Despite Eric Bailly’s impressive early season performances, the jury remains out on the ability of Manchester United’s defence to back up the challenge that will undoubtedly be posed by their potent strike force. One need only reference Eliaquim Mangala at the Etihad to understand that expensive defenders do not guarantee security.
20 years ago however, United were in a much more precarious position. With a backline comprising entirely of English and Irishmen, it was a 28-year-old Frenchman to whom they turned.
It is the ambition of a great many fellows to be summoned to Old Trafford; William Prunier was – and departed not long after.
It’s not an altogether strange occurrence; many youngsters earn and waste their opportunity. However, the misadventure of Mr. Prunier is one of the most fascinating of all during Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure at the club.
It concerns New Year’s Day some years ago when I sought exile from the festivities to watch Manchester United take on Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.
It was a time when new signings captured the imagination. Rather than following online updates on any impending transfer, fans were forced to rely upon page 222 on Aertel, wait for the morning papers or call one of those dodgy 1800 numbers to get the latest news (the folks still don’t believe me).
1995/96 was a rather depressing time for United fans. With Blackburn Rovers having clinched the title, everyone expected a significant response from Ferguson. Instead he cashed in on some of his prized assets with Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes all departing the club. Raimond van der Gouw was the only meaningful addition to a squad that closely resembled a nursery.
But as the busy Christmas period approached that season, it appeared that Ferguson’s lack of activity in the transfer market had finally come back to haunt him. Despite a rich vein of form, United were several points adrift of Newcastle United while Steve Bruce, their stalwart captain, lay prone on the treatment table with Gary Pallister and David May on either side.
So it was with some relief when teletext informed us of an imminent debut for a new player at Old Trafford.
In latter years, Laurent Blanc and Rio Ferdinand evidenced Ferguson’s fondness for cultured centre-halves. Yet the Scot first experimented with a ball-playing defender in December 1995 when William Prunier was invited to Manchester. Having come through Auxerre’s famed academy at the same time, Eric Cantona was an advocate of his compatriot.
Ferguson conveyed some interest but hesitated on the offer of a contract. Prunier would have to prove his worth behind the scenes on a trial basis. That all changed when Denis Irwin joined the list of absentees within days of the Frenchman’s arrival. Ferguson was left with little option other than to thrust Prunier into the heart of United’s defence for an upcoming clash with QPR.
Alongside Gary Neville, who at 21 was United’s most experienced defender, Prunier showed glimpses of the quality that had earned him an international cap for France a few years previously. United kept up the heat on Kevin Keegan’s rampant Magpies with a 2-1 win. In so doing, Prunier became somewhat of a cult hero on the Stretford End, setting up a goal and rattling the crossbar with a thunderous drive.
The Independent swooned that Prunier had become an “instant hero of the Old Trafford hordes on a debut when he was in the mood to storm the Bastille.” Ferguson was a little less enthused: “We will see how he [Prunier] defends away from home. There is always that thing about European defenders and how quickly they can pick up the pace.”
Lo and behold Prunier was back for the next match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane live on TV. Having negotiated my way out of the family dinner to cast my eye over this welcome addition, I sat back with the last of the Christmas pudding. Reality soon dawned.
Despite a hefty £4.5 million price-tag, Chris Armstrong was not the most feared striker in the Premier League when he moved across London from Crystal Palace. Yet on this particular evening, Prunier had the Spurs faithful drawing comparisons between Armstrong and his great predecessor, Jürgen Klinsmann. Having galloped into the Theatre of Dreams, Prunier was now like a cowboy who had lost his horse. By full-time, his obituary was going to press.
Before Prunier arrived in Manchester he had enjoyed a decent career. Having come through the ranks at Auxerre, he progressed into the first team amassing 221 appearances and many plaudits. Olympique de Marseilles, following their triumph in the newly-formatted Champions League, were soon batting their eyelids at the defender as they sought to solidify their status as one of Europe’s premier clubs. With a heavy heart, Prunier reciprocated their advances. However, amidst match-fixing scandals and financial irregularities, Ligue 2 beckoned and Prunier promptly sought the exit door.
By 1994 Prunier was a much-respected centre-half in the French game and many took pity on him for the unfortunate situation into which he had been landed. There were a number of suitors, not least Bordeaux, who were becoming a force to be reckoned with as Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry led the charge.
It represented a sensible move for Prunier. But in time, the Frenchman began to lose his patience with his bit-part role to the point where he felt he had no option but to buy out the remainder of his contract. The timing could not have been better (or worse).
Prunier never appeared again for United. Having been cast as the scapegoat in the aftermath of a disappointing 4-1 defeat (United’s worst league defeat in four years), Ferguson invited Prunier to extend his trial period, proposing that, given his lack of English, a little more time would help him to adapt to the United way. In truth, Ferguson’s olive branch was out of concern for the individual rather than his potential to play for United. Indeed, in more recent years, Ferguson has admitted that he too was subject to errors of judgment, citing Prunier, Ralph Milne, Kléberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba amongst his most notorious.
Prunier’s agent, Alain Migliasclio, did not agree (via The Irish Times):
“Manchester United were due to give us a definite answer but they offered William another trial period. With more than 350 French first division appearances and 35 European matches under his belt, William is no longer an apprentice.”
Prunier returned to France before opting for a switch to FC Copenhagen instead.
Clearly angered, Migliasclio felt that his client had been hard done by. Ferguson’s patched-up team had their chances and were the better side for much of the opening stages. But with the game level at half time, the forced removal of Peter Schmeichel became the predominant nail in United’s coffin. Kevin Pilkington, his young understudy, was simply not up to the task. Yet it was Prunier, the lad nobody knew or could speak to, that became the fall guy.
In the dressing room, Prunier’s temporary teammates appreciated his contribution, many sympathising with the timing of his arrival. To arrive at a big club to train with the reserves is one thing. But to lead a Premier League defence without a word of English is quite another. They would never see Prunier again.
In the years that followed his trial at The Cliff, Prunier became somewhat of a journeyman. After an eleven-game spell in Copenhagen, the likes of Montpellier, Napoli, Hearts and Kortrijk in Belgium were all graced with his presence, albeit briefly, before he arrived in Toulouse in 1999. For five seasons, Prunier went some way to redeeming a flagging career as the club bounced between divisions, peaking in 2002/03 when he was named in Ligue 1’s Team of the Year. He ended his playing career with Al-Siliya in Qatar in 2004.
A spell in management followed therafter, firstly as assistant to Stéphane Paille at AS Cannes until their dismissal a few months later. He managed local sides in the Toulouse area for a period including a three-year stint with US Colomiers, before moving onto GS Consolat – an amateur side based in Marseilles for a further year. In 2015, Prunier became the reserve team coach at Ligue 1 side Montpellier HSC, where he made 27 appearances in 1996/97. He remains there today.
Sadly, Prunier’s reputation never truly recovered from his two-week stay in Salford and it precedes him at every opportunity.
And yet for the title of most obscure player to have appeared for the Red Devils, Prunier would not lack rivals. Bebé, Dong Fangzhou, Manucho and Massimo Taibi all wore the famous shirt at Old Trafford…
But then Prunier might not have been so obscure had he rattled that net…