It’s the back-end of May and the European football season is over. Every two years, we are treated to either the World Cup or European Championships to help give us our dose of football medicine. Once these tournaments are over, this gives clubs approximately six weeks to prepare for the new season.
However, in those years that fall on the odd number (with the exception of the delayed Euro 2020), that 12 week period feels like an eternity. Now, Manchester United fans are much more fortunate than many other fans of other clubs. Whilst we bemoaned the lack of signing Bruno Fernandes in the summer, Bury fans didn’t even know if their club would exist. Bolton also flirted with liquidation, whilst Coventry who didn’t even have a home.
On the other hand, the club has been in disarray since the departures of Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill, with United being linked to more players every summer than the previous. So, it seems fair that United’s fall from grace is seen as a suffering, albeit relative to the suffer fans elsewhere.
Since Fergie’s departure, it feels as though there have been many players who were on the brink of joining the club, for a last-minute obstacle to fall in place and block the transfer. However, this is nothing new for United and I have researched and created a Starting XI of players that got away.
Goalkeeper – Edwin van der Sar
Now you might see this as dubious as the Dutchman did join United in 2005, becoming a stalwart in the club’s domination between 2007 and 2011. However, if we refer our minds back to 1999, the story was different. Peter Schmeichel confirmed he was leaving the club in the summer, signing out in style with a Champions League medal. At the same time, Edwin van der Sar made Ajax bosses aware that he wished to leave the club to pursue a new challenge. Van der Sar was at the top of Fergie’s list, but was left disappointed to find that Juventus had snapped up the shot stopper.
Van der Sar’s time in Turin wasn’t as successful as he had hoped, only winning the Intertoto Cup during his two-year spell. The signing of Gigi Buffon saw his days numbered with the Old Lady, where he made the surprise move to Fulham. Eventually, van der Sar made his way to Old Trafford in a £3.5m move, but how we wish we had him six years earlier.
Right Back – Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos cements the right back position, albeit that is his secondary position. Back in 2015, Louis van Gaal needed a new defender, with his below par defence needing to be bolstered. There had been speculation that Ramos was unhappy in Madrid and contract talks had broken down.
United had apparently put in a £29m bid, however, it wasn’t to be. Ramos eventually signed a new contract and the speculation was over no quicker than it began. Most fans believed that the Spaniard had simply used the club to improve his terms with Los Blancos, but he has since confirmed he did consider the move.
Centre Back – Phillippe Mexes
Mexes was part of the exciting Auxerre squad in the early 2000s, led by legendary manager, Guy Roux. Dubbed the next Laurent Blanc, Mexes was scouted amongst all the top European teams, with United being no exception. In 2004, United had come 3rd in the Premier League for the first time and wanted a solid centre back to pair up with Rio Ferdinand.
Ferguson had been aware of Mexes’ from a young age, having the young Frenchman come to Manchester for a visit and even providing him with his own Manchester United shirt with “Mexes 6” on the back. Ultimately, Mexes decided against the move to the disappointment of Ferguson and United, deciding to join Roma instead. He cited that his reason for this was because he felt the jump from Auxerre to a club of United’s size would be too much pressure. Mexes went on to have a moderately successful career with Roma and Milan, whilst United would have to wait another year before finding Rio’s long term defensive partner in Nemanja Vidic.
Centre Back – Raphael Varane
In 2011, Varane was unheard of, playing for Ligue 1 regulars Lens. He had just finished his debut season, catching the eye of the top European clubs. United had won the League and reached their third Champions League final in four years, but there were cracks. Signs were starting to show that a changing of the old guard was coming up and Fergie delved into the market to find his next long-term centre back.
Varane had three clubs on his door step; Manchester United, Real Madrid and Paris Saint Germain. He stated that he wasn’t sure of the new ownership in Paris, so it was between the Red Devils and Los Blancos. Game time was ultimately what the young Frenchman was most concerned about and with United having only just signed Phil Jones, Varane felt that Real Madrid was more suitable. United would rue not sealing the transfer, making several attempts to sign the Real Madrid man since. Varane, on the other hand, has won four Champions League titles and the World Cup.
Left Back – Bixente Lizarazu
Lizarazu was one of the first names on the Bayern Munich and France team sheet in the late 1990s / early 2000s. In 2001, Lizarazu had just won the Champions League with the Bavarian giants, but he was seriously considering an offer from United. The 1999 squad needed some depth; Denis Irwin was in his twilight years, there was never any real confidence in Phil Neville being his long-term successor and Mikael Silvestre was a makeshift alternative.
The veteran full back would have added some valuable experience to the squad and could have filled the void between Irwin and Evra. In the end, Lizarazu decided to stay in Munich and see out the remaining two years of his contract. United persevered with Neville and Silvestre for two seasons before signing Gabriel Heinze. The Argentinean hard man was an improvement, however, injury seen him lose his position to Patrice Evra, who went on to become a club legend.
Right Wing – Lucas Moura
Back in the Summer of 2012, Fergie was looking to strengthen the squad and snatch the title back from the hands of the noisy neighbours. It had been three years since Ronaldo had left, but despite having some success since his departure, United were looking for the next exciting prospect.
Lucas Moura was a skilful 19-year-old winger who was playing regularly at Sao Paulo. He played in the Copa America for Brazil and already made 15 senior international appearances. Moura was on the brink of signing with United when he received a last-minute phone call. Fellow Brazilian, Leonardo, was the sporting director at Paris Saint Germain and convinced him his future should be at Parc des Princes. Moura later went on to state that as a city, he preferred Paris over Manchester and liked the idea of the “project” put forward to him. United would go on to sign Robin van Persie and lift the title, but Moura would have been an excellent addition that summer.
