Life is a game of fine margins. A cohabitation in which certain minor swings of the scale of chance yield cataclysmic repercussions. In essence, small stones falling from a cliff trigger an avalanche.
In football the burning hatred for the opposition by which fandom is oft defined is an altogether unstable emoticon. If the dye had set slightly differently, if chance had played his hand in a contrary style, the reality would have reversed.
The catalyst for our emotions, hatred, love, loathing and adulation is the shirt. Nothing more nothing less. Yet the shirt is a façade, a unifier of the patronage, but one that can be changed hands at the idle whim or casual transfer request of a spoilt pre-Madonna.
Hated rivals can become treasured heroes just as the club’s talisman can turn into a despised pariah. Rarely does emotion transcend the barriers of the shirt.
With that in mind I thought it might be interesting to look at individuals for whom fate nearly contrived a different path. The men who nearly became part of Manchester United during the Sir Alex Ferguson era:
And what a roll call it is…
Quite rightly Alan Shearer’s legacy is as synonymous to Newcastle United as the black and white stripes that adorn the club’s shirt.
Yet it was not once but twice that Alex Ferguson was presented with the opportunity to sign the BBC pundit.
Both times in unprecedented scenes, Shearer chose to snub Fergie’s overtures. First he was signed to Blackburn’s books from Southampton in 1992 for a then-British record £3.6 million and then, four years later, as he again rejected United in favour of boyhood club Newcastle in a world-record £15 million deal.
In the prelude to Manchester United’s Champions League semifinal tie against German club Schalke last season, Sir Alex Ferguson unexpectedly revealed that Schalke’s legendary striker Raul was almost a United player that summer.
The Spanish hit-man, who carved his legacy amongst the galacticos of Madrid, was out of contract at the Bernebeu back in summer 2010, and chose to seek his fortune in different climbs.
Ferguson revealed that United held preliminary discussions with Raul’s agent, but Michael Owen’s presence at the club eventually ruled out a deal.
“We do prefer to sign young players as a rule,” Ferguson stated, “but when you get an opportunity to sign experience like that, you’ve got to take a look at it.”
In the event Raul failed to register in the two-legged tie, and Fergie’s blushes were saved.
Alex Ferguson has gone on record as saying that his failure to land Gascoigne back in 1988 was the single biggest regret of his career.
At that time the 21-year-old Gascoigne had been earmarked as the brightest prospect of his generation and across the land salivating clubs—including United—were tussling for his signature.
Whilst a player at Newcastle, Gascoigne spoke to Ferguson to convince him that he would sign for United, the day before the Old Trafford boss jetted off on holiday.
“We spoke to him the night before I went on holiday,” Ferguson said. “He said to me go and enjoy yourself Mr Ferguson, I’ll be signing for Manchester United.”
Yet in a cruel twist of fate, a late move from Tottenham Hotspur that included a promise made by the club to buy a house for Gascoigne’s family in the North East left United, and a suitably bronzed Ferguson, to rue their loss.
With money to burn, Ferguson set his stall out to land the samba king from French Ligue 1 side PSG. So confident were French officials that United would be Ronnie’s destination that they claimed to be “99.9 percent certain he would leave for Manchester.”
However, then-chief Peter Kenyon somehow contrived to lose a bidding war for the Brazilian’s services with Catalan side FC Barcelona—who had, rather ironically, lost out themselves when Beckham left for Real Madrid.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United could only watch in awe, as Ronaldinho taught the world what was possible with a spherical ball on his way to two World Player of the Year awards whilst in Spain.
Back in the day the young Welshman was a different entity from the ferocious Gareth Bale that so torments Premiership defences today. For one he was a left-back, and for second, he was nowhere near as good.
I wonder whether Alex Ferguson could have envisaged just how good Bale would go on to become after a rocky start to his Tottenham tenure.
In the event Spurs’ offer of £5 million plus add-ons was baulked at by Sir Alex. Imagine if you could get Gareth Bale for £5 million now…
This is another deal that passed by the wayside that United fans can trace back to ex-chairman Kenyon.
Coming into the 2003/04 season, United, wary of the threat of a buoyant Chelsea, after the club's takeover by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, were attempting to plug the flaws in their side.
With the recently acquired Cristiano Ronaldo yet to find his feet in the Premiership, the wing was noted as an obvious malaise and Dutchman Robben cited as the remedy.
The deal was nigh on done, with Robben having completed a stadium tour of Old Trafford ahead of his seemingly impending move to United.
However, following Kenyon’s move to Chelsea, the ex-chairman compounded United’s woes by putting the kibosh on Robben’s United deal and convincing the flying winger to join the Stamford Bridge club instead.
United fans love Peter Kenyon…
In scenes somewhat reminiscent of United’s captures of the da Silva twins back in 2007, according to the man himself, Sir Alex Ferguson also tried to sign Kaka and his brother Digao whilst they were youth prospects in Milan.
However, in the first of two rejections to Manchester (precluded by City’s failed bid for the star back in 2009), Kaka and Digao reaffirmed their desire to stay in the Italian capital.
“Once he wanted to sign me and my brother whilst we were at Milan,” Kaka said about Ferguson, “but we chose to stay.”
In contrasting scenes, as Kaka has gone on to cement his position amongst the eminent footballers of his generation, whilst still at Milan, defender Digao is yet to stake a regular first-team berth.
You win some, you lose some…
When Micheal Essien burst onto the English scene back in 2005 as a marauding midfielder, it was hard to stomach that he could actually have been a United player eight years earlier. Yet a failure to secure a work permit, United, although enamoured by the young Essien’s potential, were unable to offer him a deal.
From there he was signed to FC Bastia in France before moving to Lyon and eventually Chelsea for £25 million.
In his time in England Essien has helped Chelsea to three Premiership crowns, the club’s first since the 1955/56 English League Division 1 title.
The case of Mikel is undoubtedly the most convoluted failed transfer in this list.
Back in April 2005, a few days after Obi turned 18, Manchester United announced the signature of the young Nigerian from his Norwegian side FC Lyn Oslo. A fact that was reaffirmed by Lyn.
Chelsea too laid claim to Obi’s signature, but Lyn denied this link.
The saga ran for a while longer with claim and counter claim laid down by the competing clubs. Mikel himself even expressed his delight at joining United in a last-minute press conference.
However, the move was eventually nullified in a private settlements between the clubs and Mikel joined Chelsea, later claiming that he was forced to sign for United by his former club and agents.
The greatest club dynasty of all time was very nearly moulded at the bitter North London rivals, according to Fergie himself.
Interested, Ferguson asked Arsenal to delay their decision until his participation in Scotland’s World Cup campaign had reached an end and also asking for then-Scotland boss Walter Smith to be named his assistant.
However, following Smith’s revelation that he had agreed to take the reigns at Ibrox after the culmination of the tournament coincided with Arsenal’s reticence to have their offer delayed, talks broke down and Ferguson went on to sign for United a few months later.