The 20-time English champions have made some amazing signings over the years, but they have not been without their bloopers in the market either
Some of the signings made by Manchester United over the course of the last 30 years have changed the football world as we know it. But for every Cantona there is a Kleberson.
Louis van Gaal and David Moyes received criticism for their various failures in the market, but Sir Alex Ferguson racked a fair few up in his 27 seasons too and he was far from the first United boss to be made to look a bit silly.
Perhaps a club as successful as United is there to be shot at more than most, so poor signings are remembered with some fondness by rival fans. But there has been plenty of ammunition offered up over the years in that regard.
Below, Goal goes through the 15 worst signings that the Reds have ever made…
BEBE | From Vitoria Guimaraes | £7.4m (€9m) | 2010
Bebe’s arrival at Manchester United was a real curiosity from the start, coming barely a year after he had been playing at the Homeless World Cup. It was also a point of note that his Old Trafford move had come days after a change in agents, with his new partners Gestifute having worked closely with United before.
What followed was an unmitigated disaster. Bebe never made a Premier League start for the club so obvious was his lack in quality, and he tallied only seven appearances in total before being sent on various loans over the following three seasons.
United eventually got him off the books in 2014 ahead of two failed seasons with Benfica, and Bebe later admitted he hadn’t wanted to be a footballer when he was younger. “I had eight years in an orphanage. There, I did not like football but my friends always wanted to play and I had no choice but to join in.”
GARRY BIRTLES | From N.Forest | £1.25m (€2.2m) | 1980
Back in a period when million-pound footballers were still rather a rare commodity, Garry Birtles seemed something of a bargain following his successful spell with two-time European champions Nottingham Forest.
But he managed only a single FA Cup goal in his first season at Old Trafford under Dave Sexton and struggled throughout his spell with the club. He would net only 11 times in total and was eventually allowed to return to Forest in late 1982 after Ron Atkinson (pictured above) decided he was not going to be a feature of his squad in 1982-83.
These days Birtles is a well-known TV analyst, but thankfully is not asked to reflect on his United experience too often.
MARK BOSNICH | From Aston Villa | Free | 1999
When Manchester United needed a replacement for the departing Peter Schmeichel in 1999, Mark Bosnich appeared ready to step up to the plate. Having had a short spell at Old Trafford when arriving in England in the late 1980s, the Australian had then had a hugely successful seven-year stint in goal for Aston Villa.
But his shortcomings became all-too clear when he returned to Old Trafford, with Sir Alex Ferguson later castigating the goalkeeper’s lack of professionalism in an autobiography. “Mark Bosnich was a terrible professional,” Ferguson wrote. “We played down at Wimbledon and Bosnich was tucking into everything: sandwiches, soups, steaks. He was going through the menu.”
He made only 35 appearances during his second United spell and his career was never the same again.
MEMPHIS DEPAY | From PSV | £25m (€35.3m) | 2015
When a former PSV youth coach made comparisons between Memphis Depay and Cristiano Ronaldo shortly before the Dutchman arrived at Manchester United, the player himself was quick to play down the link.
“I don’t want to compare myself with somebody like that,” he said at his unveiling. “That is the best player in the world. I don’t want to talk too much. I want to show it on the pitch.”
Over the next 18 months all he managed to show was just how misplaced those early comparisons had been as he failed to make any impression under either Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho. Perhaps the most memorable moment of his spell came in Wayne Rooney’s testimonial, when a badly miscued effort from the No.7 drew giggles from the watching Rooney and his six-year-old son.
He left for Lyon with United retaining a buy-back clause, but it seems wishful thinking at this stage that he will ever be compared with Ronaldo again.
ANGEL DI MARIA | From Madrid | £59.7m (€75m) | 2014
United smashed the British record for a transfer fee when bringing Angel di Maria to Old Trafford in 2014, but he was rarely afforded the chance to play his best football under Louis van Gaal and it was no great surprise that he was gone within a year.
