More than half of this scary list of stars, all signed after finishing as Premier League runners-up, helped their new clubs win the title the next season…
10) Cristiano Ronaldo
Manchester United were champions when Ronaldo first arrived in 2003. When he returned 18 years later – despite United having finished as runners-up in 2020/21 – Old Trafford was a vastly different place. Or rather it wasn’t, which is a large part of the problem.
Ronaldo’s return was pinned as a mistake from the start by some. Indeed, The Problem was fingered for many of United’s issues until it became abundantly clear that there is plenty of blame to spread around Old Trafford.
Were it not for Ronaldo’s 18 Premier League goals – only Golden Boot sharers Mo Salah and Son Heung-min scored more – United’s predicament would have been considerably worse.
9) Dwight Yorke
The Trinidad striker wasn’t United’s top striker target in 1998 but Patrick Kluivert decided to join Louis van Gaal at Barcelona rather than link up with Ferguson at Old Trafford. So Fergie turned his attention to Yorke, much to John Gregory’s chagrin.
The Villa boss insisted he wouldn’t entertain any part-exchange offer – “If players are not good enough for Manchester United, they are not good enough for Villa,” he said – but Gregory relented by asking for Andy Cole. That was a non-starter for United, who simply upped their offer to £12.6million.
Yorke told Gregory that he wanted to go. “If I had a gun, I would have shot him,” said Gregory, who signed Dion Dublin as a replacement before proclaiming of Villa: “We now have a squad with the depth to challenge for the title.”
Villa finished sixth and 24 points off United who, powered by a Golden Boot-winning 18 goals from Yorke, won the title, the FA Cup and the Champions League.
Where every Premier League club has shopped most for transfers this century
In the wake of relinquishing the title to their neighbours in 2013, City were manager-less while they waited for Manuel Pellegrini to replace Roberto Mancini. But that didn’t stop them from making a £30million Brazilian from Shakhtar Donetsk their first summer signing.
Since the minute they brought Fernandinho to Manchester, City have been scouring the planet for his replacement. Now the midfield enforcer has finally departed, after a nine-year stay in which he won five Premier League titles, six League Cups and the FA Cup, Pep Guardiola has no choice but to source a successor to the skipper.
It’s not clear, but City seem to be observing a respectful period of mourning before they inevitably take Kalvin Phillips from Leeds.
7) Michael Carrick
“I cannot understand what is going on. I have not spoken to anyone who, when £18.6million became available, would have spent that on Michael Carrick.”
That was the reaction in 2006 of Mark Longden of the Independent Manchester United Supporters’ Association to the news that the Red Devils were signing Carrick to fill the void left by Roy Keane. Tottenham fans were similarly minded. Bernie Kingsley of Spurs fanzine Cock-a-Doodle-do gloated: “For that sort of money, and with midfielders like Tom Huddlestone and Didier Zokora at the club, it has got to be good business.”
Indeed it was – for United. Carrick took Keane’s No.16 shirt and won the title in his first season with United. Then he won four more and everything else there was to win in 12 trophy-laden years at Old Trafford.
6) Robin van Persie
Fuelled by losing the title in the final seconds of the 2011/12 season to their noisy neighbours, Sir Alex Ferguson began his Premier League last hurrah by taking Van Persie off Arsene Wenger’s hands, a switch for which he was never forgiven by Arsenal fans.
Reflecting on his defection, the reigning PFA Players’ Player of the Year blamed ‘the little boy inside of me’ for turning his back on the Gunners. “That boy was screaming for Manchester United.”
The boy in Van Persie’s head knew what he was talking about. The Holland striker was a revelation at Old Trafford, scoring 26 goals as United regained the title while Van Persie earned the Golden Boot. Then Fergie retired and it all went to sh*t.
5) Kevin De Bruyne
“It takes a special player to improve our squad,” said Manuel Pellegrini in 2015 when City paid a club-record £55million, though few people really understood just how special De Bruyne was.
Chelsea certainly didn’t spot it before they sold the Belgian to Wolfsburg for £16.7million a year and half before he returned to the Premier League to tear it up in a City shirt.
It took De Bruyne three seasons to win his first title winner’s medal, which came a year after Pep Guardiola rocked up at the Etihad. Since then, he’s won three more to add to five League Cups and an FA Cup. No Champions League, though. Yet. Servicing Erling Haaland may well change that next season.
4) Sol Campbell
Even if Campbell’s free transfer had been a disaster, it would have been worth the £100,000 spent on the defender’s weekly wages just for all the p*ss it boiled across north London.
But Wenger’s swoop for the England centre-back was actually a masterstroke. Campbell was a perfect replacement for Tony Adams and his arrival was the catalyst for Arsenal to end three seasons of living in Manchester United’s shadow as the bridesmaids of the Premier League.
Arsenal won the title in his first season at Highbury before Campbell became an Invincible two years later. Though he was largely responsible for the end of the unbeaten run by blatantly and brutally hacking down Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford in match 50…
3) Didier Drogba
Roman Abramovich took a year or so after buying Chelsea in 2003 to get his feet under the table before really splurging. Finishing as runners-up to Arsenal’s Invincibles in 2003/04 wasn’t enough for Claudio Ranieri to keep his job so Jose Mourinho was appointed immediately after he’d led Porto to the Champions League.
Following Mourinho – Petr Cech and Ricardo Carvalho too – through the door was Drogba, who joined from Marseille for a club-record fee of £24million. Abramovich flexed his financial muscle by offering OM double what Juventus were prepared to pay. It was money extremely well spent.
Drogba went on to score 164 goals in 381 appearances across two spells with the Blues. The Premier League title in his and Mourinho’s first season was the first of four for the Ivorian, who also won four FA Cups, three League Cups and the Champions League.
2) Alan Shearer
Newcastle blew up spectacularly in the 1995/96 title race, chucking away a 12-point lead to allow Manchester United to win the title and, subsequently, the Double. But the Toon won the summer transfer battle for the previous season’s top scorer…
Shearer bagged 31 goals for seventh-placed Blackburn who allowed the striker to move on for a British record transfer fee of £15million. United and Newcastle were both willing to cough up so it was a straight choice for the England centre-forward.
“I had to make a decision and at one point, I was 90 per cent certain I was going to go to Manchester United,” he reflected in 2020. “But then I got another call from Kevin Keegan and I thought ‘I’m going to go to Newcastle, it’s a club I’ve supported all my life’.”
Despite all the pots United won in his absence, Shearer was content with making himself a legend in his hometown with 206 goals, making himself Newcastle’s leading scorer of all time.
1) Thierry Henry
Arsenal reacted to losing the 1998/99 Premier League title race on the final day to a Treble-winning Manchester United by signing two World Cup strikers in two days at the start of August.
On August 2 1999, Davor Suker joined the Gunners. He was followed a day later by a 22-year-old France forward who’d fallen out of favour at Juventus.
Henry’s status at Juve didn’t deter Arsene Wenger from paying a club-record £11million fee, with Henry and Suker joining Kanu, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars in Arsenal’s front line.
“Thierry Henry is a valuable addition to our squad, he will be a great asset to Arsenal Football Club,” said Wenger, playing it cool when he signed the World Cup winner. Henry went on to earn himself a statue by scoring 228 goals for the Gunners, winning two Premier League titles along the way, even if he had to wait three seasons for his first.