Javier Hernandez and Rafael.

Who was the best scouting success of Sir Alex's era?

Saturday 19 June 2021 09:00

With the transfer window creaking into action, and a major tournament unfolding day by day, it got us wondering about some of Manchester United's best scouting missions of the past.

We decided to focus on the glorious Sir Alex Ferguson reign, which ran from 1986 to 2013, and enforced certain parameters - for instance, we only considered overseas players (sorry, Lee Sharpe), did not consider those purchased for big fees relative to their experience (no Cristiano Ronaldo) and strictly wanted those who were not yet established and were under the radar (Peter Schmeichel, for example, was already Denmark's first-choice keeper and a man of some reputation).

So which signings proved expert scouting, the unearthing of gems and evidence that the system was reaping dividends?

Here are our selections...

Andrei Kanchelskis was an inspired purchase from Shakhtar Donetsk.

Andrei Kanchelskis: from Shakhtar Donetsk in 1991 (nominated by Joe Ganley)

"The impact made by Schmeichel and Eric Cantona at United in the early ’90s means we tend to overlook just what a fine overseas signing Andrei Kanchelskis was. But while Schmeichel was a star for Denmark and Cantona a title-winner with Leeds before joining, Kanchelskis was a relative unknown when Alex Ferguson plucked him from Shakhtar Donetsk in 1991. In his first full season, the winger quickly became a fan favourite, appearing 42 times and thrilling the Old Trafford crowd with his dazzling, direct attacking play. The Russian, well Ukrainian, was an integral part of the great 1993/94 Double side and even top goalscorer in 94/95.

“Some still say the '93/94 side was United’s best ever, and thoughts of Kanchelskis's wing play – on the opposite flank to Ryan Giggs – always sets hearts a fluttering among fans who regularly reel off that team’s iconic starting XI. Andrei was so good, in fact, that I named my very first pet after him – an ill-fated goldfish who regrettably met his maker in 1995. His namesake left one realm for another that summer, too, though Goodison Park is a step up from death's infinite void, of course. But Kanchelskis's exciting contribution to United lives on powerfully in the imagination, and he remains a classic, somewhat overlooked Sir Alex Ferguson signing."

Javier Hernandez: from Chivas in 2010 (nominated by Sam Carney)

"Although they are a heavyweight in the Americas and often qualify for the knockout stages of World Cups, English clubs didn’t – and still don’t – tend to sign players straight from Mexico. That’s why the announcement of Javier Hernandez’s capture from Chivas of Guadalajara came as something of a surprise in May 2010. United wanted to fast-track the signing of ‘Chicharito’ due to his upcoming involvement in the World Cup in South Africa and what a decision that proved to be. He scored three times in pre-tournament friendlies, around the time the move was announced, and twice in the finals, making the rumoured transfer fee of £6 million look a real bargain even before kicking a ball in England. Once he got going at Old Trafford, he wasn’t bad either, netting 20 goals in his debut season and playing a huge part in the Reds winning title no.19. A signing few fans had heard of, he went on to become Mexico’s record scorer and one of just three non-European players to win the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award."

Ronny Johnsen: from Besiktas in 1996 (nominated by Mark Froggatt)

"The signing of Ronny Johnsen is a classic example of due diligence and commitment, because the Norwegian was not a natural centre-back in his early career, after he had played up front and in central midfield – attracting interest from Bayern Munich while at Eik-Tonsberg, who demanded too much money for the signing, as Johnsen explained in his UTD Podcast. When he eventually moved back into defence, after the World Cup in 1994, his performances with Lillestrom led to a transfer to Besiktas and Alex Ferguson soon enquired about his services during the 1995/96 season. Remarkably, Ronny turned the boss down as he felt he could not abandon the Istanbul side part way through their campaign, showing impressive loyalty, yet United’s interest remained and a deal was completed in the summer of 1996.

“Initially signed as a squad player, Johnsen quickly became an influential performer and he famously forged a world-class partnership with Jaap Stam during the iconic Treble season, becoming one of only five players to start all three finals that year. The Ice Man eventually made 150 appearances for the club across six seasons and, while injuries cruelly plagued the final three campaigns, there is no question he was a bona-fide success at Old Trafford, and a testament to shrewd scouting by the club.”

Ronny Johnsen discusses how his move to United came about on his UTD Podcast.