The Dutchman’s style of management impinged on the Argentine’s creativity, and within a few short months he was being asked to play in too structured a manner for his liking. Issues away from the field were hardly helping the settling-in process either, and when he spent much of the last two months of 2014-15 on the bench it was clear that a problem was brewing.
Van Gaal went to town on Di Maria when he failed to join up for the club’s summer tour which followed: “I have heard he is not on the plane. I cannot say anything. He was not on the plane,” and within a couple of weeks he had left for Paris Saint-Germain.
ERIC DJEMBA-DJEMBA | Nantes | £3.5m (€5m) | 2003
So good they named him twice? Hardly! Eric Djemba-Djemba bought a fleet of 4×4 off-road vehicles and had 30 bank accounts so bad was he at managing his £75,000-a-week Manchester United salary, but that was nothing on his poor performances on the field.
Fighting for a spot alongside the likes of Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt and Darren Fletcher was never going to be straight-forward, but the Cameroonian failed to make any kind of an impression in his two years at Old Trafford before leaving for Aston Villa.
After being declared bankrupt in 2007, he is still playing at the age of 36 with his career having now seen him take in 13 clubs in 10 different countries.
OWEN HARGREAVES | From FCB | £16.9m (€25m) | 2007
Perhaps it was a risk spending so much on Hargreaves so soon after his recovery from a broken leg, but surely nobody could have foreseen just how ravaged his Old Trafford career would be by injury.
The England midfielder missed most of the 2006-07 campaign with Bayern Munich after the fracture, but Sir Alex Ferguson still committed nearly £17m to his signing the following summer. It appeared a wise move when Hargreaves had a decent first season and even bagged a penalty in the 2008 Champions League final shoot-out, but he would play only five more times for the club.
A succession of injury problems forced him to seek operations on both knees as he looked to get his career back on track, but three comeback attempts were all utter failures. The last, a five-minute showing against Wolves was his only appearance of 2010-11 and one of just two in the last 175 United played during his spell at the club.
He was released in 2011 and managed a single league appearance for Manchester City before retiring at 31.
KLEBERSON | From Atletico P’ense | £5.9m (€8.4m) | 2003
Leeds United were the first English club to show a significant interest in Kleberson following his involvement in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup win, with Terry Venables looking to wrap up a move in January 2003.
But the midfielder refused to move from his homeland until his fiancée was eligible to marry him… on her 16th birthday the following Valentine’s Day!
By the next summer, Sir Alex Ferguson was ready to make his move, but he rarely appeared anything close to Manchester United quality and made only 30 appearances for the club before being offloaded to Besiktas within two years for a third of the cost.
His career would later take him back to Brazil and then on for spells in the MLS and NASL. Happily, his marriage has lasted much longer than his top-level football career did.
LIAM MILLER | From Celtic | Free | 2004
It was after a 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough in October 2005 that Roy Keane went on the rant that would end his Manchester United career, his MUTV interview being so severe in his review of his team-mates that it never made it to air and Sir Alex Ferguson had little choice but to end the Irishman’s glittering 12-year spell at Old Trafford.
Keane had picked on a number of players for their poor showings at the Riverside but had also singled out Liam Miller for criticism despite the fact the 2004 signing from Celtic had not played against Boro. Little did either party know it at the time, but Miller had played his last game for United the previous midweek in a League Cup clash with Barnet.
Ferguson was privately disappointed in Miller’s contribution as he searched for a long-term replacement for Keane, and the 24-year-old was loaned to Leeds within a week of his team-mate’s tirade. The following summer he was sent to Sunderland on a free, where he would later face the ire of Keane the manager.
RALPH MILNE | From Bristol C | £170k (€262,500) | 1988
Sir Alex Ferguson was unequivocal when asked at a luncheon in 2009 who he considered to be his worst Manchester United signing. “Ralph Milne. I only paid £170,000 but I still get condemned for it.”
Perhaps Milne never stood a chance from the start, with Ferguson asking a man who had spent all of his successful spell at Dundee United as either a centre-forward or right-winger to play on the left for United. With Gordon Strachan a fixture on the right, there was little room for manoeuvre and Milne would never produce in a red shirt.
