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 majeure 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.
Paul Gascoigne (1988)
Paul Gascoigne was the first big miss of Sir Alex Ferguson in the transfer market during his Old Trafford reign. Incidentally, by his own admission, it also was the one he regrets the most. In the summer of 1988, on the eve of Ferguson’s departure for his annual vacation, Gazza had assured him over phone that he would be signing for United. Little did Ferguson know that soon the youngster’s head would be turned for all the wrong reasons (a recurring theme in his career) by Tottenham Hotspur.
Tottenham offered his parents a house in the north east and other perquisites to clinch the deal. United chairman Martin Edwards had to call up Ferguson in the middle of his holiday to pass on the news of Gascoigne’s volte-face which would leave Ferguson fuming.
After things started to unravel for Gascoigne in Lazio (where he moved from Spurs in 1991), he tried to engineer a move to Manchester United. But deep down he knew it was a long shot.
‘I knew I wasn’t going there. You only mess with Sir Alex once.’
Gazza’s rejection of a transfer to United gave birth to one of the biggest ‘what ifs’ in football history. Would United have had to wait till 1993 to win their first league title since 1967 with the most gifted footballer of his generation playing for them? Perhaps more pertinently, how would have Gascoigne’s career panned out while playing under the perhaps the greatest man-manager in the game? In light of Ferguson’s handling of the temperamental Eric Cantona, it is safe to assume the incident impacted Gazza more severely than United in the long run.
Alan Shearer (1992, 1995)
If you try and fail the first time, you try again. If you fail the second time, it means it was never meant to be. That was the story of Alan Shearer’s proposed transfer to Manchester United.
During the dying days of the old first division, Shearer established a reputation for himself down at south coast by scoring goals galore while playing for a distinctly mediocre Southampton side. During the course of 1991-92 season, a season in which the young striker plundered 13 goals in 41 appearances, it became apparent that the biggest clubs in the land will soon come calling for him.
Given the fact that United themselves was in the market for a strike partner for Mark Hughes, it was natural that the noise in the press regarding Shearer joining United reached a crescendo come the summer of 1993. The brightest young English striker joining the most high-profile club in the country seemed like a match made in heaven.
Manchester United. Manchester United.
Manchester United. Manchester United.
But the only glitch in this dream move was that United were not the only club courting Shearer. Blackburn Rovers, armed with the millions pumped in by Jack Walker, were serious about their interest in Shearer too. As it turned out, they were more serious than United and landed their target for a British record transfer fee of £3.3 million. In Shearer’s own words on the matter years later:
“There was interest from Manchester United, but I was told I had to wait three or four weeks for them to get the money together. I felt if they really wanted me then they would come and get me immediately. I had already spoken to Blackburn and told Kenny Dalglish, Ray Harford and Jack Walker that I would give them an answer in three of four days – and my answer was yes.”
After missing out on Shearer and the injury to Dion Dublin, the player bought instead in the summer, Ferguson would bring in the mercurial French international Eric Cantona and the rest is history. Shearer, on the other hand, would cement his reputation as the league’s top marksman in the following three years at Ewood Park with a phenomenal return of 112 strikes in 138 matches.
Come the summer of 1996, Blackburn’s star was on the wane and after a hugely successful Euro 96 campaign, Shearer had become the hottest property in the market with top clubs in England and Europe interested in signing him. Like three years ago, United were towards the front of the long queue and Ferguson reportedly held extended talks with Shearer.
Ultimately though, United would yet again be thwarted in their attempts to sign the best English striker of his generation, as Shearer would opt to sign for his hometown club Newcastle United for a world record fee of £15 million. In the subsequent years, while United would go on to lift trophies galore, in contrast Shearer would fail to win a single major title with Newcastle. So no prizes for guessing who came off worse from this particular failed transfer.
Patrick Kluivert (1998)
In the summer of 1998, United paid PSV Eindhoven a princely sum of £10.6 million for the transfer of Jaap Stam making him the most expensive defender in the world. But Stam was not the only Dutch international on United’s radar that summer. After an impressive showing in the World Cup in France, where he bagged crucial goals in the quarter finals and semi finals against Argentina and Brazil respectively, Patrick Kluivert was at top of Ferguson’s list of wanted strikers.
As per reports in British media, a fee of £9 million pound was agreed with AC Milan with only personal terms remaining to be settled. However, the transfer never materialized with Kluivert first declaring his decision to stay on at Milan before joining Barcelona later on in the season.
After missing out on Kluivert, United trained their sight on Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke and this time Ferguson got his man. Yorke, on his part, would make sure that United would not have to regret Kluivert’s snub by playing a hugely influential role during the succeeding treble winning season.
Perhaps, the greatest upshot of Kluivert not joining United was the deepening of the rift, which had already surfaced, between Ferguson and his once trusted assistant Brian Kidd over the identification of alternatives to Kluivert. When Kidd had proposed the name of the Welsh striker John Hartson, an infuriated Ferguson reportedly shot back: ‘Do you really think John Hartson is Manchester United quality?’
John Terry (late 90s)
One of the more obscure entries in the list but one as significant as most of the others nevertheless. John Terry was born into in a family which was Manchester United through and through. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, a young Terry grew up as a United supporter. By the time he was a schoolboy, Terry had been approached by United and would go down regularly to Manchester to train at the club. Impressed by his talent, Ferguson would take time out to invite Terry’s entire family to a United match and have lunch with the players. A rare gesture, which would leave an indelible impression in the young boy’s mind.
“But one thing that was really special about Man Utd was that Alex Ferguson took time out and invited me to one of their games and to have lunch with their players. So there we are – me, my mum and dad, my brother. He made me feel so special, autographs, my photo done with the Premiership trophy.”
Even so, Terry would ultimately snub United’s advances to sign Youth Training Scheme form with Chelsea and over the time would establish himself as a club legend. United, not for the first time (see entry no. 2 on this list) missed out on a future Engalnd captain.
Michael Essien (2000)
In April 2000 when Manchester United sent a youth team out against their Derby County counterparts, among the United ranks, a certain diminutive midfielder was present. His name: Michael Essien.
Like his future Chelsea teammate Terry, Essien grew up supporting Manchester United. Hence, when at the age of 17, Manchester United invited him over for a week-long trial, Essien regarded it as a dream opportunity to play for his favourite team. During the trial, Essien impressed observers enough for United to seriously consider signing him up.
However, it was not to be. Getting a work permit for the Ghanaian teenager proved to be a major hurdle. Questions were also raised about his suitability to the English game due to his slight stature. All things considered, United did not push the matter through. Essien would shortly sign for French club Bastia and would go on to establish himself as one of the premier midfield enforcer in the world.
In retrospect, not pursuing Essien more forcefully may remain as a source of great regret for Ferguson. Lack of a quality midfield enforcer would continue to plague United ever since the departure of Roy Keane, a player on whom Essien admittedly modeled his game.
Part 2 will be published subsequently. In the meantime, check out the list of Arsene Wenger’s near misses at Arsenal.