|The greatest player of his generation very nearly plied his trade at Ewood Park|
The next four weeks are probably the most exciting, and yet the most ridiculous four weeks of the entire season. 'The January transfer window' has become the silly season for football teams. With unhappy players pining for moves. And clubs inflating prices beyond comprehension. The BBC's Transfer Gossip Column will become the go-to place for all fans: whether it be for the well-sourced, likely-to-happen stories (Beckham to Tottenham), or for the 'my uncle's mate just saw Ribery's agent at Hull airport' type of stories. So here at Get the Mott and Buckett, we have decided to look at the transfers that have gone down in folklore that, if they had happened, would have changed the footballing landscape forever.
Zinedine Zidane (Bordeaux to Blackburn Rovers, 1995)
Before 1994, Zinedine Yazid Zidane had been a virtual unknown outside of France. Moving from Cannes to Bordeaux in 1992, his form had been pretty unremarkable. Scoring the odd goal, but showing only a glimpse of his creative genius; he was, frankly, rather lucky to earn a national team call-up. But his debut for Les Bleus was where he introduced himself to the world. And Kenny Dalglish.
Coming on as a substitute, with France 2-0 down to Czech Republic, he scored two magnificent individual efforts, and earned France an entirely undeserved point. Watching that night was Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish. Having just won the Premiership title the previous season, Rovers were looking to sign a world-class midfielder to add to their ranks, and Zidane, at only 23, seemed the ideal candidate. Unfortunately, Jack Warner, Blackburn's chairman and the original football sugar-daddy, had other ideas. And, in a private chat with Dalglish the next day, utter the immortal words: "What do you want to sign Zidane for? We've got Tim Sherwood". Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Diego Maradona (Argentinos Juniors to Sheffield United, 1978)
Perhaps the ultimate 'what if?' transfer. Back in 1978 a 17-year-old Diego Maradona had been lighting up the Argentinian Premera Division with some mesmeric performances. Such was his form, that it was actually a huge surprise in Argentina when he wasn't selected in their '78 World Cup squad.
Whilst all those in Argentina knew how good this young prodigy was, the rest of the world was seemingly oblivious, and it wasn't until four years later in 1982 that Maradona would actually complete a move to Europe. But, beating everyone in spotting this once-in-a-lifetime-talent was Sheffield United's manager Harry Haslam. Haslam was renowned as a wheeler-dealer, and had a huge metaphorical finger in the South American pie. Spotting Maradona and team-mate Alex Sabella whilst on a scouting mission, Haslam agreed a £200,000 fee with Argentinos for Maradona, but the Blades stalled on the deal, claiming it didn't represent value for money. Instead, they opted to pay £160,000 for Sabella. Who? Well, exactly.
Ronaldinho (Gremio to St Mirren, 2001)
I know it looks like I'm just making this up, but this transfer was literally just one unsent fax away from happening. In the summer of 2001, Ronaldinho had already lined up a move to Paris St-Germain, but was looking for a short 6-month loan deal to acclimatise himself to European football. How playing at Tannadice and Tynecastle was preparing the buck-toothed winger for trips to Marseille and Monaco was never made clear, but the player himself had been persuaded to swap the Samba for the Scottish Highlands.
As Tom Hendrie, the then St Mirren manager tells it, it was only sluggishness on part of the Brazilian FA that meant the move never happened. "He has been playing with Gremio, but he was willing to come and play for us before going on to PSG. We spoke about Ronaldinho but there was a legal problem at the club he was at. Because of the problem, the Brazilian FA would not release the player's international clearance in time for us to register him ahead of the deadline". And thus, Ronaldinho's move to St Mirren goes down as the pinnacle of 'if only' signings.
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool to Chelsea, 2005)
It's amazing how the transfer merry-go-round works. Like a twisted property chain: if one move breaks down, so do the rest. If Patrick Vieira had of moved to Real Madrid - as was reported - in the summer of 2004, Michael Carrick would almost certianly have been an Arsenal player. As it happened, the move broke down, and Carrick ended up on the other side of north London. Or Gareth Barry's move to Liverpool two seasons ago. A deal was reportedly done between Aston Villa and the Reds, but Benitez's failure to off-load Xabi Alonso meant Barry's transfer couldn't be subsidised.
It's an awful feeling when you don't get the one thing you'd set your heart on, yet sometimes the second option turns out to be the best: just as Chelsea found out in 2005. Whether Steven Gerrard turned down his 'nailed on' move to Chelsea out of blind loyalty or something rather more sinister (Liverpool fans sent death threats to Gerrard and his family), we'll never know. But as a result Chelsea bought one of their most influential players: Michael Essien.