The signing of Danny Wallace and then the rise of Lee Sharpe helped to ease Milne out of the first team, and he was released in the summer of 1991 following Sharpe’s breakout season which had led United to European Cup Winners’ Cup success. Milne had played only 30 times for the club.
WILLIAM PRUNIER | From Bordeaux | Trial | 1995
It was only the briefest of trial periods, but William Prunier’s two-game United career had such a harrowing impact on United fans’ memories that he simply cannot be ignored.
The French defender played only twice for United, and actually impressed in his debut against QPR, but his abysmal showing in the 4-1 defeat at Tottenham on New Year’s Day 1996 remains one of the worst performances in Premier League history… including Ali Dia! He completely lost Teddy Sheringham for the opener, let Chris Armstrong find space with regularity and spent most of the night chasing shadows to enter into English football infamy.
Ferguson actually offered him an extended trial, but Prunier wisely headed for Copenhagen instead.
MASSIMO TAIBI | From Venezia | £4.5m (€6.9m) | 1999
When Mark Bosnich arrived from Aston Villa in no kind of shape, Sir Alex Ferguson began attempts to sign another new goalkeeper. Massimo Taibi would last four games, making one of the Premier League’s most memorable howlers along the way.
After a couple of unconvincing but largely uneventful appearances, the Italian’s performance against Southampton would define his short-lived United career as he allowed a speculative Matt Le Tissier shot through his arms and between his legs to the amazement of the Old Trafford crowd.
He was given one final chance to save face at Chelsea the following week, but within 27 seconds had come charging out to meet a Dan Petrescu cross and Gus Poyet nodded into an empty net with Taibi nowhere. The Blues won 5-0 and the keeper was done for, being loaned to Reggina in January 2000 before completing a £2.5m move to the southern Italian outfit.
ZORAN TOSIC | From Partizan | £7.2m (€7.5m) | 2009
United announced the dual signing of Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic in early January 2009, with Ljajic initially staying with Partizan Belgrade but due to join his fellow Serb the following winter.
The club would eventually decide against adding Ljajic, separately claiming he hadn’t developed as they had hoped and that there were work permit issues, but the failure of Tosic to progress as planned might well have played its part too.
United quickly felt burned by the outlay on the wide man, with his 79 minutes of play in five substitute appearances being of such a poor standard that he was quickly sent on loan to Cologne before making a permanent move to CSKA Moscow only 18 months after arriving at Old Trafford.
VICTOR VALDES | Free Agent | Free | 2015
Who could possibly make a calamity out of the signing of a world-class free agent? Louis van Gaal managed it, with the toxicity of his relationship with Valdes during their spell together ensuring that the Spaniard would soon be out on his ear.
After suffering serious knee ligament damage towards the end of his Barcelona contract, Valdes was offered the chance to complete his recovery at United before the club offered him an 18-month deal in 2015. Following a handful of Under-21 outings, he made two appearances for the first team in place of the injured David de Gea at the end of 2014-15.
But that summer Van Gaal announced that Valdes would never play for him again having refused to turn out for the under-21s previously, and the Spaniard was sat with De Gea and Anders Lindegaard in a star-studded directors’ box when the following season began. He spent the last six months of his United contract on loan at Standard Liege before joining Middlesbrough the next summer.
JUAN VERON | From Lazio | £28.1m (€46.3m) | 2001
“Veron is a f***ing great player,” blasted Sir Alex Ferguson, “and you’re all f***ing idiots.”
It was telling that the legendary manager – who had kept his counsel on so many players previously, safe in the knowledge that they would prove their critics wrong – deemed it important to stand up for his British-record £28.1m signing in a 2002 press conference.
Ferguson had upset the balance of one of the most storied midfields in English football history to bring in a supremely-talented but ultimately one-paced player, and United had squandered the Premier League title as a result.
After two years he left for the new money of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, but he was never the player in England that he proved to be in Italy and his native Argentina.