Let’s rewind 14 years to one of the most controversial transfers in Manchester United history. In July 2001 the club announced the signing of Juan Sebastian Veron after weeks of protracted negotiations. History has not been kind to the Argentine’s stint in United’s midfield, but how fair is that?
The speculation had been raging long before a report on 30th June where Veron told the Daily Mirror : “I definitely want to sign for the club. It would fill me with pride to wear the shirt of Manchester United. I spoke extensively with Mr Eriksson, with whom I have an excellent rapport. He gave me a lot of advice and explained a lot of things. He really pushed me hard to come and play in England. But above all, Manchester United are a great team. And the team is always greater than any player.”
“As far as I’m aware there are no real obstacles to prevent me joining United,” he added. “My representatives will go to Manchester to meet the club’s chief executive this week and surely they will come away with an agreement.”
There had been speculation that Veron had used fake papers to obtain a EU passport and the midfielder claimed that the interest coming before the case was concluded on 26th June was vital. “United have the best chance because first and foremost they came to me before the disciplinary sentence and they made me feel their interest and support,” he said.
With the blanket of silence that generally covers transfers these days it’s surprising to be reminded that David Beckham was quite vocal about the proposed move.
“I hope Veron will be with us in pre-season training,” said Beckham. “He’s a very good player. In fact, I’d go as far as to say he’s a brilliant player. He’s one of the best in the world.”
He really was. The BBC’s Stefano Bozzi went as far as to compare him favourably with the globe’s eminent midfielder of the time, Zinedine Zidane.
If Zinedine Zidane is worth the £43.2m Real Madrid are about to shell out, then Manchester United’s purchase of Juan Sebastian Veron at £28.1m is a bargain.
While Zidane is of course an exquisite talent, Veron provides more by way of his all-round game.
The Argentine is a dynamic midfield general, who alongside Roy Keane will form a far more solid central axis for United, strengthening an area where they were vulnerable in the Champions League last season.
But Veron is also blessed with a certain attacking verve, a player with all the tricks in the book as well as an acute tactical awareness of match situations.
He’s one of the game’s finest passers, over all distances, while he also loves to make penetrating ball-carrying runs deep into opposition territory.
And Veron scores goals – usually spectacular ones.
He is a master in dead-ball situations – that could make for interesting discussions with the likes of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs – and will often try his luck from long range in open play.
Bozzi’s enthusiasm was matched by many, and in particular, Manchester United supporters who had had their heads turned by the romance of the signing and the idea of breaking the transfer record for a second time in a matter of months.
On 11th July, under a blaze of publicity, Veron underwent a medical at London’s Alexander Hotel and was unveiled at a press conference in Manchester the day later.
“When we bought Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist, they kick-started us that season and hopefully Van Nistelrooy and Veron can do the same for us,” said Sir Alex Ferguson.
“We welcome him because he is a marvellous player, and one who brings just what we need to the team. He brings a nice pace to the team. Every time we have bought this type of player, he has done wonders for us. What we have done is bring in a really top player, one of the best players in the world.
“He’s a marvellous player and Juan will bring a personality to the team which I feel we need at this moment. I feel we need a challenge. We have a fantastic bunch of players who have done magnificently over the years, but nothing beats a challenge. It’s a terrific prospect and I am looking forward to it because with my experience of this team is that when we have signed a player of this calibre, he has done wonders for us.”
Ferguson’s keenness to bring glory to Old Trafford in the immediate future was mainly owing to his decision to retire at the end of the 2001/2002 season, a decision he was to reverse mid-season.
Veron spoke through an interpreter at his unveiling.”I think it will be a great experience football-wise,” he insisted. “I don’t have any fears about coming over. It is a very positive experience for me. It will be a great opportunity to sample a different culture and a different lifestyle. The main reason is what the club represents in a worldwide context. They are a great club, and secondly the support showed through the passport case in Italy at the time and the confidence they held in my ability.”
