Sacrilege! But perhaps not all that fanciful, had things gone according to script. Despite the allure of Alex Ferguson's United, with nearly two decades of domestic dominance and European glory under his stewardship, signing first choice transfer targets hasn't always gone smoothly. Some extremely gifted and talented players have come tantalising close to signing for the reds, yet the move fail to transpire. It's an odd notion, looking back wondering what might have been - frankly it's difficult to wish for much better during this perch toppling period of our history - but it's certainly a fascinating one.
John Barnes trotting out at Anfield in a United shirt; Zinedine Zidane sharing midfield duties with our own ginger genius; Arjen Robben keeping Louis Saha amused and in good company on the treatment table... who knows how things might have turned out with a few minor twists of fate. One thing's for sure - it's usually the players in question who end up regretting their missed opportunity, rather than Ferguson and United supporters. The failure to land one man has more than once turned out to be a spectacular blessing in disguise for the club. So, without any further ado, I present what I consider to be the five most significant 'ones that got away' under Sir Alex Ferguson's management.
Paul Gascoigne, Newcastle United, 1988
Gazza. Ferguson cites the failure of this coup, to sign the then hottest prospect in English football, as the biggest disappointment of his career. How we could have done with him at the time too. Prospects were relatively bright, having finished 2nd in the table to Liverpool the season previous, a marked improvement on recent years. Reigning English PFA Young Player of the Year, Gascoigne was no longer happy at Newcastle, the team he'd made his name at, and was looking to move on. The story goes Ferguson had convinced the player to sign for us, and had been assured by Gascoigne that he could relax and enjoy his planned Maltese summer holiday, safe in the knowledge the deal to be signed and sealed on his return. Obviously, that never happened. Allegedly enticed by the promise of a brand new house for his parents, Gascoigne signed for Tottenham instead. The rest is (mostly tabloid) history.
Ferguson has previously stated his belief that under his tutorledge, and with the strong Geordie presence already at the club in the shape of Robson, Bruce and Pallister, Gascoigne's off field exploits could have been reigned in. Arguably the rot had already set in by that point, but for what its worth the player himself agrees and looks back on the missed opportunity with regret. As for United, this is one of the few incidences where failure to land his man worked out badly for Ferguson. United broke their club record acquisition fee to bring back Mark Hughes from Bayern Munich, but the season was a failure, United finishing a disappointing 11th. The next season was even worse, and the knives were out. Fergie survived with FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup success, but it would be five years after that failure to land Gascoigne that United finally captured the Title.
David Hirst, Sheffield Wednesday, 1992
Supposedly, capturing Hirst was something of an obsession for Ferguson, trying and failing on more than one occasion to land the Yorkshire born striker. No doubt many of you reading this won't have a clue who the hell I'm talking about. Perhaps not surprising. A handy striker in his day, Hirst was capped three times for his country, alas representing Sheffield Wednesday proved the pinnacle of his footballing career. Trevor Francis, his manager of the time, valued him highly though, and refused to sanction talks with United. In these pre Bosman times, power had yet to swing the way of the player as we see it today, so ultimately the Hirst chase was a hiding to nothing. Instead Ferguson turned to young second division Cambridge United striker Dion Dublin, but an unfortunate early season leg break at Crystal Palace meant United were still lacking up front.
November. Howard Wilkinson has good taste in full backs, and contacts United as to the availability of Denis Irwin. Not for sale. The phone call ends. United have a strong season, but bottle it late in a repeat of the previous seasons fortunes, and Aston Villa become inaugural Premier League champions... possibly. Thankfully this alternate history never occurred. The phone call didn't end there, an opportunist Ferguson showed interest in taking Leeds forward Eric Cantona to Old Trafford. Wilkinson sanctioned the £1.2million deal, and the Frenchman proved the catalyst to United ending 26 years of hurt. The deal appears almost ludicrous in hindsight, but Wilkinson had his reasons - citing a sour relationship with the mercurial Frenchman, who'd arrived in England with a reputation for being unmanageable. Rumours Eric was shagging fellow striker Lee Chapman's missus, Leslie Ash, are supposedly unfounded.
