Messi to Arsenal, Maradona to Leeds, Cruyff to Leicester: A transfer near-miss for every Prem club

·11-min read
Ronaldinho in action for Barcelona against Man Utd in a friendly in 2003. Credit: Alamy
Ronaldinho in action for Barcelona against Man Utd in a friendly in 2003. Credit: Alamy

With talk of Leicester almost signing Harry Kane for £600k, we’ve picked out a huge near-miss for every Premier League club, including Liverpool choking over losing Cristiano Ronaldo, and Fulham making a disastrous decision over Antoine Griezmann…


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Arsenal – Lionel Messi
There is an insane XI of star players Arsenal almost signed. Cristiano Ronaldo features and, of course, so too does Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Messi is the leading name, with reports around the time the Gunners took Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona suggesting they also wanted the Argentinian, as well as Gerard Pique. Some said a sensational move broke down over accommodation for Messi’s family, but Arsene Wenger, partially at least, disputed that: “It was not completely down to a flat in the end, it was down to the fact that Messi was comfortable at Barcelona.”


Aston Villa – Roberto Carlos
Doug Ellis says Carlos had agreed to join Villa in 1995 after playing at Villa Park for Brazil in a friendly against Sweden. Deadly Doug wrote in his autobiography: ‘I was so impressed with Juninho and Roberto Carlos that I sounded out the Brazilian president about them and he expressed the view that Carlos could be available. He [Carlos] said he was very impressed with the club and the facilities, and would be interested in joining us. Then it emerged the player would accept a contract with us, paid in American dollars, at a rate that was no higher than our highest-paid players of that time.

‘Unfortunately, Brian Little was less enthusiastic than myself and thus we did not pursue the deal.’


Bournemouth – Kieran Tierney
Eddie Howe made no secret of his fondness for the left-back in 2018 and Tierney acknowledged the Cherries’ interest. “When big teams are looking at you, it’s flattering,” he said. But then Arsenal sneaked in, took Tierney to north London and made him one of their captains. Howe hasn’t gone off the Scotland international, with reports the Newcastle boss will try again this summer.


Brentford – Mykhaylo Mudryk
Chelsea forked out £87million for Mudryk in January but Brentford thought they had a deal done for the winger last summer for less than a quarter of that price. The story goes that Shakhtar were willing to accept £20million but, thankfully for the Ukrainian club, the move broke down due to his agent’s salary demands.


Brighton – Virgil van Dijk
Ex-Brighton boss Gus Poyet claims he could have signed the £75million Liverpool defender in 2012. “I went to see him in Groningen when I was at Brighton. And he was playing like a father with his kids, with amazing skill. We could not sign him because we could not spend three million euros on a defender. In the end, he went to Celtic.”


Chelsea – Steven Gerrard
Gerrard jerseys burned outside Anfield in 2005 when the Liverpool captain submitted a transfer request amid offers from Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. “There is genuine sadness that he has decided he must leave,” said Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry said. “We will move on… We will look round carefully with the money we get for Stevie because it is a big market with plenty of choice.” Unfortunately for Jose, prompted not by the protests but memories of Istanbul – according to Parry – Gerrard had a change of heart inside 24 hours and turned down the chance to move to Stamford Bridge.


Crystal Palace – Virgil van Dijk
Brighton missed their chance to land Van Dijk and, according to Neil Warnock, so too did Palace in 2014 when the centre-back was at Celtic. Warnock told Talksport in 2018: “We could have bought him at Palace for £6million but my chief scout told me he was too slow. I think he’s still in a job as well!”


Everton – Erling Haaland
Everton twice missed the chance to take the ridiculous Norwegian goalbot. The Toffees passed on 15-year-old Haaland, who would have cost £60,000, over concerns he would become less deadly as he got older and other players caught up with his physical stature. “The consensus was he was so young and so big that once he got older and other players got bigger too, he’d lose his effectiveness,” said Everton’s Scandinavian scout Bryan King in an interview with The Times last year.

He moved instead to Molde, where Everton again took a look…


Fulham – Antoine Griezmann
Fulham needed a forward in January 2014 when they were in the mire under Rene Meulensteen. They approached Real Sociedad to enquire about the French lad in their attack and were told they could take him for £12million. The Cottagers doubted whether Griezmann was worth the outlay so, instead, they paid the same amount for Kostas Mitroglou. The Greece international made three appearances and scored no goals, while Griezmann moved the following summer to Atletico Madrid for almost double the price Fulham were quoted.


Leeds – Diego Maradona
A year after the Argentina genius had won the World Cup and just a couple of months after guiding Napoli to the Serie A title, Bill Fotherby wanted you all to believe that Leeds, then in the second tier, were in for peak Maradona.  The superstar’s agent met Fotherby at Elland Road, initially after telling the Leeds chairman: “No chance. Do you realise we’re talking £8million?” That didn’t deter Fotherby, who reportedly pulled in investment from companies like club sponsors Burton to raise the cash required. Sadly, Maradona didn’t fancy swapping the adoration of Naples for West Yorkshire and Division Two.


Leicester – Johan Cruyff
The Dutch genius was looking to return to Europe from the United States in 1981 and though Arsenal were keen, Leicester manager Jock Wallace fancied his chances. “Johan and I have already agreed terms. He has one or two problems to sort out, but I am very hopeful he will join us on Thursday,” Wallace told The Sun. “I would like to think that part of Johan’s interest is down to our personal friendship. I have known him since 1973 when he scored a fabulous goal for Ajax against Rangers when I was at Ibrox in the first European Super Cup. The negotiations have been going on by telephone over the past three to four weeks and now I think I have my man. He would teach my kids so much and be a great advert for Leicester City.”

