had an option to buy the player, but after closely monitoring his development over the past 12 months and taking into account the young players coming up through the ranks at the club, we opted for it. not to proceed with the transfer.” .”
Partizan claimed it had failed due to a “financial crisis” at the English club. Ljajic was seen as the more promising of the two when he signed, and as news of his failed move spread, many fans blamed the Glazers for ending a deal for the raucous teenage talent.
The statement came at a time when Ferguson had been told he would operate under strict restrictions in the January transfer window, despite the £80 million sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer, just months after the Glazers made extensive cuts to their budget. worldwide. club.
In response, Partizan’s sporting director Ivan Tomic slammed United, claiming they had missed an “excellent, young player, a footballer with great potential”, adding: “I think they will regret it in the future. will get from this decision.’
The thoughts were shared by Partizan head coach Goran Stevanovic, who praised his player for “handling the situation well” and “overcoming the psychological shock” of his dreams being crushed at the last hurdle. .
Further confusion was added to the matter when United assistant Mike Phelan revealed the failed deal was not due to a U-turn by the club but actually because they were struggling to get him a work permit in time for a transfer.
“I don’t think money is an issue,” Phelan admitted. “We took a cautious approach to get a work permit and the message we got back from the Home Office was that we couldn’t get that in time to get Adem signed in January.
“We have a platform for young players to develop and get into the first team. We’ve looked at Adem and he has the potential to do that.”
“But sometimes you can’t fight it. Sometimes you can get work permits, sometimes you can’t. Breath fell into the latter category, so we made the decision.”
As the club tried to pass it off as their decision, Phelan had revealed the truth, which would soon be backed up by a grenade-shocked Ljajic as he worked through his grief.
“Stories about stagnation in my football development are nonsense,” he emphasized. “If Manchester United were really unhappy with the progress I’ve made this year, I wouldn’t have been with Ferguson two months ago at the end of my last cycle of mandatory training at the club before moving to England.
“The reason the transfer didn’t go through is because I couldn’t get a work permit. Who knows what I’ll do next? I’ve already heard that clubs are interested and Partizan wants to sell me. We’ll see.”
What had been hailed as a transfer coup now looked like a transfer failure, but it testified to Ljajic’s character that at a time when his career could have drifted into the obscure, he instead dug deep and fought for the chance to prove himself in a new in the European competition.
A year after United boasted of the signings of two of Europe’s most promising talents, Ljajic instead found himself signing for Fiorentina on a five-year deal, while compatriot Tosic left for FC Koln on loan before signing on a permanent contract at the end. left for CSKA Moscow. of the season.
Tosic never managed to seize his chance, and Ljajic didn’t even get his chance.