Every club has at least one that got away. Considering that we touched upon Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s near move to Arsenal in last month’s whisper to watch, we’ve decided to take a look back at some of the biggest transfers in British football that nearly happened.
The free movement of workers between European Union countries means that work permit rules for footballers aren’t as tight as they used to be, and many players can move to the Premier League more easily.
Usually, a player has to be established if they come from outside the EU. It depends on their countries World FIFA ranking as well as their competitive appearances in the first team, and they’re only allowed to join if they can make “a significant contribution to the development of football in the United Kingdom at the highest level”.
It’s the bane of many Football Manager fans, but it makes sense to protect both players and the league from mediocre talent. (Especially when you consider that many of the players involved were teenagers at the time.)
So what about the ones that do get through?
Arsenal seem to have signed nearly everyone of note since Arsene Wenger became manager, and it’s fair enough given their history of blooding talent through the first team. The Gunners have an eye for future potential, and it’s amazing to think of the talent they’ve missed out on over the years.
As well as Ibrahimovic, there’s also Yaya Toure who nearly signed in 2003, which the manager claimed was up there with his biggest regrets. He doesn’t want to share any part of the blame for the breakdown of the deal;
“Let's not forget that Yaya Toure had an agreement with us [Arsenal] and it's not because we did not want to sign him that he went to Ukraine. We had to wait for his passport in Belgium. We have made mistakes [with players in the past], but this was not a mistake. He preferred to go to Donetsk because he could go there without a passport.”
Ibrahimovic and Toure are just the tip of the icing when it comes to the league, and permits and passports aren’t the only reason why deals have fallen through.
Blackburn Rovers are currently mid-table in the Championship, but their fate might have been different if they managed to complete the signing of Robert Lewandowski in 2010.
As it turns out, a freak ash cloud and financial worries stopped the striker from joining Sam Allardyce. They ended up signing Nikola Kalinic instead, and they were eventually relegated from the Premier League.
Lewandowski went on to score 74 goals in the next four seasons for Borussia Dortmund.
It’s almost as bad as the time they missed out on Zinedine Zidane in 1995, where the story goes that chairman Jack Walker said to manager Kenny Dalglish;
“Why would you want to sign Zinedine Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?”
At least they’re not the only ones to pass him up, as Newcastle were offered the former World Player of the Year the following season for £1.2m according to a former agent. They said he wasn’t good enough to play in the second tier, and passed up on one of the greatest players of his generation.
Instead, he went to Juventus three months later, and the rest is history.
It seems 1995 was a prime year for missing out on young talent, as Harry Redknapp allegedly had the opportunity to sign a young Andriy Shevchenko for West Ham. The striker came over from the Ukraine and scored in a reserve game against Barnet, but Redknapp decided against the £1m fee quoted by his former school friends, and he slipped away. Shevchenko says he never auditioned for West Ham, so who knows which of the two is telling the truth?
Scotland also have a number of deals that would have lit up the SPL, if only they had gone through. Diego Maradona nearly turned out for Dundee at the age of 40 for a friendly, but health problems put an end to any deal. Ronaldinho was also linked with a short loan move to St Mirren in 2001, but the deal was stopped due to legal problems arising from an issue with fake passports in his native country.
In more recent times, Steven Gerrard nearly signed for Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea incarnation in his pomp, but he also had a trial for Manchester United when he was just a youth. There was also interest from Man City and Everton before he signed his contract with Liverpool, showing that his status as a one club man in England wasn’t always set in stone.
Aston Villa had the chance to sign Radamel Falcao for £5m in 2008, but Martin O’Neill decided to plump for Emile Heskey. At least it’s not like they passed up on the opportunity to sign Roberto Carlos in 1995. (Of course they did.)
Former Villa chairman Doug Ellis said that he was close to bringing him to Villa Park;
“I was so impressed with Juninho and Roberto Carlos that I sounded out the Brazilian president about them and he expressed the view that Carlos could be available.” He [Carlos] said he was very impressed with the club and the facilities, and would be interested in joining us. Then it emerged the player would accept a contract with us, paid in American dollars, at a rate that was no higher than our highest-paid players of that time. Unfortunately, [manager] Brian Little was less enthusiastic than myself and thus we did not pursue the deal.”
They ended up missing out on one of the most iconic players of his generation, and it’s an all too familiar tale. It’s easy enough to assume that teams should have moved mountains to sign these players, but it’s understandable that they could have misgivings at the time.
Sometimes the most talented players lack the application needed to adapt to the Premier League, while relying on tried and tested performers has allowed many top flight teams to consolidate their position, before strengthening with overseas players in following years. Funding also tended to be a lot tighter in the past.
Wonderkids in the vein of Anthony Martial might be overpriced, but there’s still value for money to be found in youth teams and foreign squads if you look in the right places.
Harry Kane’s meteoric rise to the top of the scoring charts has shown that the next generation of talent is out there, and it’s likely that players are slipping through the grasp of clubs at this very moment.
He’s another player who could have played for the Gunners, having spent a year at Arsenal in 2001 before being released at the age of eight.