Ten desperate Man Utd signings including hasty loans, a returning retiree and Cantona’s mate

Ian Watson
Odion Oghalo, Paul Scholes and Massimo Taibi all in action for Manchester United.
Odion Oghalo, Paul Scholes and Massimo Taibi all in action for Manchester United.

They might have pooh-poohed the idea of signing Anwar El Ghazi but it sounds like just the kind of deal Man Utd would do. They have plenty of form for desperate signings.

Here are 10, ranked in order of desperation. Some (well two) worked out wonderfully, some far less so. And others were just very meh…


10) Bebe
Signing Bebe was a desperate act in the face of supposed competition from Real Madrid and elsewhere. That spooked United, prompting Ferguson to sanction a £7.4million deal despite never having watched the forward, even on TV.

“I didn’t see any videos of him, it’s the first time,” Ferguson admitted at the 20-year-old’s unveiling. “Normally, as in the case of Javier (Hernandez) and Chris (Smalling), I saw plenty of video footage of them. You’ve got to trust your staff at times and our scout in Portugal was adamant we must do something quickly. So were one or two other clubs and that’s where you have to make quick decisions in life and I’m not too bad about that.”

Bebe had only been at Vitoria for five weeks when United went all in on the street footballer raised in an orphanage who had represented Portugal at the 2008 Homeless World Cup. He started quite well, with a couple of cameos off the bench and a Champions League goal against Bursaspor.

But he was subbed as a sub in his next game – a win over Wolves that also finished Owen Hargreaves as a United player – and never recovered. Bebe didn’t help himself, as he later admitted: “I never took Manchester United seriously. I thought, ‘I’m here, I’m doing well and I don’t have to try hard every day. It was my fault. I was messing around too much.

“It’s hard to play at Old Trafford. There’s a lot of pressure to perform at the same level as some of the best players in the world. I couldn’t get to Scholes’ level overnight, nobody could. I basically went from playing on the street to the biggest team in England.”


9) Paul Scholes 
As emergency measures go, bringing back one of England’s finest midfielders might not be the most desperate act United fans have witnessed. Obviously, they loved the sight of Scholes limbering up for a Manchester derby in January 2012.

It was only when the team-sheets were submitted that news of Scholes’ return was revealed. He’d hung up his boots seven months before but had been helping out with coaching United’s reserves. During those sessions, Scholes rediscovered the hunger to play again at the top level, and Ferguson was only too willing to make it happen, especially with injuries to Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley.

Ferguson’s only condition was that he wanted it kept secret. No one was to know. “I trained with the first team the day before the City game, but I still had my coaches’ kit on with ‘PS’ on,” he told the club’s website. “The manager just said ‘come to the hotel and act as if you are a coach’. I don’t know why he didn’t want to tell anyone, I don’t know why it was a big secret.

“The manager told me to come to the hotel, sit with the coaching staff, just have a glass of red wine and stuff the night before the game.”

Prior to that, Scholes had to make a desperate dash to the shops. “I had to go to the retail park in Oldham to buy a pair of boots, because we couldn’t tell Nike and the coaches’ boots they gave us weren’t great. So I had to go and buy a pair for £50 or £60.”

Scholes came off the bench during that derby win, and though he was understandably rusty, especially in a pair of plastic touch-finders, it soon became clear that the then 37-year-old still had plenty to offer. He played on through the remainder of that season and the entirety of the next one, bowing out at the same time as Ferguson.


8) Henrik Larsson
At the start of 2007, with injuries to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Alan Smith leaving Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha as United’s only fit strikers – the Red Devils were arguably stronger up front through that ‘crisis’ than they are now – Ferguson went to Helsingborgs to see if 35-year-old Henrik Larsson fancied keeping busy during the Swedish off-season.

Three goals in 13 appearances suggest it wasn’t a hugely successful loan spell but Ferguson recognised Larsson’s impact in the dressing room.

“On arrival, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players,” said the manager after the striker returned home. “They would say his name in awed tones. Cult status can vanish in two minutes if a player isn’t doing his job, yet Henrik retained that aura in his time with us. He’s been fantastic, his professionalism, his attitude, everything he’s done has been excellent.”

