Football Features

A combined XI of active players who nearly joined Manchester United

By Harry Edwards

Published: 16:00, 26 March 2021

For many professional footballers, Manchester United represent the daddy of career moves.

So spare a thought for the players included in this combined XI (although, it must be said, things worked out pretty well for most of them).

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What follows is an assortment of household names who, for one reason or another, witnessed nothing come of plans to join the most successful club in Premier League history.

Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer

Age: 34
Current club: Bayern Munich

Back in 2011 when Edwin van der Sar announced his impending retirement, United’s search for a new number one goalkeeper began. There were two names on the list, David de Gea, favoured by goalkeeper coach Eric Steele and Sir Alex Ferguson’s choice, Manuel Neuer.

De Gea eventually signed and Sir Alex later revealed he was persuaded by Steele and watching the Spaniard play one match.

“Eric and I went out to watch him (De Gea) against Valencia away, and the things he’d been speaking about – his agility, his confidence, his speed – were evident,” he said in 2016.

“And Eric had been building a relationship with his parents, and was so adamant, that I had to trust him – and I’m glad I did, because he was right.”

Right-back: Thomas Meunier

Age: 29
Current club: Borussia Dortmund

In the summer of 2019, United lost Antonio Valencia when the Ecuadorean’s contract expired and Aaron Wan-Bissaka was signed to replace him. But they were also being linked with PSG defender (and United fan) Thomas Meunier, who had previously described the Red Devils has “the real reference in the world of football”.

And although Meunier confirmed there was interest in him, the offers made were not good enough for himself or PSG.

“It was an intense period, with a lot of interest and discussion,” Meunier told RTBF.

“I could have left but it was not done because there was nothing that suited the club or myself. Nothing was 100 per cent for it to work.”

Centre-back: Raphael Varane

Age: 27
Current club: Real Madrid

When Jose Mourinho took charge of Manchester United in 2016, he knew he had a job on his hands. One of his key plans was to tighten up the defence, and he had hoped to do so by signing Raphael Varane.

Mourinho had previously signed Varane for Real Madrid in 2011 and hoped – in vain, ultimately – the Frenchman would join him once more.

“At the moment the club [Madrid] and I are in sync and I had no questions to ask,” Varane recalled on why he turned down United.

“I always said that I felt good in Madrid. It is not easy to say no to Jose Mourinho, but you have to weigh the pros and cons. We are men, we have to make decisions and that’s how it is.”

Centre-back: Sergio Ramos

Age: 34
Current club: Real Madrid

A year prior to United’s interest in Varane, they had looked to persuade his Real Madrid teammate Sergio Ramos to make the move from the Santiago Bernabeu to Old Trafford.

It was a period when Ramos’ future at Madrid was in serious doubt after contract talks stalled and Manchester United reportedly made a bid for close to £29m.

And although Ramos did stay in Madrid, the Spaniard later revealed he had genuinely thought about leaving.

“At one point I did think about making a change,” he said. “But at the end of the day my priority has always been Real Madrid and I thought about a change for other reasons.

“But all of those problems were resolved and everyone’s happy, but it wasn’t an economic issue like some people made out.”

Left-back: Saul

Age: 26
Current club: Atletico Madrid

Saul has been somewhat of a utility man for Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, including playing at left-back, which is what brings him into that position for this team.

But in 2015, Manchester United were offered the chance to sign Saul, then a 20-year-old midfielder, but turned it down. Instead they recruited Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live in 2018, journalist Guillem Balague said: “This is a man that as an 18-year-old was offered to Everton and they said no. As a 20-year-old he was offered to Manchester United and Manchester United said no.”

Central midfielder: Jordan Henderson

Age: 30
Current club: Liverpool

Although injury robbed him of the opportunity to play in the final games, Jordan Henderson nevertheless lifted the Premier League title as Liverpool captain having already won the Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup.

But if it wasn’t for his natural running technique, Henderson could have become a United player.

In his autobiography, Sir Alex revealed the club were looking at signing Henderson but opted against he idea, because of the former Sunderland rising star’s gait.