Veron’s father had played against United in the 1968/69 Intercontinental Cup and, inevitably, the club’s new record signing was asked if he had received any parental advice. “He did speak about the atmosphere climate-wise and what it meant to play against people like Bobby Charlton at the time.”
(He had also told journalists in June: “So although that result (in 1968) didn’t make the United fans happy, I could be the next Veron to score at Old Trafford – this time for United!”)
“I am delighted to be here and I hope I can fulfil people’s aspirations for me. I was aware that Manchester United was one of the best, if not the best, club in the world.
“One of the things that attracted me was what Manchester United represents in a world wide context. They also supported me when I had my passport problem at Lazio.
“I am sure I will adapt to the physical nature of the game in England. People asked me that when I first arrived in Italy, and after six months I felt I had done it.
“I am delighted to be playing alongside David Beckham. The success of a club is down to how players play on the field, not how many lines they get in a newspaper.”
Incidentally, on the day United unveiled Veron, it was revealed that Peter Schmeichel had returned to British football, signing for Aston Villa.
“I’m very pleased to see Peter back and I’ve no problems with it,” said Ferguson. “He rang me yesterday to tell me and I’m pleased for him. Villa are getting a player of great experience and I’m looking forward to seeing him again.
“I’ve always maintained that you need one player who can make a difference. We’ve had three great instances of players who have done that in Cantona, Keane and Barthez. The people watching United only want to see the best and we’ve got that today.”
It may have been the only time that Barthez was ever included with the other pair in terms of contribution.
Although Veron had his name cleared with the passport scandal, he still had to wait to receive a British work permit, and the Telegraph speculated that would mean staying behind while the club concluded their Far East tour, meaning he would make his debut in Ryan Giggs’ testimonial against Celtic at Old Trafford.
As it transpired, Veron did make it on the entire tour, enabling his acclimatisation and showing glimpses of his immense talent playing in central midfield alongside Roy Keane for two games and Nicky Butt for the third.
However it was in Giggs’ testimonial where Veron really got people excited – in front of almost 67,000 supporters, he scored a tremendous half volley from long range.
The ‘Little Witch’ settled into life at Old Trafford with ease. Playing in midfield, he scored in all of United’s games in September – most of them memorable finishes, and, in the case of his goal to seal the win over Tottenham when the Reds were trailing 3-0 at half time, unforgettable.
He was excelling in Europe as the player everyone expected him to be – his display against Olympiakos in a 3-0 win was outstanding. Despite not finding the net himself (with two extravagant efforts narrowly missing out) he provided one of the most wonderful assists seen at Old Trafford with a raking pass which found Ryan Giggs.
Veron was in his pomp but when United were beaten in three consecutive winter games against London trio Arsenal, Chelsea and West Ham, the midfielder’s ability to dictate games in the harsh conditions of the Premier League was questioned (despite the fact he missed the latter).
That United followed that up with twelve wins from thirteen league games seemed to be lost on some but the draw that came at the end of the run provided a telling anecdote from Danny Higginbotham who was playing for Derby in the 2-2 draw at Pride Park. “…Veron gave them the lead. Then some of the United players started showboating a bit, which is something you don’t normally see from them – Roy Keane wasn’t playing and I couldn’t help thinking to myself that if he was on the pitch, that wouldn’t be happening, and in all likelihood we’d be three or four down,” said Higginbotham.
Keane would be out of action for the next month, rushed back to play in the Champions League semi final against Leverkusen. He scored in the second leg but United were eliminated on away goals and also finished third in the league after drawing a blank in their last two home games.
With 36 goals, no-one could claim that Ruud van Nistelrooy had been a flop, so it was left for people to attribute United’s under-achievement to Veron, despite him missing most of the run in through injury.
It was claimed that Veron had struggled to adapt to the intense pace of the Premier League, ahead of the penultimate league game against Arsenal. That prompted Ferguson’s ‘youse are all fucking ‘idiots‘ comment and additional accusations of press lies about stories that United players had attributed the European exit to Veron.
