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Martin Edwards talks about five major signings that never were

Former Manchester United chairman has revealed five big-name players who United missed out on signing during his tenure. In an interview with MUTV, in promoting his new book Red Glory, Edwards listed the five players as “The Five Who Got Away,” players whom he regrets missing out on the most.

The players he lists are England stars Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer, John Barnes, Gary Lineker, as well as legendary French playmaker Zinedine Zidane. In the interview, Edwards offers unique insight on how close United were to each player, and how they eventually slipped away, starting with Gascoigne and Shearer.

“Paul Gascoigne was certainly one [we missed out on]. We thought he was coming but he decided to join Tottenham. I think there were certain last-minute inducements involved.

“I’d done the negotiations for Alan Shearer and again, I thought he was coming. But [Blackburn owner] Jack Walker was very adamant he wasn’t coming to Manchester United. It was a case of ‘over my dead body’ but he allowed him to go to Newcastle.”

Gascoigne was hot property when he was leaving Newcastle. As a 20-year-old, he had just won the PFA Young Player of the Year for the 1987-88 season, when United and Tottenham took interest with him. Sir Alex Ferguson, who had just finished his first full season with the club was led to believe that Gascoigne was going to sign for United and had already left for a holiday when news broke that Gascoigne was signing for Tottenham, and Ferguson has branded him his most “disappointing” failed transfer.

Shearer was, also, a huge star at the time of his failed transfer. He had just finished his third season in a row of scoring over thirty league goals, and at the end year of the failed transfer, 1996, came third in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards, behind double winner Ronaldo, and the previous winner George Weah. Shearer would go on to score 260 goals in the Premier League, a record that has not been broken.

Continuing, Edwards talked about two players United had the opportunity to sign, only for them to be turned down in favour of players already in the squad.

“Gary Lineker, as you know, was going to sign for Everton and his agent Jon Holmes rang me on the day and said: ‘We’re about to go on the train to sign for Everton but his first choice would be Manchester United if you want him to come.’ I put it to Ron [Atkinson] and he said: ‘I’ve got four strikers already. The last thing we need is another striker.’ So we passed on that one.”

United did, at that point, have Mark Hughes at the club already who scored 24 goals the previous season, and along with Frank Stapleton and Alan Brazil, led the frontline for United as they took the FA Cup. But Stapleton and Brazil surely paled in comparison to Lineker, who was at that time First Division joint top scorer. United wound up stocking up on strikers throughout the season anyway, bringing in Peter Davenport from Nottingham Forest and Terry Gibson from Coventry City.

“With John Barnes, Graham Taylor rang Alex Ferguson to see if he wanted to take him before he signed for Liverpool. Alex passed on him because it was his first season, he had Jesper Olsen in his squad and he wanted to see whether Jesper would make it.”

This was one of Ferguson’s first attempt in what would become a long and successful journey of believing in and bringing the best out of the players he had available in favour of signing stars to replace them. Evidently, even Ferguson had his learning curve, as his trust in Olsen was proven to be misplaced. The Dane struggled to make his mark at United and left the club two years later. Barnes would go on to become a Liverpool icon, winning two league titles and an FA Cup in a decade at the club.

“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. Alex said that Eric [Cantona] 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, he felt that, if he had brought Zidane in, it may have affected Eric’s position, so he stuck with Eric.”

Zidane would go on to win league titles in Italy and Spain, as well as the Champions League, and was named FIFA Player of the Year three times. But at the time, turning down a 23-year-old from Bordeaux in favour of Cantona would not have been the worst of decisions. Of course, when Cantona retired just two years after, in the year Zidane was first nominated for FIFA Player of the Year, that might have stung a little.

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