Alfredo Di Stefano (Millonarios/River Plate to Barcelona, 1953)
As Diego Maradona says himself: 'Pele was good. I was great. But Di Stefano was the greatest'. An absolute phenomenon in Spain. He has, over the years, become synonymous with the great Real Madrid sides of the 50's and 60's, and is widely regarded as their greatest ever player. He was the key player in the Madrid side that won five straight European Cups and, in his 11 year stint at the club, won nine La Liga trophies. And yet, after all the trophies and all the goals, he could, and probably should, have been a Barcelona player.
After a players' strike in his home country of Argentina, Di Stefano, along with many other players, moved to the rebel league set up in Colombia. Numerous, yet unofficial league titles followed, and in the summer of '53 a move to Barcelona was quickly completed. However, because the Colombian league was a rebel one, it wasn't officially recognised by FIFA. And so began an unbelievably complicated wrangle over who owned Di Stefano. Was it Millonarios? Or was it Di Stefano's parent club River Plate? Whilst Barcelona were meeting with FIFA to try and strike a deal for the player, Real Madrid's president Santiago Bernabeu secretly met with the Argentinian and convinced him to sign for them instead.
A huge row erupted between the two clubs. Eventually the Spanish FA intervened, and allowed Di Stefano four seasons in Spain, two with Real and two with Barca.The Barcelona hierarchy were so incensed by the decision that five board members resigned, and they allowed Di Stefano to play for Madrid for good. And so began what is now called El Clasico.
Matt Le Tissier (Southampton to Tottenham, 1990)
What would have happened if Matt Le Tissier had joined a big club? A Spurs fan as a kid, in 1990 he signed a contract to join Tottenham before changing his mind and ripping it up with the permission of the then Tottenham chairman Irving Scholar. Later there would be constant links with AC Milan - which would have been too exciting to comprehend - and Chelsea. But the ultimate one-club-man found the lure of the south coast too strong.
Some will always deride him as a big fish who could only handle the smallest of ponds. But the man who Xavi Hernandez describes as 'his inspiration' is the sort of player that the big-money of the Premier League has killed off: a loyal one. However you see him, it's ironic to note that the two managers who tried to sign him for Tottenham and Chelsea - Terry Veneables and Glenn Hoddle - were also the ones who ostracised him when managing England. Alanis Morrisette could have a field day with that one.
Johan Cruyff (Unattached to Leicester City, 1981)
The fourth best player in the history of the game had had enough. The North American Soccer League (NASL) just wasn't doing it for him. Washington was not the place for the Cruyff family. But weirdly, Leicester almost was. Having bought himself out of his contract with the Washington Wizards, Cruyff was looking for a club that would guarantee him good money and the opportunity to get back in to the Dutch squad for the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Sitting bottom of the First Division, Leicester were struggling. Their young, fit squad had all the attributes, but not necessarily the quality. They needed an experienced player who could unlock a defence in an instant. And luckily, Jock Wallace, Leicester's manager, knew exactly who that player was.
Johan Cruyff had been living the footballing high-life for over a decade, and any club that wanted his undoubted talents would have to dig deep. With many top clubs in financial dire-straits, the Foxes were one of very few clubs who were willing to take the economic and personal risk on the Ajax legend (Cruyff was prone to causing huge upset wherever he played).
And so, on Monday 23rd February 1981, Leicester City proposed an offer of £4,000 a game to the Dutchman; a preposterous amount in 1980's football. With the club confident the deal had been secured, the press seized on the story, and one newspaper from the time released this story:
'Johan Cruyff is today set for a sensational move to First Division strugglers Leicester City.
The Dutch Master has lined up a deal worth £4,000 a game for 11 matches – and if everything works out, he will make his debut against reigning European Champions Nottingham Forest on Saturday.
Last night jubilant Leicester boss Jock Wallace insisted: “Johan and I have already agreed terms. He has one or two problems to sort out, but I am very hopeful he will join us on Thursday.”
Cruyff is considering the move for two reasons. He must play competitive football to make his international comeback for Holland, and he wants to try out the English First Division before deciding on a one-year contract with Arsenal next season.
The one barrier to Leicester’s transfer scoop lies with Spanish Second Division side Levante, who could make a late final bid."
Because Levante have wasted so much time Cruyff looks like he may plump for England, though by doing so he would lose £75,000 on any agreement with the Spanish club.
He told me: “I still like the idea of Spain, because the climate suits me and my family.”
“But I cannot wait any longer for Levante. I want a guarantee from them and we have been negotiating for a month but every day they tell me a new story.”However, by the time this story had been printed, Cruyff had already arrived at Valencia airport. An eleventh hour bid from Levante - including a quarter of all gate receipts for Cruyff - meant he plumped for eastern Spain, rather than the East Midlands.
A tonic for the distraught Jock Wallace was that Cruyff was a disaster at Levante. Despite getting the manager sacked, and having his own man employed, he was an unmitigated failure; being booed off in his final game for the club. Still, Jordi Cruyff got to play in England, so it's not all bad.