He wrote: “We looked at Jordan Henderson a lot and Steve Bruce was unfailingly enthusiastic about him.

“Against that we noticed that Henderson runs from his knees, with a straight back, while the modern footballer runs from his hips. We thought his gait might cause him problems later in his career.”

Central midfielder: Toni Kroos

Age: 31
Current club: Real Madrid

If you didn’t know Toni Kroos was once a Manchester United target, where have you been!? During the 2013/14 season, United were in talks with Kroos – then at Bayern Munich – to secure a deal for the following campaign.

And, as Kroos has revealed on many occasions, the two parties went as far as making a verbal agreement with then-manager David Moyes. The move was scuppered, however, when Moyes was sacked and Kroos eventually went to Real Madrid.

“In the end, we agreed to do it,” Kroos said.

“We agreed verbally. But I am not somebody who worries about contingencies. Yes, it was close. I almost went to Manchester United. But it did not happen that way.”

Central midfielder: N’Golo Kante

N'Golo Kante

Age: 29
Current club: Chelsea

In the 2015/16 season, N’Golo Kante was part of the Leicester City side that shocked the Premier League by winning the title. His performances under Claudio Ranieri earned Kante a move to Chelsea, where he would win another title, among other trophies.

But before he moved to Chelsea, United had tried luring Kante to Old Trafford, with Mourinho personally calling the French midfielder.

“It was amazing to have Mourinho call me, even though I’d been warned before how he would appeal to me,” Kante said.

“I listened to his arguments about why I should move to United.

“But at that time I was hesitant between staying at Leicester or leaving for Chelsea.

“My discussions with them were already well underway. But when I spoke, I had a good feeling with Conte.”

Right-winger: Sadio Mane

Age: 28
Current club: Liverpool

Another member of Liverpool’s Premier League-winning side, Sadio Mane’s career might have been so much different had he traded Southampton for a different team in red.

Before joining Liverpool, Mane had been in talks with United and had spoken to Louis van Gaal. But a conversation with Jurgen Klopp turned his head and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Yes, I was really, really close (to joining United) because I even met up with them,” he told The Mirror.

“So I was coming, I was there and I spoke with the boss who was there before (Van Gaal).

“They made an offer, but in the same week, Klopp called me. He said: ‘I think it’s the right club. The right coach for me, and I think it’s better that I go to Liverpool’. For me I think it was the right time as well. I said, ‘I am going to Liverpool’.”

Striker: Robert Lewandowski

Age: 32
Current club: Bayern Munich

Everyone knows the story of Robert Lewandowski almost signing for Blackburn Rovers, but the Polish striker also had a chance of joining Manchester United.

After helping Borussia Dortmund to a league and cup double, Lewandowski was being linked with a move away from the club, and United were among those interested.

And Lewandowski recently revealed the opportunity to work with Sir Alex Ferguson may have sealed the deal had Dortmund not vetoed the move.

“Sir Alex Ferguson. I was speaking with him after two years at Dortmund and at that time I was really thinking about a move to Manchester United,” he told the Guardian.

“Because of Ferguson and because of Manchester United. Borussia Dortmund said: ‘No, that’s that.’ That was the first time I was thinking about the move because if you get a phone call from Sir Alex Ferguson, for a young player it was something amazing. That was a special day for me.”

Left-winger: Eden Hazard

Age: 30
Current club: Real Madrid

In the summer of 2012, Eden Hazard was one of football’s hottest properties, subject to a transfer tug of war and announcing his next move on Twitter.

Chelsea were the team to eventually win his signature, but they faced opposition from the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and, of course, United.

Shortly after he joined Chelsea, Hazard revealed he made his decision after a talk with Roman Abramovich and the club’s 2012 Champions League win.

“I’ve always said I wanted to play in England. There was a struggle between Chelsea and United, but according to me Chelsea has the best project,” Hazard said.

“I was in advanced contact with both clubs and I spoke to both coaches. I want to be playing in the Champions League every year.

“When they won the Champions League, I told myself: ‘Why not Chelsea?’ The team is young and I have a better chance to play there.”