During his managerial career at Manchester United, whenever Sir Alex Ferguson has targeted a transfer, more often than not he has eventually landed his man. After all, when Manchester United and Sir Alex come calling, few have the temerity to turn them down. But in a reign that has lasted over twenty-six years, there are bound to be a few deals which did not quite materialize. At times it was due to the player himself, at times it was due to interference of another club and other times due to some force measure condition the potential deal got scuppered.
In our two-part series, we listed down the ten most significant instances of such near misses in a chronological order and take a look at the circumstances that prevented the deals from going through.
Kaká (early 2000’s)
Long before the former World Player of the Year would turn down the plentiful riches on offer at Manchester City at the end of a protracted transfer saga in 2009, Kaká had done the same to their neighbours too. Well, to be accurate, in the case of Manchester United there were no riches on offer, not plentiful at least, no protracted transfer saga and Kaka was just a young player looking to establish himself at AC Milan.
Even so, his potential had alerted Manchester United and Ferguson was keen to bring Kaka along with his brother Digão, who too was at Milan at the time, to the club. Unfortunately for United, the young siblings would spurn United’s advances to stay at Milan. The world would have to wait a little longer to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká combining to wreck havoc on defences.
Whoever knew Francis Graille was a man of such strong principles? The then Paris Saint-Germain president, who would later be convicted of foul play related to a series of suspect transfer activities between 1998 and 2003, would accuse United of unscrupulous behaviour during the Ronaldinho transfer saga and quote that as the main reason why the transfer fell through.
In the closing months of the 2002-03 season, when the position of David Beckham had become evidently untenable at Manchester United, Sir Alex had earmarked the Brazilian trickster as the big name replacement. During the close season, negotiations with PSG began in earnest. Soon Barcelona, under newly-elected president Joan Laporta, got involved too and a bidding war ensued.
After days of hard negotiation, United CEO Peter Kenyon won the battle by verbally agreeing a £20 million transfer fee. However, on learning Barcelona highest bid was in the region of £18 million, Kenyon sent a revised offer to PSG lower than the agreed fee. Graille was outraged as he felt United had reneged on their agreement and slammed United for having a condescending attitude towards the entire dealing. PSG finally sold Ronaldinho to Barcelona at a fee lower than what United had offered stating that the transfer had become a matter of principle.
As a result of the botched deal, Kenyon’s stock fell sharply at the club and soon he would be heading off to Chelsea. Ronaldinho went on to enjoy a trophy laden five-year spell with Barca during which he was crowned the World Player of the Year twice. United on the other hand signed a scrawny teenager from Sporting Lisbon to fill in the boots of David Beckham. And he did turn out to be ok.
Arjen Robben (2004)
Perhaps no club in English football has put as much emphasis on wingers as has Manchester United throughout their history. Starting from days of Billy Meredith in early 20th century, carrying on with the likes of Joe Spence in the 20’s, George Best in the 60’s, Steve Coppell in the 70’s, Andrei Kanchelskis and Ryan Giggs in 90’s, Ronaldo in the new millennium, United have enjoyed a rich legacy of wingers over the years. So it came as no surprise when United approached PSV during 2003-04 season over the acquisition of their 19-year-old winger Arjen Robben, the hottest property in Dutch football then.
Initial talks went well with both PSV and the player’s camp. In January 2004, Robben and his father Hans visited Old Trafford to look around the facilities and went back suitably impressed.
We have taken a look around and have spoken with manager Alex Ferguson,” Robben’s dad said. “We have a good feeling about it. We had permission to take a look at the club. On Friday and Saturday we did that. Manager Alex Ferguson showed us the stadium and the training accommodation. Furthermore we had dinner with him. Before we went to Manchester, we had two questions in mind. We would like to know the environment of the club and how many matches Robben could play. Following talks with Ferguson this could be 40 matches. Both questions have been answered very positively. It will be PSV or Manchester United. We are thinking about that now.
Chelsea soon entered into the picture but still the noises emanating from Robben’s camp (read: his father) was music to United’s ears.
My son will not go to Chelsea. Over my dead body will he go there. They have an owner who has no philosophy or structure at the club. Chelsea just buy expensive players all over Europe and think it will make them a great team.
Come March though, action would speak louder than Papa Robben’s words as his son would sign for Chelsea rebuffing United. From footballing perspective, the move might not have made much sense with Chelsea famous for employing a narrow 4-3-3 formation where the role of an orthodox winger was severely restricted. But then again, when Roman’s roubles are on offer, how can one expect footballing decision to be based on…erm, football?