Ferguson claimed that it was defensive lapses in concentration that had cost his team and it was hard to disagree, though in later years he would concede to being at fault for the sale of Jaap Stam. United were forced into a defensive re-shuffle at the same time as meddling with their midfield.
That midfield, lest we forget – Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs with a healthy sprinkling of Nicky Butt – was arguably the greatest ‘foursome’ in British football history. It was a tremendous risk to meddle with the chemistry that was natural in that quartet/quintet but, for the most part, had worked pretty well. Injuries hadn’t helped and the absence of Keane had been felt deeply.
Veron – as written by Daniel Taylor in the earlier linked Guardian report – had confessed he hadn’t played well during the winter. In an interview with Italian press Veron admitted his love for Lazio lived on, and, as is their wont, this was picked up and transferred into speculation that he would return to Italy. The Guardian had interviewed him in January 2002 and he seemed content with life in Manchester.
In it, Veron said he was ‘very happy’ but a far more telling comment closed the piece – “It’s not the same to be told as to live through something,” referring to English football (in particular, in this instance, the FA Cup).
Veron remained at Old Trafford and, despite the myth that he was phased out, playing fewer games, he actually played more times for the club in his second season. There were signs of promise from the Argentine.
However, a couple of headaches emerged for the manager. Hoping his expensive signing could come back from the 2002 World Cup re-energised, he was given food for thought by the prominent displays of Nicky Butt, widely accepted as England’s best performer of the tournament.
Roy Keane, Butt himself and Veron all picked up niggles in the winter but Veron was back in the team for the Arsenal game in December, alongside Phil Neville in midfield. Neville put in a stellar performance – arguably his finest in a United shirt – but it was Veron who made the difference, scoring the first in a 2-0 win.
It looked promising – more exceptional performances in Europe, again, notably against Olympiakos, coupled with the fact that others were raising their own game (Paul Scholes had his best goalscoring season) gave the impression that things were clicking.
However, Veron missed a run of games at a crucial time – Liverpool, Newcastle and Arsenal were United’s opponents in consecutive league games and forced Ferguson into a re-shuffle that even saw David Beckham looking on from the bench against Liverpool. The new look United side had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer operating from the right hand side with a supply line just as promising as the England captain and Keane, Butt and Scholes playing as well as they ever had in tandem in midfield.
Beckham replaced Veron in the epic but ultimately fruitless 4-3 win over Real Madrid. Beckham scored two late goals but, seemingly, Ferguson had already decided to let him go – as well as the man he replaced.
Veron had provided moments of quality quite unlike anything his team-mates could muster but Ferguson was seemingly more interested in developing a long term chemistry. He could not have foreseen the ban which Rio Ferdinand was about to be hit with, or the injury problems that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was about to suffer, which would have a dramatic impact on that blend.
Veron’s last appearance was as a substitute against Charlton in United’s penultimate league game of the 2002/2003 season, though his last significant impact had been in the game against Chelsea in January when his fabulous assist gave Diego Forlan the winning goal.
There had been no notable decline in Veron’s form and there was every reason to believe that he might flourish with the extra responsibility he might have assumed with David Beckham’s exit but it seemed that the club were more willing than the player to negotiate a sale.
“The player may not want to go. He’s happy here, he’s enjoying his football here and I’m happy with that. There has been an enquiry but that’s as far as it’s gone. The circumstances may change because we don’t know what the offer is,” Ferguson told the BBC.
“I think the player (Veron) wants one more year at United,” Veron’s agent Fernando Hidalgo told the Guardian. “The circumstances may change because we don’t know what the offer is. He wants to repay the club for the faith they have shown in investing in him, and he wants to prove to Sir Alex that he is still a good player.
“He will talk to Ferguson because he wouldn’t want to leave if the manager still sees a future for him at the club. I think the talks planned between Veron and Ferguson will be critical as to whether Chelsea’s interest in the player comes to anything.”
