How United signed two Euro 96 stars
Manchester United were obviously keeping close tabs on the 1996 European Championship finals as two of the participants were signed after the tournament in England.
Jordi Cruyff was part of the Netherlands side that reached the knockout stages, before losing 4-1 to England in a famous encounter at Wembley, while Karel Poborsky was the talk of the football world after a remarkable lofted goal against Portugal that remains pretty unique to this day.
Cruyff bagged his first international goal in Holland's win over Switzerland at Villa Park, also the venue for Poborsky's remarkable effort. The finals, meanwhile, are currently being replayed on ITV4.
Alex Ferguson was, at the time, keen to bolster his squad with more continental quality in preparation for more assaults on the Champions League and the Reds were able to wrap up both transfers in time for the 1996/97 season, with Raimond van der Gouw, Ronny Johnsen and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also arriving.
Cruyff, of course, was always tagged as Johan's son due to his father's extraordinary contribution to the game, but he came with plenty of potential.
He had been part of the Barcelona side that destroyed an under-strength Reds team 4-0 in the Champions League and clearly impressed Ferguson. When Johan left the Nou Camp, the opportunity to snap the blond forward up emerged and Barca coach Bobby Robson met with Ferguson to discuss the matter. It emerged the player could join a non-Spanish club for a fixed fee of £1.5million due to a clause in his contract.
So the 22-year-old's transfer should have been a straightforward one but this was not the case and there were some concerns over his fitness after a cartilage operation and also paperwork issues. “We’ve been trying non-stop to get Jordi’s clearance papers from the Spanish FA for the past two days,” complained Ferguson. “But it always seems to be ‘manana’ over there.” Nonetheless, the hard work paid off and the signing prompted Ferguson to accept a bid of £4million from Leeds United for Lee Sharpe.
Injuries affected his form at Old Trafford but he scored eight goals in 26 starts, with another 34 appearances off the bench.
Poborsky had been instrumental in Slavia Prague's league title success, and run to the UEFA Cup semi-finals, and was nicknamed 'The Express Train' for his relentless running power. United solicitor Maurice Watkins had flown to the Czech Republic in a bid to wrap up a deal but Slavia were driving a hard bargain. Liverpool were also strongly interested in the wide-midfielder, as were Bordeaux, Borussia Dortmund and Sheffield Wednesday
With Liverpool ultimately signing Poborsky's team-mate Patrik Berger, the Merseysiders appeared keen to make it a double swoop, and the move to Old Trafford seemed in the balance.
However, Slavia's valuation was met after Ferguson stepped up the interest in the wake of the Czechs' Euro 96 final with Germany.
Poborsky's desire to make the switch to Manchester proved key and the 24-year-old signed a four-year deal after obtaining a work permit.
Interestingly, his arrival sparked talk David Beckham could be sold, with Sheffield Wednesday rumoured to be interested after they missed out on the Czech Republic star.
Beckham's form would limit the new arrival's game time but he recently told FourFourTwo about the experience.
"When Manchester United's offer landed on the table, it was an obvious choice to make," he said. "Moving from Slavia to United in the mid-90s, it was like two different worlds. It was a massive step in my career, and in my life. United had a great squad but I didn't speak English and the language barrier was the biggest issue.
“In the end, I was there for just 18 months. It was almost impossible for me to secure a regular place in the starting line-up ahead of David Beckham, at the beginning of his amazing career. But I don't feel any bitterness. The players accepted me and I always tried my best, even though I only came on for the last 20 minutes of games. I'll never forget my time with United. I still go there regularly and play for the Legends team."