Rafael: from Fluminense in 2008 (nominated by Adam Marshall)

"This deal showed the power of tracking youth football. United's Les Kershaw spotted the da Silva twins at a tournament in Hong Kong back in 2005 but, due to the transfer rules, had to wait before finalising a deal. Eventually, a move was agreed in 2007, and I remember seeing the brothers attending a game at Old Trafford around then, before they finally arrived to play a year later. Initially, Fabio was touted as the biggest prospect but Rafael would play more often for the senior side, showing the tigerish character that has so endeared him to the United faithful.

“I recall witnessing his debut in a friendly at Peterborough United and telling my father afterwards that this boy was ready for the first-team already and would not need to spend any period acclimatising in the Academy set-up. It was quite obvious he was an exceptional full-back and destined for stardom. So he represents an ideal of what we all love about watching young players for the first time and also the dream for scouting too. Identify a raw talent, show patience and negotiating nous to get a deal and then watch him flourish!"

Nemanja Vidic: from Spartak Moscow in 2005 (nominated by Adam Bostock)

"Vidic went on to become a title-winning captain and one of United’s greatest-ever defenders, but many supporters would not have been familiar with his name when he completed his move from Spartak Moscow at Christmas 2005. The 24-year-old had won the league in his native Serbia, and helped his national team impressively qualify for the 2006 World Cup, attracting Sir Alex Ferguson’s eye as he sought to bolster a defensive department already containing Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown, Mikael Silvestre and a young Gerard Pique. Fiorentina and arch-rivals Liverpool were reportedly interested, but the Reds got the deal over the line – thankfully! – and Vidic joined fellow winter arrival Patrice Evra in becoming a mainstay of Ferguson’s last great United side. We will always wonder what might have happened had Nemanja turned up at Anfield instead!"
This magical Nemanja Vidic moment never fails to make us smile!
Paul Pogba: from Le Havre in 2009 (nominated by Mikey Partington)

"The promotion of players from the Academy into the first team is right at the heart of the United DNA. Therefore, spotting future stars who will go on to grace the Old Trafford turf in the years that follow is paramount. Many have hailed from the towns and cities close to our M16 home in time gone by, while some have been noticed from a little further afar, including Lagny-sur-Marne-born Pogba, who caught the eye of club scouts while playing for French side Le Havre before he signed for the Reds as a 16-year-old in 2009.

“Upon his arrival in Manchester, the Frenchman could not have looked more at home, playing a major part in United’s FA Youth Cup win in 2011 and was rewarded with his senior debut by Sir Alex Ferguson later that calendar year. A move to Juventus would follow at the end of that season but four Serie A titles, two Coppa Italias and an Under-20 World Cup title with France later, 2013’s Golden Boy winner returned to his second home ahead of the 2016/17 campaign.

“Since playing a central part in our Europa League and EFL Cup triumphs in his first season back, Pogba has become a figurehead in the current United side and across world football in recent years, while his success has also continued on the international stage, with the 28-year-old becoming a World Cup winner in 2018 – the pinnacle of his journey to date.”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recalls how he came to arrive at Old Trafford in the summer of 1996.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: from Molde in 1996 (nominated by Gemma Thompson)

"The summer of 1996 was all about the Euros and seemingly the ongoing link [saga] about whether or not Alan Shearer would join us from Blackburn Rovers or plump for his boyhood club [and our previous season’s title rivals] Newcastle United. That’s ultimately what happened, but the day before that deal went through, the Reds announced the signing of a little-known Norwegian striker by the name of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

“Sir Alex and his scouts had kept a close eye on Ole for a while and his impressive run of goals in ’96 for Molde convinced United to table an offer of £1.5million for his attacking services; indeed he ended his time with the Scandinavian side with a hugely impressive 41 goals in 54 games in all competitions. Few could have predicted what was to follow for the Reds as the ‘Baby-faced Assassin’, as he quickly became known, made his mark in a red shirt from the off, coming on as a substitute to score on his debut in front of the Old Trafford faithful, ironically against Shearer-less Blackburn. Some 366 games and 126 goals later, including arguably the most iconic in our history, at the Nou Camp in 1999, he will forever be regarded as a club legend… and, as our current boss, no-one is more determined than Ole to bring yet more success and silverware to the club.”