Still, when August came, Veron was still at United and performing admirably for them on their pre-season tour. He was head and shoulders the best player for United in a 4-1 win over Juventus.
Less than a week later, he had signed for Chelsea for £15m. Then-Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri was gushing in his praise. “Gold comes to Chelsea with Veron,” acclaimed manager Claudio Ranieri. “I think Veron is the best midfielder in the world.”
Despite scoring on his debut against Liverpool at Anfield, Veron struggled to settle in to life at Chelsea, playing just seven league games in his first season before being loaned to Inter for two years. He returned to Estudiantes and played up until as recently as 2012. He won the South American Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009, in the latter year, achieving a dream of winning the Copa Libertadores in a campaign where he was voted the best player.
RetroUnited.com recently ran a poll to determine the ‘best ever’ United XI and Veron’s name was absent from any of the writer’s, former players and even our own poll to the readers. That doesn’t tell the entire story because it could be argued that he was as good as any of them – he certainly had the talent.
Sold at 28, there was every reason to believe that Veron was just about to reveal his best form, particularly after the pre-season he was having. But that’s, of course, selective and romantic revisionism. He could have, or, he may well have seen his career falter like Anderson’s did when the manager didn’t know quite where to play him.
In his most recent autobiography, Ferguson revealed that there were difficulties with Veron. “I confess I found working with Argentinian footballers quite difficult,” he said. “There was deep patriotism towards Argentina. They always had the flag round them. I had no problem with that, but the ones I managed didn’t try particularly hard to speak English. With Veron it was just, “Mister”.” Quite the contrast to what he said at the time.
There is a school of logic which says Veron was the right player at the wrong time. In the post-Keane era, how United have lacked a player with that significant presence and serious quality in the middle of the park.
With the team built around him, Veron could have been the bedrock of a period of great success, but with Butt, Keane and Scholes (and Kleberson due to arrive a year after his own stellar World Cup with Brazil), Ferguson simply felt that his record signing had become the most dispensable component.
Maybe it is revisionism and romanticism but the tremendous quality possessed by Veron made it such a shame that he was the one deemed surplus to requirements – particularly considering a year later it would be clear that Kleberson was not the answer and Nicky Butt would be off to Newcastle.
In a 2012 interview with Four Four Two, Veron admitted, “Looking back, I didn’t make the right choice. I should have stayed in Manchester for many reasons. My wife left Manchester in tears. We were used to moving to new cities and I’d never seen her crying because of a move.”
Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.
This is an era, a new era, where Manchester United are signing superstars. Until Veron’s compatriot Angel Di Maria arrived at Old Trafford last year, Veron was arguably the last – maybe even the only – player acquired who could have been said to be truly world class and considered as the best in his position in the world at the time. There have been many comparisons drawn with the two with the below par second half of the season for Di Maria but consider two things – that, after the red card against Arsenal, Di Maria barely played, and he still remained United’s most creative player in terms of chances created and actual assists.
But let’s regress back to Veron and away from the lessons we should have learned. Many have debated what went wrong and time has seen him categorised as a big money flop and a blunder.
It can certainly be said that Manchester United didn’t see the best of Juan Sebastian Veron. Was it a panic signing made by a manager who was desperate to go out on a high and felt this was the best guarantee?
As Manchester United supporters we can lament that lost potential but it’s equally logical to say that football as a sport lost something with the potential of Veron, whose enthusiasm for the game must have waned after the heartbreak of being forced out. Enthusiasm he regained when returning home.
Veron ought to now be celebrated just as much the other great midfielders of that era and that’s a real crying shame – while the decisions that led to his departure can be seen as sensible against the contemporary situation, it has to be said that on this occasion it was surely the fault of others which meant he didn’t quite achieve what many hoped and expected he would in Manchester.
Right player at the wrong time perhaps, but, with a little more time, he surely would have cemented his place in United’s history for wholly positive reasons.