The most successful manager in the history of English football and the man who oversaw the greatest period of domination during the Premier League era, Sir Alex Ferguson coached some of the world’s finest footballers at Manchester United.
Ferguson’s dynasty in Manchester meant players across the world were often clambering for the opportunity to represent the club, but that didn’t stop a series of famous faces slipping through the Scots’ fingers when it came to star signings.
We’ve decided to look back at some of United’s transfer failures of the Ferguson era, here is the best XI of players that Sir Alex tried and failed to sign:
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech
Cech attracted the interest of Ferguson following some impressive performances in French football with Rennes, with the Manchester United manager revealing his scouting mission to watch the young Czech Republic international in 2003.
United had struggled to adequately fill their goalkeeping position since the departure of Peter Schmeichel four years earlier, a succession of goalkeeping additions having failed to convince at Old Trafford.
Despite watching Cech closely, Ferguson decided against signing the youngster amid concerns over his age and physicality – a decision he may have come to regret.
The following year Cech signed for divisional rivals Chelsea in a £7m deal, establishing himself as one of the greatest goalkeepers of the Premier League era and winning four league titles at Stamford Bridge.
He remains the all-time record holder for the most clean sheets in Premier League history over spells at both Chelsea and Arsenal.
Centre-back: John Terry
The thought of John Terry wearing a Manchester United shirt may seem the concept from a warped Premier League parallel universe, but had Ferguson had his way the Chelsea legend may have been adorning the club’s famed red shirts.
Ferguson attempted to sign a 14-year-old Terry having been impressed by the youngster’s talents in the West Ham youth system, inviting the defender to train alongside and feature for the United youth teams.
The teenage starlet instead decided a move to Stamford Bridge was the best route for his career, enjoying a 22-year legacy with the west London side and becoming one of the greatest players in Chelsea history.
Terry made over 700 appearances in all competitions for the club, becoming the Blues’ most successful ever captain with five league titles and the Champions League amongst his list of honours.
Centre-back: Raphael Varane
United may possess a pulling power few other sides can match, but the lure of Real Madrid is perhaps the strongest in world football – as Ferguson found out during his pursuit of promising defender Raphael Varane.
The Red Devils had held lengthy negotiations with Lens as they attempted to secure the signing of the highly-coveted youngster, but as a deal neared the club saw their plans scuppered by a late approach from Spain.
Speaking in his book, Ferguson said of the incident:
“In 2011, I hurtled down on the train from Euston to Lille to sign the young French defender Raphael Varane.
“David Gill was getting into the finer points of the contract with Lens, Varane’s club, when [Real Madrid ambassador] Zinedine Zidane got wind of this and somehow scooped him up for Real Madrid from under our noses.
“I don’t think Jose Mourinho, who was managing Real Madrid, had even seen Varane play.”
Varane has since gone on to establish himself as one of the finest defenders in world football, winning four Champions League titles during his time at the Bernabeu and forming part of the France side that was crowned world champions in 2018.
Centre-back: Paulo Maldini
This deal may not quite have got off the ground, but the former Manchester United manager made no secret of his admiration for the AC Milan stalwart throughout an illustrious career in Italian football.
The Scot, however, was was instantly rebuffed in his approaches to take the iconic defender away from the San Siro. Ferguson revealed the Maldini family’s long line of Milan heritage sadly made the move impossible, robbing the Premier League of the chance to witness one of the game’s greats on a weekly basis.
“I did try but, when I met his father (Cesare), he was quite formidable,” Ferguson said. “I got a shake of the head and that was all. He said ‘my grandfather is Milan, my father is Milan, I am Milan and my son is Milan… forget it!”
Maldini spent his entire career with the Rossoneri and made over 900 appearances, winning seven Serie A titles and five Champions League trophies.
Midfield: Paul Gascoigne
One of Ferguson’s most memorable transfer market near-misses, Gascoigne’s last minute U-turn on a move to Manchester United denied us the opportunity to see the finest English player of a generation working alongside arguably the greatest manager the game has seen.
The maverick midfielder had flourished at boyhood side Newcastle and soon emerged as a transfer target for the leading clubs in the country, with ‘Gazza’ giving his word to Ferguson that Old Trafford would be his next port of call.
“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.”
To Ferguson’s regret, however, a late approach from Tottenham swayed Gascoigne into heading to the capital in a British record deal, the north London side’s lavish promises reportedly including a house for the midfielder’s parents.
Gascoigne spent four seasons with Spurs and won the FA Cup in 1991, later enjoying successful spells at Lazio and Rangers before returning to English football.
Midfield: Zinedine Zidane
Blackburn Rovers’ decision not to pursue Zinedine Zidane due to the presence of Tim Sherwood remains a firm part of Premier League folklore, but the Lancashire side were not the only team interested in the Frenchman’s talents during the nineties.
Manchester United and Ferguson were well aware of the midfielder beginning to star at Bordeaux, though the manager’s loyalty to Eric Cantona prevented a deal taking place – despite Zidane being recommended by the forward himself.
