The story - and the circumstances - behind Sheffield United's swoop for AFC Bournemouth's Aaron Ramsdale as goalkeeper prepares for an emotional return to Bramall Lane

It was four months ago, when Premier League chiefs began privately briefing that competition would resume sometime in June, that Sheffield United first began thinking seriously about bringing Aaron Ramsdale back to Bramall Lane.

Sunday, 16th August 2020, 5:00 pm

The season was still suspended. The country remained in a state of near total paralysis as, despite never really entering lockdown, its Covid-19 pandemic peaked. But behind the scenes, as football clubs began preparing for a return to action sometime in June, officials at Bramall Lane were also redrafting their plans for this summer’s transfer market after surveying how a disease which has now claimed nearly 800,00 lives worldwide had also changed the sporting landscape.

Initially, with manager Chris Wilder placing a centre-forward and right-sided centre-half at the top of his wanted list, United’s hierarchy planned to kick the problem of how best to replace Dean Henderson into the long’ish grass after learning Manchester United were minded to renew his loan for a second time. The goalkeeper, an integral part of the squad which had won promotion from the Championship one year earlier, was clearly destined to replace David de Gea at some point. But, with the Spaniard’s £350,000 a week wages guaranteeing him a degree of protection at Old Trafford despite a series of error-strewn displays, Wilder’s opposite number Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew he could park the problem by sending Henderson back to United where, after helping them climb out of the second tier, he was also proving remarkably effective at the highest level.

Given the damage coronavirus had inflicted on their recruitment budget, this also suited Wilder’s employers - giving them another two windows to identify a replacement and ensure the necessary funds were in place. The only trouble was, as negotiations about extending Henderson’s agreement to cover ‘Project Restart’ began in earnest, United realised they were not going to progress quite as smoothly as either they or journalists tasked with providing commentary on the talks might have expected. It was then, around six weeks before it was deemed safe for clubs to complete the fixture programme, that Wilder and his coaching staff began thinking even more seriously about trying to recapture Ramsdale - three years after reluctantly selling him to AFC Bournemouth.

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The Star understands there was an attempt by someone associated with Manchester United’s football administration department, despite not being endorsed by either Solskjaer or the player’s representatives, to change the terms of the agreement which had initially brought Henderson to South Yorkshire before extending it to cover the remainder of the campaign. The issue was eventually ironed out - with Henderson granted permission to take part in United’s final 10 games - but it provided a glimpse into the future. Given that all three parties involved wanted it to happen, thrashing out a deal which would have enabled the 23-year-old to spend the 2020/21 campaign at United should have been straightforward. Instead, with Manchester United demanding all of Henderson’s wages were covered and also payment of another loan fee, Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill instructed United to put it on the backburner. With Bournemouth being relegated to the Championship, there was an obvious alternative. An obvious alternative which was also a long term solution.

It would be wrong to paint Ramsdale, 10 months Henderson’s junior, as a cheaper option or second choice. Nothing, according to sources at United, could be further from the truth. They might not have anticipated making a move quite as quickly. But circumstances have conspired to ensure the time is right to launch a bid now and, barring any unforeseen complications, Ramsdale will complete his switch after undergoing a medical and agreeing personal terms later this week.

Despite being born in Stoke-on-Trent, Ramsdale enrolled on United’s youth programme as a 13 -year-old before graduating, following a successful scholarship, in 2016. By then, after being alerted to his talent by the Steelphalt Academy’s coaching staff, Wilder and his goalkeeping guru Darren Ward began making plans to properly assimilate him into the first team squad. The only trouble was, as Bournemouth demonstrated midway through Wilder’s first season at the helm, others had noticed the teenager’s ability too. Still in League One at the time and requiring funds to complete what would prove to be the first of two promotions in only three years, the chance to receive an £800,000 down payment on a player who had made only two senior appearances was impossible to resist.

United’s suspicions about Ramsdale’s potential proved to be correct. Indeed, one hugely knowledgeable member of their backroom staff who has since departed described him at the time as being every bit as gifted as Henderson - who by that time was building a reputation as one of the country’s finest young goalkeepers during a spell with Grimsby Town. Certainly, the wise old head told anyone who would listen, Ramsdale had been the most naturally talented shot-stopper on United’s books for a considerable period of time. The only thing he lacked, and which Bournemouth’s then manager Eddie Howe equipped him with, was self-belief and experience. After completing placements with Chesterfield and AFC Wimbledon, where like Henderson he mastered the art of brushing off mistakes, Ramsdale made his PL debut against his former club on the opening weekend of last season. Producing good blocks to deny David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson before Billy Sharp snatched a late equaliser, he went on to appear in all but one of Bournemouth’s league fixtures - becoming one of the few players there to finish the campaign in credit as Howe, who would later step down, was unable to stave off the threat of relegation.

Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale (centre) excelled in the Premier League last season, despite his club's troubles: Mark Kerton/PA Wire.

Despite failing to insist on a buy back clause when Ramsdale moved to Dorset - two divisions below Bournemouth at the time, few people could have predicted how dramatically and quickly the two clubs’ fortunes would soon change - United did insert a sell-on clause into the agreement, which has effectively allowed them to sign him at a discounted price. So too has the fact that Howe, who later persuaded directors at The Vitality Stadium to spend nearly £12m acquiring David Brooks, afforded United a similar courtesy before recruiting the Wales international. Now recovered from injury, Brooks, whose fee is yet to have been paid in full, is also set to leave before the start of the new season with Liverpool and Everton among those considering bids.

A good friend of Howe’s successor Jason Tindall - visitors to the Marbella Football Centre in the summer of 2017, when the two teams shared the facility, often spotted the pair deep in conversation - Wilder found negotiating with Bournemouth much more straightforward than trying to secure Henderson’s release from Manchester United. A fee, thought to be in the region of £10m, was quickly thrashed out when Tindall admitted Ramsdale was a “Sheffield lad at heart”. He has big boots to fill, with Henderson tipped to represent his country at next year’s European Championships. But there are many within the game who are convinced, with the right guidance, Ramsdale is destined to emerge as the greatest threat to his hopes of becoming England’s undisputed number one over the next decade.

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Dean Henderson will always be a hero at Sheffield United but, given his progress and on-loan status, was never a realistic long term target for Chris Wilder: Oli Scarff/Pool via Getty Images
Staff at the Steelphalt Academy quickly tipped Sheffield United's furst team staff off about Aaron Ramsdale's ability before AFC Bournemouth came calling: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.
Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder rarely makes a mistake in the transfer market: PETER POWELL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images