Over sixty players have been linked with a move to Manchester United this summer. No other club endures as much transfer speculation as United and as fun as it sometimes is, over years gone by, it has more often than not led to frustration.
Whether it was Martin Edwards’ tight purse-strings, or his father Louis before him, or even the manager himself citing value in the market, oftentimes supporters would wind up frustrated.
And so, Reds fans usually find themselves discussing a plethora of names. Arjen Robben and Cesc Fabregas are two names in recent times that never completed a move but even they wouldn’t make our star studded line up. Enjoy, the best team that Manchester United never fielded.
Tommy Docherty, Brian Greenhoff and Gordon Hill have all told RetroUnited.com how the club tried to sign Shilton only for the transfer to be vetoed by Sir Matt Busby who thought the goalkeeper was too expensive. Mike Duxbury told us that he felt United should have signed Shilton in the mid 80’s. There’s no doubt about it, Shilton would have been a worthy successor for Alex Stepney and may well have been the difference as the club sought to get a league title in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
In an alternative universe – one where Louis van Gaal becomes United manager in the summer of 2002 after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson – United may well have ended up with the best Brazilian full backs in history. In October 2002 Cafu claimed he was on the verge of signing for the Reds on a free transfer and the Brazil captain may well have ended Gary Neville’s United career nine years early. Or, at the very least, given him stiff competition. Neville is a Reds legend but we would have loved to have seen Cafu ply his trade at Old Trafford at some point.
In 2000 Sir Alex let everyone in on the world’s worst secret, that he’d tried to sign Tony Adams from Arsenal. It was the impossible task. ‘I tried to sign him once, but he’d just signed a new contract at Highbury,’ he admitted. ‘He was an Arsenal man, though, and it would have taken something special to prise him away.’
United weren’t lacking for solid centre halves in the 90’s and always had a British spine – would Adams have been an upgrade on Bruce and Pallister, who were models of consistency and reliability at a time when the Arsenal skipper was going through some personal turmoil? We can’t answer that. But the thought of Adams being in United’s backline does automatically lend it some solidity and, given the fact that Fergie admits he made the move, it’s impossible to deny him a place on this list.
Miguel Angel Nadal
‘I was on the verge of signing (in 1996),’ Nadal confessed to Sid Lowe for the Guardian in 2001. ‘I had one foot and a half in Manchester. Everything with United was fine and I was ready to move, but there were problems with Barça and at the last minute they refused to let me leave… I would have liked to play in England.The grounds there have a special character which is different to Spain and I’ve got very good memories of Wembley, even though we lost there in Euro 96.’
Nadal was linked in 1996 but it seemed, also, in 97, 98, 99, and 2000 too. When the ‘Beast of Barcelona’ proved unattainable, United moved for Ronny Johnsen, the solid and non-controversial Norwegian utility man. We would have enjoyed Nadal’s aggressive style.
‘It is true that Manchester United want me,’ Roberto Carlos said in May 2002, amid reports of a staggering £38m transfer. ‘But at the moment that is not important. I have a contract and I am happy in the city and at Real Madrid. I do not know if the clubs are talking. If Real Madrid and Manchester want to, they can sit down to speak about a transfer that could happen. I am not going to put up any obstacles. When they come to an agreement, I will join in. Manchester United have been making inquiries about me for two years. Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken to me on occasions and I am aware that I am a player he likes.’
Denis Irwin was at the end of his career and United were to go through a period of instability at left back until the arrival of Patrice Evra. Oh, how we would have loved to have seen Roberto Carlos play at United.
The story goes that Blackburn Rovers’ chairman Jack Walker turned down a move for Zinedine Zidane with the infamous quote ‘Why do you want to sign him when you’ve got Tim Sherwood?’
It was a summer of links for the then-Bordeaux midfielder. Though it never came to anything, it’s a bit of a cult story that Eric Cantona recommended him to Ferguson.
The King confirmed it to Football Focus in recent years. ‘Yes he was in Bordeaux, he was young, he was free and I recommended him of course,’ Cantona said. ‘They went to see him in a few games and maybe he wasn’t in his best form. I think so because Ferguson knows football perfectly. It was a mistake I think. They took some great player instead of him – but I think it was a mistake.’
There are no anecdote-able responses, but Zidane obviously didn’t end up at United. And that’s a shame.
In May 2003 United were reportedly ‘closing in on £12m Ronaldinho’. In June 2003, he said ‘I admire Manchester United,’ in an interview with the Independent on Sunday.
‘And I love watching them play,’ he continued. ‘Of course I would like to be at a great club like that – anybody would. The idea of joining Manchester United makes me dream, because they are a big, successful club and play my kind of football. I have a burning desire to be involved with a club that plays big games all the time.’