Former chairman Martin Edwards explained the details of the failed deal in his autobiography, revealing Ferguson’s concerns over similarities between the two French superstars.
“When Zidane was at Bordeaux, Les Kershaw, the chief scout, was telling me we should be interested in him and I mentioned it to Alex,” he said.
“Alex said that Eric had also mentioned Zidane to him but Alex felt Zidane played in the same position as Eric.
“Having gone over to France to persuade Eric to re-sign for us, after the Crystal Palace incident [when Cantona was banned for eight months after clashing with a football fan at Selhurst Park in 1995], he felt that, if he had brought Zidane in, it may have affected Eric’s position, so he stuck with Eric.”
Zidane later established himself as the finest talent of a generation during spells at Juventus and Real Madrid, winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award on three occasions in addition to the Ballon d’Or.
How different things could have been had Manchester United won the race for Ronaldinho in 2003, the reigning Premier League champions coming agonisingly close to landing one of world football’s best emerging talents from Paris Saint-Germain.
The Brazilian had helped his home country to World Cup success the previous summer and found himself centre of transfer tug-of-war between two of Europe’s elite, with Ronaldinho revealing a move to United was as little as 48 hours away before instead choosing to join Barcelona.
The samba star was on the verge of signing at Old Trafford as a replacement for the Real Madrid-bound David Beckham, only to head to Catalonia after Sandro Rosell’s election as club president. Ferguson blamed the failure to secure his signing on chief executive Peter Kenyon – who headed to Chelsea just weeks later.
Ronaldinho established himself as the best player in world football during a breathtaking five-year spell at the Camp Nou, winning the Ballon d’Or and back-to-back FIFA World Player of the Year awards in addition to lifting the Champions League in 2006.
Right-wing: Arjen Robben
Rewind to the early period of Chelsea’s new dawn under Roman Abramovich and the club became embroiled in several transfer tussles with Ferguson’s United – a fact largely down to the move of chief executive Peter Kenyon from Old Trafford to Stamford Bridge.
Wary of the newly-formed threat from west London, United had identified flying winger Robben as a player who could add to their attacking options and a deal for the youngster seemed all but sealed following a tour of the club’s facilities.
Kenyon, however, had other ideas, persuading the PSV Eindhoven star that his future was with Chelsea and Robben completed a move to Jose Mourinho’s side – winning back-to-back league titles before departing for Real Madrid.
After two seasons in Spain, Robben enjoyed the best period of his career during a decade at Bayern Munich, establishing himself as one of the finest wingers in world football and winning eight Bundesliga titles.
Left-wing: Gareth Bale
United were amongst a host of the Premier League’s leading clubs monitoring the developments of a young Gareth Bale, the teenager the latest bright prospect to emerge from Southampton’s successful academy system.
Ferguson had expressed an interest in bringing the Welshman to Old Trafford but even he could not have foreseen the evolution Bale would undertake, developing from a promising full-back into one of the best attacking talents in world football.
Tottenham were the beneficiaries of a gamble on Bale’s talents, Ferguson having baulked at the £5m plus add-ons deal that took the teenager to White Hart Lane.
Six seasons and two PFA Player of the Year awards later, Bale became the most expensive player in football history by signing for Real Madrid, winning four Champions League titles since his arrival at the Bernabeu.
Forward: Alan Shearer
The greatest goalscorer in the history of the Premier League, Alan Shearer insists he maintains no career regrets despite missing out on a wealth of silverware following two failed moves to join Manchester United.
Ferguson first came in for the prolific forward following his impressive emergence at Southampton, only for the club to stall over the conclusion of a British-record deal to allow Blackburn to seal his signing.
Shearer won three consecutive Golden Boots and the Premier League title during a goal-laden spell at Ewood Park, but in the summer of 1996 was once again on the move.
The forward had starred for England at that summer’s home European Championships and a world-record move to join the country’s biggest club was muted, only for boyhood side Newcastle to swoop in and persuade Shearer to return to his native North East.
Shearer later became the greatest goalscorer in the history of both Newcastle and the Premier League, though it is difficult not to envisage the success he may have had leading the line during a dominant era at Old Trafford.
Regarded by many as the finest out-and-out number nine the game has ever seen, Premier League fans missed out on the opportunity to witness Ronaldo’s talents first hand as United were denied the opportunity to sign the Brazilian youngster.
The teenager had made a huge impression during a prolific emergence at Cruzeiro, with Ferguson revealing his interest in bringing the star to English football in 1994.
“We wanted to sign the Brazilian striker from Cruzeiro in 1994, but we could not get a work permit and he went to PSV Eindhoven.”
Ronaldo made a stunning impression upon his arrival in Europe and represented some of the world’s biggest clubs, scoring prolifically during spells at PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid.
The forward twice became the most expensive player in football history before his 21st birthday, winning the FIFA World Player of the Year award on three occasions and the Ballon d’Or twice.
The second-highest goalscorer – after Pele – in the history of the Brazilian national team, he won the Golden Boot as the South Americans won the 2002 World Cup.