At various stages throughout his tenure at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson made similar approaches for veterans. While some of the eventual signings raised eyebrows, for the most part their influence around Old Trafford became their predominant legacy.
Teddy Sheringham (1997)
Aged 31 at the time, Sheringham was tasked with the daunting challenge of replacing the iconic Eric Cantona at Old Trafford. His early career in red was somewhat difficult in that he failed to guide United to the title in 1998 – almost a given with Cantona in tow. Consequently, Ferguson decided to act and brought in Dwight Yorke to partner Andy Cole the following season.
While Sheringham’s role in the treble-winning campaign was limited, his role will never be forgotten. Having won the first major trophy of his career against his former club on the final day of the league, a week later Sheringham emerged from the bench to score the opener in United’s victory over Newcastle in the FA Cup Final.
Then, as the Red Devils desperately sought a way back in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, Sheringham intervened with an equaliser in stoppage time. A matter of moments later he guided a header in the path of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who pounced to claim the spoils for United.
With his name forever etched in the club’s history, somewhat of a burden was finally lifted from Sheringham’s shoulders. Whilst his role did not drastically change as United regained the title the following year, the Cole-Yorke magic was nevertheless waning.
Finally, in 2000/2001, Sheringham took centre stage with aplomb, leading United to a third consecutive title and in so doing he was voted the PFA and Writer’s Player of the Year. At 35 years of age, Sheringham’s performances were rewarded with a recall to the England squad for the 2002 World Cup.
Laurent Blanc (2001)
Critics of Sir Alex Ferguson continue to maintain that the legendary manager left Manchester United in a somewhat precarious state when he departed in 2013. The same accusation was also made of him when his future was the subject of much conjecture in 2001. Although Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastien Véron had arrived in the off-season, Ferguson opted to replace Jaap Stam with an aging Laurent Blanc.
Ferguson had been a long-time admirer of the French defender before he finally arrived in Manchester. Given that Stam had been a rock at the heart of the defence in an all-conquering United side, it was no great surprise that Blanc, at 35, was quickly singled out for blame as United’s fortunes quickly faded. An elegant footballer, Blanc struggled with the physicality and pace of the English game. United ultimately finished third that season, their lowest placing in the history of the Premier League while they were also dumped out of the FA Cup in the fourth round.
However, once Ferguson’s future was clarified moves were afoot to bring in Rio Ferdinand from Leeds United. Despite some moderate success in Yorkshire, Ferdinand was still a raw talent when he became the world’s most expensive defender.
But with Blanc as his mentor, his reputation was soon further enhanced as United reclaimed the Premier League. Indeed, Blanc’s time at Old Trafford was mutually beneficial in that the club learned much from a World Cup winner with an astute tactical mind and an experienced insight into success at the very highest level, while the Frenchman also honed his own managerial capacity under Ferguson.
Edwin van der Saar (2005)
To many, Van der Saar was one of Ferguson’s greatest signings. At the sprightly age of 34, the Dutchman became the latest goalkeeper to be charged with filling the boots of Peter Schmeichel following the travails of Mark Bosnich, Fabien Barthez and Tim Howard.
Over the course of six years, Van der Saar won four Premier League titles and was instrumental in the Champions League triumph of 2008, saving Nicolas Anelka’s penalty in the shootout against Chelsea.
Remarkably, Van der Saar’s fine form continued into his 38th year as he broke the world record for not conceding a goal. He lasted for 1,311 minutes.
Having wrapped up another league title in 2011, Van der Saar finally chose to retire. At 40 years old he is the oldest player to win the Premier League.
Henrik Larsson (2007)
Following two seasons in Barcelona, Henrik Larsson opted to return to his hometown club of Helsingborg to finish out his distinguished career. However, not long after making the switch, the opportunity of one last challenge at Manchester United proved too difficult to resist for the former Celtic star.
Ongoing injury problems for both Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer prompted Ferguson to move for Larsson in January 2007. Larsson would go on to make 13 appearances in all competitions, contributing three goals. Although his stint was brief (he made a promise to his family that he would return home in March), his impact was significant.
Ferguson openly admitted that he wanted Larsson to stay, praising his professionalism and attitude. Larsson, despite being 36, brought much needed energy to a United side in the process of a transition. With Larsson and Wayne Rooney in tandem, United navigated their way through a tricky winter period before going on to win the title.
Other Premier League sides have also availed of seasoned campaigners. Prior to the Roman Abramovich era, Ken Bates proved himself to be a wily operator in the transfer market. Eager to put an end to Chelsea’s 25-year wait for a trophy, superstars such as Ruud Gullit (1995) and Gianluca Vialli (1996) arrived in London to help the side to the FA Cup in 1997.
Notably, Sam Allardyce summoned the likes Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo to the Reebok Stadium in 2002 as he sought to firmly establish the club in the upper tiers. Further afield, the decision of AC Milan to allow Andrea Pirlo join Juventus will be eternally ridiculed. The Italian maestro duly led the Turin club to four consecutive Scudetto titles. While most recently, former Real Madrid and Inter Milan midfielder Esteban Cambiasso picked up the Player of the Year award at Leicester City having helped steer them clear of safety in 2015, no doubt helping to lay some of the foundations for what was to come at the King Power Stadium.
It would seem that Ibrahimovic’s personality alone will be enough to light up Old Trafford, should he sign. Such character has been missing in Manchester for some time. Down through the years, the Stretford End has grown to love those who infuriate the opposition and offer spiritual leadership to their own. Whether it was George Best’s playful nutmegs or Roy Keane’s deathly stare, the United faithful were happy to have them on their side. To this day ‘ooh aah Cantona’ rings out as soon as fans descend on Sir Matt Busby Way, while hopes that Cristiano Ronaldo will one day return remain undimmed.
Whilst pinning their hopes on a veteran might not sit well with United’s traditions, Ibrahimovic’s influence would likely be considerable. In dipping their toes in the water last season, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have shown that, with the proper guidance, their careers can hit meteoric heights.
Ibrahimović’s presence would only help them on that journey. Given his age, the ex-Ajax man would not be expected to play every week and so their participation would not be compromised by his arrival. Yet even if he failed to make the team sheet the Swede would still command the headlines and the young duo would be allowed to prosper in the distracted environment that he creates.
Most importantly though, in playing with Ibrahimovic on a daily basis, they would learn how to live, play and act like a champion… And a swagger will return to Manchester United.