It didn’t happen. United hesitated – as you would, obviously – and Barcelona came in with an higher offer. The rest is history. United fans console themselves by saying they got Cristiano Ronaldo instead but we sure could have done with Ronaldinho while the Portguese youngster learned the ropes.
What to say what hasn’t already been said? The thought of Gazza pairing up with Bryan Robson captured the imagination of every United supporter. It seemed destined to happen but it fell through.
We’ll let Gazza explain. ‘It was my family’s fault,’ he claims. ‘I was on the way there to sign for Man United. I remember saying to Sir Alex ‘you’re going on holiday so I’m going to sign for the club.’ On the way there I got a call from Spurs. They said my family had nothing when I was growing up but if I went there they’d buy my mum and dad a house. So I went ‘Dad, Spurs said they’re going to buy you a house.’ He said ‘well what are you waiting for?’ So I said to Spurs that I would sign. Then my sister called and said ‘Paul, if Mum and Dad are getting a house, I want a sunbed’. So I signed for the club, and when you sign you get fanmail. The first letter was from Sir Alex Ferguson. It wasn’t a good letter. I got caned. He was like ‘I can’t believe you turned down the biggest club’. You know, sometimes, I do look back and think about what would have been if, what would I have won at Man United. When I signed for Spurs, Man United weren’t winning everything, but then all the young kids came through and they started winning everything. It’s probably one of the regrets I have.’
He’s not the only one. ‘Alan Shearer is one I wish I’d signed, but for me the most disappointing of all was Paul Gascoigne,’ Ferguson admitted in 2008. ‘He was the best player of his era, a breath of fresh air because he played with a smile. Around 1987, when Newcastle were bobbing above the relegation zone, we played them and my three central midfielders that day were Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and Remi Moses. All great footballers and he just tore them apart. When he nutmegged Moses and patted him on the head, I was out of the dug-out shouting ‘Get that f****** so-and-so’. Robbo and Whiteside were chasing him up and down the pitch and they couldn’t get near him.
‘We spoke to him the night before I went on holiday. He says ‘Go and enjoy yourself Mr Ferguson, I’ll be signing for Manchester United’. So I went on my holidays but Martin Edwards rang and said ‘I’ve got some bad news – he signed for Tottenham. They bought a house for his mother and father in the north east and that swung it’. I think it was a bad mistake, and Paul admits it.’
From one Geordie who admits regretting turning United down to one who still insists he doesn’t. ‘Of course I was tempted to join Manchester United, but I do not regret either decision,’ he told The Sun of his choices in 1992 and 1996.
There can be no doubting Shearer realised his potential – 206 goals for Newcastle in a ten year spell and a spell as England captain are notable accomplishments for any player – but his trophy cabinet could have been far more full if he had made the move to the right United.
In 2010 former United chairman Martin Edwards revealed how he prevented Ferguson from buying striker Gabriel Batistuta. ‘His wages would have destroyed our wage structure but Alex and I didn’t have many differences. It’s been said we didn’t get on but that’s nonsense,’ Edwards told the Sunday Express.
‘Batigol’ was one of the most complete strikers of his generation. Two footed, able to score from anywhere, and a scorer of all types of goal. A couple of years after the Reds were linked to him, United fans got a first hand glimpse of what he could do, when he scored one of the greatest goals ever scored by a visiting player at Old Trafford in the Champions League for Fiorentina.
No, not that one, but this other one was every bit as deadly in front of goal.
The player linked to United in the mid-90’s was the Brazilian Ronaldo, back in his PSV days. 54 goals in 58 games were not enough to tempt Fergie to take a chance on the young striker (though, the truth was that the manager had his eye on someone else) at the time.
Was there anything to the stories? Could it ever have really happened? It certainly didn’t seem to be as strong a link as the other Brazilian legends later on but, in 1997, as United sought a replacement for Eric Cantona, the interest was significant enough to warrant a mention in his first autobiography. Only this time, Ferguson was reportedly denied by the board.
‘In recent years I have been keen to sign Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta and Marcel Desailly but my hands were tied because Manchester United’s policy on salaries gave me no chance of providing the financial packages required to secure those great players’ contracts,’ he insisted. The way Fergie casually mentions that and then never referred to it again makes it feel like he was over-stating the point to the board (and, it was a message probably received given that the book was followed by the transfer record being broken twice just a short time after).
One Ronaldo who lays claim to being the greatest of all time has showcased his talents in front of United fans; Old Trafford did get a glimpse of the Brazilian’s talents and appreciated them accordingly with that 2003 hat-trick, but it could have been so much more.