Tribalism is very much prevalent in football with supporters always keen to express their allegiances and place huge importance on togetherness, unity and – above all – loyalty.
The concept of any player leaving their club for a rival side is unthinkable in the eyes of most fans, but throughout the Premier League’s history we’ve seen several examples of stars departing for direct competitors or hated city neighbours.
Such departures often leave a sour taste, one that only worsens still when said player enjoys great success in the colours of bitter rivals.
Here are five times Premier League teams regretted letting players join rival clubs:
Perhaps the most iconic instance of a player changing allegiances and sparking huge success, Eric Cantona’s move from Leeds to Manchester United is one that changed the course of English football history.
Cantona had arrived at Elland Road following a colourful and controversial career in French football, signing in January 1992 and helping Leeds to be crowned as champions in the final pre-Premier League season.
Leeds had pipped Manchester United to the title and were amongst the favourites to retain their title during the Premier League’s inaugural season, with Cantona starting the season brightly by scoring a hat-trick in the Charity Shield and netting the first ever treble in the rebranded top flight.
Relations soon deteriorated between the talented but temperamental Frenchman and manager Howard Wilkinson, however, and following a chance enquiry from Leeds regarding Denis Irwin, the topic of Cantona heading to in the opposite direction surfaced.
Surprisingly Leeds were willing to do business with their fierce northern rivals and Cantona signed for a Manchester United side sitting a lowly eighth following a disappointing start to the campaign.
The rest is history.
Cantona proved the catalyst behind a second-half of the season resurgence as the Red Devils ended a 26-year wait to be crowned as champions of England, his cock-sure and charismatic style making him an instant hero on the terraces.
Cantona was the perfect player at the perfect time for Sir Alex Ferguson and his side, proving an inspirational figure as United dominated the early years of the Premier League – winning four titles in just five seasons and winning the PFA Player of the Year award in 1993/94 and the FWA Footballer of the Year two years later.
Having not quite fitted at Leeds he found a home in Manchester, leaving the club as one of their greatest ever players and as arguably the most transformative signing in Premier League history.
Manchester United had dominated the early seasons of the Premier League but found themselves under a new challenge from a resurgent Newcastle in the early nineties, Kevin Keegan’s side having won promotion to the top tier before finishing third in their maiden PL campaign.
Newcastle’s success had been fired by the prolific goalscoring exploits of Andy Cole who, after failing to make the grade at Arsenal, had starred since arriving at St James’ Park via Bristol City.
Cole’s first season in the Premier League saw him score 34 goals in addition to providing 13 assists, leading the league for both metrics to win the Golden Boot and PFA Young Player of the Year award.
The forward was the inspirational figurehead of a Newcastle side who threatened to challenge United’s supremacy, only for the Magpies to inexplicably sanction his sale to the team they were attempting to catch.
United bid a British transfer-record of £7m (£6m plus Keith Gillespie) in January 1995 and it was an offer Newcastle accepted, Cole heading to Manchester to join the Premier League’s dominant force.
He ended his debut campaign with a Premier League winners’ medal, before adding a further four league titles and the Champions League to a wealth of major honours accrued at Old Trafford.
Newcastle reinvested the fee into the signing of Les Ferdinand and whilst the star shone for the Magpies, successive runners-up finishes in 1996 and 1997 were as close as the club came to ending their long wait for major silverware.
Ashley Cole had come through the academy ranks at Arsenal and enjoyed great success with the north London outfit, winning two league titles and forming part of the Gunners’ famed ‘Invincibles’ side that completed an entire Premier League campaign unbeaten in 2003/04.
Just two years after that triumph and he would find himself at the centre of a controversial move, with London rivals Chelsea – catapulted into the elite by Roman Abramovich’s billionaire takeover three years earlier – making their move to sign the England international.
It was a deal that saw Chelsea fined for tapping up the left-back and Cole branded a mercenary by the Gunners’ supporters, though one that was completed with the star heading to Stamford Bridge for cash plus William Gallas.
Having been tipped to become an Arsenal legend after coming through the ranks and starring for the senior side, Cole was instead adjudged a traitor but one whose move signified the contrasting directions the two London rivals were heading.
Cole further enhanced his reputation as arguably the Premier League’s greatest ever left-back during a glittering career across the capital, winning almost every major honour available including lifting the Champions League in 2012.
Arsenal would not win another major trophy for eight years and have failed to win the title since Cole formed part of that triumphant side some 17 years ago.
Another transfer that perhaps symbolised a shifting of the power within a bitter city rivalry, Carlos Tevez did the unthinkable when leaving Manchester United to sign for billionaire-backed Manchester City.
Tevez had spent two seasons with the Red Devils and won back-to-back league titles with the club, forming part of a formidable forward line alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and winning the Champions League under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2008.
The arrival of Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham the following season had reduced his minutes, however, and Tevez opted to leave and join City’s ambitious project with their gleeful fans unveiling the now iconic ‘Welcome to Manchester’ billboard.
Ferguson famously branded City ‘a small club, with a small mentality’ amid the fanfare, though the Scot will no doubt have been wary of the threat posed by an emerging side with Tevez as their spearhead.
The Argentine scored 52 goals across his first two seasons and helped City to a first major trophy in 35 years by winning the FA Cup in 2011, before forming part of the team that pipped United to the title in dramatic circumstances the following season.
— City Xtra (@City_Xtra) July 13, 2020
Tevez – returning from a self-imposed absence after falling out with manager Roberto Mancini – scored four goals during the run-in as City finished with six consecutive victories, coming from behind to snatch the title on goal difference following an unforgettable final day.
He later controversially celebrated on the club’s title parade by holding up a poster emblazoned ‘R.I.P Fergie’.
Robin van Persie
The aforementioned success of Manchester City had prompted Manchester United into action during the summer transfer window in 2012, with Sir Alex Ferguson keen to secure a marquee addition to help wrestle the Premier League back from their city rivals.
Ferguson’s search saw him make a move for Arsenal captain Robin van Persie, who had just been named as the PFA Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year after scoring 30 league goals to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot.
Arsenal and Manchester United had shared the Premier League’s most iconic rivalry over the turn of the millennium but with the Gunners’ fortunes having faltered, the Red Devils seized the chance to sign a forward who had just a year remaining on his contract at the Emirates.
It was a deal that symbolised how far Arsenal had fallen from their glory years under Arsene Wenger with Van Persie joining the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in departing in recent seasons, finding himself a platform to fulfil his silverware ambitions at Old Trafford.
🗣️ Robin van Persie: "My departure from Arsenal to Manchester United is still a sensitive topic in England. But I wanted to win, I just wanted to win."
— The Sportsman (@TheSportsman) December 10, 2020
The sale weakened Arsenal whilst simultaneously strengthening one of their great rivals and Van Persie was sensational during his debut campaign with the Red Devils, scoring 26 league goals to win a second successive Golden Boot and secure United’s record-extending 20th top-flight league title.
He scored 58 goals in just 105 appearances across three seasons before departing for Fenerbahce as a huge fans’ favourite.
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