Centre Midfield – Paul Gascoigne
You have to take a step back the question whether Gazza’s life would be as it is now if he was under the watchful eye of Sir Alex? Arguably one of England’s greatest football talents, it is criminal to see Paul Gascoigne as he is now, but back in the day he was the hottest prospect in English football. In 1988, prior to his heroics in Italia 90, Gazza was plying his trade at hometown Newcastle. His relationship with the club hierarchy had taken a turn for the worst after contract talks had broken down, prompting Gascoigne to look elsewhere to continue his career.
Gascoigne had given his word to Ferguson that he would sign with the Red Devils, with the United manager heading to Malta on holiday believing that just the formalities needed completing. Whilst on holiday, Fergie received a call to be told that Gascoigne had signed for Tottenham in a British record transfer deal. Ferguson believes what turned Gazza’s head was that his family was offered a house as part of the deal. Gascoigne has since refuted this, but said he was in fact given a £100,000 signing on fee (sizeable at the time) which he used to buy a house for his family. Whilst Gascoigne’s career would go on to have some success, you can’t help but feel maybe that league title would have come sooner than 1993 if a player of his calibre was in the side.
Centre Midfield – Ronaldinho
Whilst today we read of Ronaldinho as a former great who has been imprisoned in a fake passport scandal, it is much better to reflect on him as the player we all once called “the best”. Back in 2003, he was looking to make the big move following a couple of years cutting his teeth in the French capital. We all remember him as the player who scored an audacious free-kick against England to shatter our World Cup dreams yet again.
David Beckham had left the club after his relationship with the manager was broken beyond repair. Barcelona and Real Madrid were fighting for the England Captain’s signature, with Madrid coming out as the winners. United seemed to have everything in place to sign the Brazilian, but following the Catalans failure to sign Beckham, they outbid United for the skilful playmaker and the rest is history. Ferguson has since laid the blame with Ronaldinho’s brother (also his agent) and Peter Kenyon, the Chief Executive at the time. United would later that summer sign an unknown Portuguese winger who went on to become one of the greatest ever, so it is unknown whether such a transfer would have happened if Ronaldinho had been signed. It all turned out fine in the end, but at the time, we were left devastated.
Left Wing – John Barnes
Under Graham Taylor, Watford had risen from the old fourth division to the first division in five years. In the season that would see them promoted to the top-tier, a young John Barnes was brought into the senior squad and the years to come would see him make a name for himself. This Watford team is the best in their history, finishing runners-up in the top flight and reaching an FA Cup final.
In 1987, the glory years were to come to an end at Watford and they were resigned to losing their prized winger. Barnes was offered to Ferguson, however, the Scotsman declined the offer, still showing faith in Jesper Olsen. Fergie would go on to regret not taking up the offer, as Olsen fell out of favour and left the club the following season. Barnes, on the other hand, would go on to be a significant figure at Anfield as they won the league twice and the FA Cup in his first three seasons. Like Gascoigne, Barnes’ ability could have shortened United’s wait for the league title and more importantly, it could have been our player who did the World in Motion rap.
Striker – Alan Shearer
Now Alan Shearer evaded the advances of Ferguson at least twice. In 1996, Shearer had made it known he was looking for a move elsewhere following an indifferent season with Blackburn. Ferguson wasn’t willing to let him slip through the net again and made Shearer his number one target that summer.
As the story goes, Shearer had accepted terms with United and the only thing that needed to be agreed was a fee with Jack Warner, the Blackburn Chairman. Warner wasn’t a fan of United, being a local rival and contacted Newcastle to see if they would be interested. Newcastle put in the £15m world record bid and Shearer was left to decide. He would eventually join his hometown club and go on to become a legend and the Premier League’s highest ever scorer. The former England Captain has never expressed any regret of not joining the Red Devils. United would go on to sign Solskjaer instead, who would go on to become a legendary figure at the club.
Striker – Ferenc Puskas
As Manchester United attempted to start their rebuilding following the devastating Munich air disaster, this coincided with other events in Europe. Less than two years earlier, the Hungarian Revolution had taken place, leaving some Hungarian footballers refusing to return home following a match in Belgium. The self-exiled Hungarian players included Zoltan Czibor, Sander Kocsis and the best of all, Ferenc Puskas. These three players were part of the Mighty Magyars, the Hungarian team who narrowly missed out on a World Cup title in 1954.
Puskas was banned from football for two years for refusing to return to his home club. Upon his return, he was free to sign for whichever club he wished. With the Manchester United squad being ravaged and Jimmy Murphy picking up the pieces of the decimated team, Puskas had offered his services to the club; rumour has it Kocsis and Czibor had as well. However, several theories have circulated as to why the signing never happened. One being Jimmy Murphy felt that it was against the spirit of the club to sign big players over using the youth system. Another was although Puskas had offered to play for free, he would eventually need to be paid and it was felt the English football salary caps would make his demands impossible to meet. The final theory is the restrictions imposed by the FA on foreign players. Either way, it would have been great to see one of the best goal scorers of all time in Manchester red, helping to lift the team back to greatness.
History took a different turn, United kept with their youth set up to become the most successful English team of the era. Puskas ended up becoming a Real Madrid legend, partnering with Alfredo Di Stefano and dominating Spanish and European football for the remainder of his career.