Marcos Senna (2006)
It is easy to look at the Spanish national team for the past couple of years and be mesmerized by the skill, artistry and sheer brilliance of the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Villa et al. It is easier still to forget about the contribution of the industrious Marcos Senna towards Spain winning the European Championship in 2008, the event which broke the proverbial dam for the Spanish national team in international competitions. Brazilian born Senna was the midfield rock on which Spain’s success was built in the tournament and his exploits were recognized as he was named the player of the tournament.
Two summers previous to this, Senna’s tireless work ethic, neat passing range and ball-winning abilities in the middle of the park had brought him to the attention of United’s scouts. His club Villareal too was ready to do business with only a year remaining in Senna’s contract. A fee in the region of £4 million was quoted in the press. Manuel Pellegrini, managing Villareal at the time, seemed resigned to lose Senna.
However, it was not to be. Instead of closing out the deal for Senna, United turned their focus on Bayern Munich’s Owen Hargreaves, who they would end up landing the summer after. Senna, embittered by the snub, would take his frustration out in the public.
It went very quiet, then Mr Ferguson’s assistant Carlos Queiroz told my agent he was sorry but they had orders from above. Queiroz said the sponsor preferred English players and although they wanted me, they would have to wait.But they never called me back.
With that outburst, any chance of a future move was well and truly extinguished.
Karim Benzema (2009)
If Karim Benzema is to be believed, then he deserves multiple entries in this list. While French international’s claim that Manchester United has been trying to sign him continuously for the past four seasons may sound boastful to ears and should rightly be taken with a pinch of salt, there is no denying the fact that United did come close to signing him in the summer of 2009.
This of course was the summer of Cristiano Ronaldo’s record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid. After being re-elected as club president, Florentino Pérez wasted little time to set in motion the project of assembling a new band of galacticos. Apart from Ronaldo, Real added the likes of Kaká, Raul Albiol and Xabi Alonso to their ranks in space of few weeks.
United in contrast were coming to terms with the probability that Carlos Tevez would follow Ronaldo through the exit door at Old Trafford. Two players who had contributed over a century of goals in the previous couple of seasons needed to be replaced. Acquiring a prolific goal scorer before the season got underway was a top priority. Ferguson set about the task by targeting Benzema, a player on whom United had reportedly kept tabs for a while.
In France, the general consensus was Benzema’s club Olympique Lyonnais would be willing to do business if the money was right. With the £80 million from Real for Ronaldo burning a hole in the pocket, no one doubted United’s ability to make Lyon an offer for their leading marksman that they simply could not refuse. Only roadblock to Benzema’s path to Old Trafford: another club was interested in signing the 21-year-old striker. Identity of the club: Pérez’s Real Madrid, who else?
The last day of June and the first day of July saw a flurry of activities with relation to the transfer. First a Real bid of £30 million was accepted by Lyon on the evening of 30th June. Getting wind of it, United made an improved offer. One of Benzema’s teammates at Lyon, Miralem Pjanic revealed to the media that Benzema was on his way to United. But Real would not lie down that easily.
A fresh bid of £35.8 million was submitted the next day. It would become apparent to United bosses that in order to land their target, they would have to enter into a bidding war. A war United simply could not win. Not against that club, not in that summer. Instead of replacing Ronaldo, Benzema would soon become his fellow galactico at Real.
After thus suffering yet another blow in the transfer market that summer, United would sign an ageing Michael Owen on a free – a significant downgrade from their initial designs. Although at the time it was heralded in some quarters as an astute piece of business, the gamble would ultimately be a failure with Owen spending most of his time at United on the bench or out injured.
Benzema on his part would overcome a difficult start to his Real career to slowly gain a strong foothold in the Real first team in face of intense competition. At the time of writing, it can be said that the player has had less regret than the club over the failed transfer.
Apart from the ones mentioned in this two part series, there have been fair few others as well. John Barnes, David Hirst, Brian Laudrup, Marcello Salas, Damien Duff, Roberto Carlos; all great players who at one point or the other were seriously considered by Sir Alex for a move to Manchester United only for it to fall through. Before this summer is up, the likes of Robin van Persie and Lucas Moura may well be added to the list. But then again that’s football transfers for you. As Ferguson will opine from the bitter lessons learned over the years, you simply cannot win them all.
In case you missed Part One, jump over here.