Cruyff had apparently agreed a £4,000-a-week contract but, instead, he joined Levante and Leicester were relegated.


Liverpool – Cristiano Ronaldo
Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson thought they had Ronaldo in the bag for £4million when Sporting Lisbon were looking to cash in on the teenager in 2003. But the Liverpool management duo were given a nasty surprise one Tuesday afternoon just before the start of the new season: “We were having lunch at the training ground and it came up on the yellow strap on Sky Sports, ‘Manchester United have signed Cristiano Ronaldo for £12.2m’. Gerard and myself almost choked on our food. I can remember Gerard jumping up and saying, ‘What the hell has gone on there?’.”

Read more: Six times Liverpool and Man Utd have fought over players before Darwin Nunez


Manchester City – Pep Guardiola
The City boss has revealed he almost moved to Eastlands as a player in 2005. Indeed, after two years in Qatar, he spent a week on trial for Stuart Pearce to run the rule over the then 34-year-old and the manager liked what he saw – but only enough to offer him a half-season deal. “Stuart Pearce was right not to sign me. Definitely,” Guardiola later told City’s website. “I came here at 33-34 years old and in that time as a football player I was definitely a disaster. It was so intelligent not to pick me up. My dream in that time was to play in the Premier League. He offered me one half year – not a complete season. I had to wonder about family, I cannot live without them and in the end we decided not to sign.”


Manchester United – Ronaldinho
Paul Gascoigne swerved Old Trafford because, among other things, Spurs offered to buy his sister a sunbed. In 2003, Ronaldinho was thought to be as close to signing for Sir Alex Ferguson as Gazza was 15 years earlier but the actual sun helped Barcelona win the race for the Brazilian. That’s the word according to Quinton Fortune: “I think we got it wrong by bringing Ronaldinho in at the wrong time of year as it was raining that day he arrived at Manchester Airport.” Prior to that, the PSG star had been telling people he was United-bound. But with Fergie feeling secure in a £19million deal – they had just sold David Beckham for £25million – Barca swooped and persuaded him to move to La Liga instead.


Newcastle – Roberto Baggio

“I’m Douglas Hall of Newcastle United in England. Who do I speak to in order to sign Roberto Baggio?”

According to Terry McDermott’s autobiography, those were the words of the Toon chairman when he rocked up at Juventus in 1996 to take Baggio back to the North-East. Bemused, perhaps partly because Baggio had gone to AC Milan the year before, whomever answered the door told Hall he’d had a wasted journey. “So Douglas and the rest of us had to slope out of the ground and return to Turin airport.”


Nottingham Forest – Gareth Bale
In 2009, Bale was just a kid who seemed to be a curse on Tottenham. It took 25 appearances before he finally won a game in a Spurs shirt and Harry Redknapp preferred Benoit Assou-Ekotto. Billy Davies was certainly keen and there was talk of a deal worth between £2million and £3million being agreed. “It did go pretty close,” said Spurs coach Clive Allen in 2013. “It probably got to the stage where it was Gareth’s decision. He made up his mind to stay and fight for his place.”


Southampton – Didier Drogba
In 2003, Saints could have signed Drogba and Florent Malouda, then 25 and 23 respectively, for next to nothing from Guingamp, according to former chairman Rupert Lowe. “I had the deal lined up, which, if I remember correctly, was for around €3.5 million for both players,” Lowe told The Athletic. “Gordon Strachan was the manager, and he sent Ray, who was the other scout at the club, to watch Drogba. Ray came back and said he was a good player but that he didn’t have a very good touch.”

Silly Ray.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy


Tottenham – Eden Hazard
Harry Redknapp says Spurs missed out on the chance to sign Luis Suarez as the club’s scouts had the Uruguayan earmarked as a left-winger when he wanted a striker. Redknapp was more decisive over a winger at Lille. “We could have got Eden Hazard,” he later said. “I went over to France and met him in a hotel in Paris. The chief scout and I met with Hazard and he was keen to come to Tottenham at the time but, in the end, he decided to join Chelsea. I was confident it would happen and he definitely would have come to Tottenham. I loved him. I mean, what a player. Joe Cole rung me – he was at Lille at the time – and said he was the best player he’d ever played with. I said, ‘That’s some statement, Joe’, and we went over there straight away, had a meeting with the player, went to a couple of games; though once you’d seen him once, you knew.”


West Ham – Neymar
The Hammers went as far as submitting an offer for the Brazilian wonderkid when he was at Santos, but it never really seemed a go-er. Santos wanted his £28.5million release clause paid in full, whereas West Ham were tabling £16million, an amount that would have smashed their transfer record. Neymar’s father also wanted his son to hold fire on moving to Europe, while the player’s ownership situation complicated matters further. In the same summer, the Irons were offered Ronaldinho, who was leaving AC Milan, but they turned their nose up at the then-30-year-old, instead signing Victor Obinna from Inter on loan. Which did not go well.


Wolves – Enzo Fernandez
Wolves almost got their hands on the Premier League’s most expensive player for just £17million last summer when Fernandez had been identified as a possible replacement for Joao Moutinho or Ruben Neves. Talksport claimed the Old Gold’s chief scout had flown to Argentina to complete a deal for the midfielder, but Wolves backed out at the last minute when poised to pay his £17million release clause. Instead, he went to Benfica for £8million plus a hefty sell-on clause, which reaped massive dividends for River Plate inside half a season.

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