Alan Shearer, Blackburn Rovers, 1996
Ferguson had first moved to capture Shearer during his Southampton days, but the opportunity to creosote fences in Blackburn was too strong a lure for the Geordie, and he accepted Jack Walkers millions instead. Four years of outstanding personal success later - thrice breaking the 30 goal mark in the Premier League, lifting the title pipping United on the final day of the 94/95 season, and the nearly-glory of Euro 96 - Shearer was back on the market. Ferguson again moved to sign the player, and admits extended talks occurred. Gascoigne may have proved the biggest disappointment for Ferguson, but Shearer was the one he really wanted. All the talk at the time was of how United would become 'invincible' with Shearer in the ranks. Not just from optimistic United supporters either. The best striker in the country joining the best side in the country. It seemed the perfect match.
A world record £15million bid later, Shearer had returned to his boyhood club. A fairytale perhaps, but a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of United in the Charity Shield on debut set things into early perspective. How did Ferguson react to the snub? A masterstroke. The baby faced assassin, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, joined from Norwegian outfit Molde for a reported £1.5million fee, and his impact was unexpectedly instant. A goal on debut against Blackburn Rovers was followed by 17 further strikes, helping catapult United to Premier League glory for 4th time during the Ferguson's era. The defining moment of this episode of course is Barcelona 1999. Shearer's season was a wash, just 14 league goals, Newcastle finishing 13th in the table. Solksjaer's was a triumph, cleaning up the silverware and immortalising his United legend with a final minute winner against Munich.
Patrick Kluivert, AC Milan, 1998
Kluivert was a phenomenal young player. A European Champion by the age of 18, he'd already had his 'Solksjaer moment', scoring a late winner as substitute against AC Milan in the final. But he also had his off field baggage. Driving at twice the speed limit in an uninsured vehicle, Kluivert crashed and killed passenger Martin Putnam, a Dutch theatre director. The player escaped with community service and an 18 month driving ban, and eventually fled his home country on a free transfer Bosman to Milan. The move wasn't a success, and by the summer of '98, he was ready to move on again, with no lack of potential suitors. Ferguson made clear his interest, and a surprisingly public courtship entailed. Even at the time of the muted transfer, Kluivert was facing alleged rape accusations, later quashed due to insufficient evidence. The player admitted sexual relations with the woman in question, but claimed the liaison was consensual.
"Maybe he doesn't know how big Manchester United is" fumed Ferguson, as Kluivert opted for a move to Barcelona instead, joining Louis Van Gaal's Dutch revolution at the Catalan giants. He wasn't the only angry manager that summer though. "If I'd had a gun I could have shot him" mused Aston Villa's manager John Gregory, on the moment Dwight Yorke informed him of his wish to move to United. Thankfully this isn't America, and Yorke safely arrived at Old Trafford to form an immediate, nigh telepathic understanding with Andy Cole. Come the end of that season, Yorke was smoking his fat Cuban cigar as a treble winner. As for Kluivert, he endured mixed fortunes at Barcelona. Despite a goal every other game record, he won a solitary title during his six year spell there, and he later left to stuff his face and share hard luck stories with Alan Shearer on Tyneside.
Ronaldinho, PSG, 2003
Peter Kenyon's finest moment. Too ugly for Madrid, Ronaldinho was the hottest prospect in World football, and his destination looked to be either Barcelona or Manchester. It's reported that United actually struck a deal for the player, outbidding what Barcelona were prepared to offer. Yet when the formal offer was faxed from Old Trafford, it was less than the negotiated price. Francis Graille, the insulted PSG chief, sanctioned the players move to Barcelona instead. Kenyon, reputation sullied, moved on to Chelsea in a lucrative personal deal a few months later. While Ferguson endured a relatively miserable few years as Arsenal and Chelsea took the title, Ronaldinho was a smash at Barca, living up to his potential capturing back to back Liga titles, and achieving Champions League glory.
Had this article been written in 2006, it may have had a very different outlook on this particular transfer episode. That's because, the same summer, United signed Cristiano Ronaldo. And after three promising seasons developing at the club, he was about to go stratospheric. Ronaldinho's own career was in decline, a reluctance to train and a penchant for the good life saw his on field prowess wane. Ferguson seemingly had lost the short term battle on this occasion, but won the long term war. United win three titles on the trot, and reach back to back Champions League finals; glory in Moscow, misery in Rome. Cristiano leaves for a staggering record breaking transfer of £80million to join the Madrid revolution, and Ferguson sets about building yet another United side capable of challenging for top honours. Missing out on his first choice target Karim Benzema, Ferguson confounds everyone and signs Michael Owen on a free transfer. Perhaps its all just a little bit of history repeating...