Larsson kept his word to return to Helsingborgs – but he later regretted it. “I should’ve stayed, as it would have meant I got a Premier League winner’s medal, and I would have stayed for one more season,” he told FourFourTwo a decade later. “But I still had a contract with Helsingborgs and I feel that when you sign a contract, you have to see it out.”


7) Massimo Taibi
“We had a bad period trying to replace Peter Schmeichel,” Ferguson conceded in his autobiography. Not that he was telling anyone anything we didn’t already know.

His first attempt was Mark Bosnich. But there were issues from the very start with the freebie former Aston Villa keeper, who turned up three hours late on his first day. His kicking was weirdly poor and he struggled with injuries.

With Bosnich and also Van der Gouw crocked, United went back into the market to sign Taibi from Venezia for £4.5million on a four-year contract. Everyone forgets that Taibi was Man of the Match on his debut against Liverpool at Anfield in 1999. That’ll happen when you then absolutely f*** it.

He made just four appearances in which he cost 11 goals, including that daisy-cutter to Matt Le Tissier. His final game was a 5-0 humping at Chelsea, United’s first league defeat in 10 months. Four months after arriving, amid family problems, he was shipped back to Italy on loan and then permanently the following summer at a £2million loss.


6) Marcel Sabitzer
Ten Hag had to hurriedly spin through his Rol0dex during the final days of the January transfer window as soon as it emerged that Christian Eriksen would be out for three months after bumping into Andy Carroll in a bad mood one dark Saturday evening.

Sabitzer scored three goals in 18 appearances and had a hand in United’s Carabao Cup triumph by coming off the bench in the final against Newcastle. When his loan was up, everyone concerned seemed pretty non-plussed about the prospect of making it a longer-term arrangement. He did okay, put can’t claim to have pulled up any trees. In the end, Sabitzer returned to Bayern Munich before being sold to Borussia Dortmund.


5) Sergio Reguilon
United’s summer transfer window started in unsettlingly competent fashion. They signed Mason Mount – you could argue over the cost and whether it was really necessary but Ten Hag clearly wanted the England midfielder – before landing a striker and a goalkeeper to fill two gaping holes in their squad.

Then, inevitably, the desperation crept in. We’re told that the budget had been blown and United needed to raise any more funds through player sales. But the Red Devils have never sold players well. They have barely sold them at all.

Those struggles continued, meaning United entered the last few days of the window looking for a midfielder – they simply had to sign a midfielder – and after both Luke Shaw joined Tyrell Malacia on the sidelines, Ten Hag was suddenly trawling for a left-back.

They sought a loan deal for Marc Cucurella but Chelsea, not unreasonably, demanded a fee for United to borrow the defender who last summer moved for £53million. Tottenham, though, were making no such demands of anyone who wanted to take Reguilon off their hands. So the former Real Madrid defender was packed off up north to cover until January when United can feasibly return to sender with no obligation.


4) William Prunier
The French defender often comes up in Fergie’s worst XI features, which is harsh since the centre-back hardly disgraced himself during a trial month at Old Trafford.

It was a dire injury crisis that led to Prunier being invited to spend Christmas with the Red Devils in 1995, when Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and David May were all sidelined. The ex-Auxerre, Marseille and Bordeaux centre-back made an impressive debut in a 2-1 win over QPR at Old Trafford. His second appearance saw a depleted United defence – which also lost Denis Irwin and Peter Schmeichel – concede four at Tottenham.

Prunier was unfairly ridiculed, with The Telegraph describing him as ‘not looking like a Championship-winning centre-half’. Ferguson disagreed and offered Eric Cantona’s pal a three-year deal, but according to Prunier: “There were a lot of protagonists involved and they couldn’t find an agreement.”

Manchester United's previous loan signings William Prunier, Andy Goram and Henrik Larsson.

3) Andy Goram
“Goalie, I want you to come down for three months on loan,” Ferguson told the 36-year-old in a phone call in March 2001. “Fabien Barthez is injured and Raimond van der Gouw is injured. We’ve got Bayern Munich on Wednesday and Liverpool at the weekend.”

“F**k off!” came Goram’s reply, believing he was being stitched up by his mate, Ally McCoist. Fortunately, Ferguson rang back and spoke to Goram’s partner: “Miriam, this is Alex Ferguson, and you can tell that fat bastard he’s got 10 seconds to say aye or naw.”

Goram, whose loan spell made Motherwell £100,000, wasn’t required to face Bayern or Liverpool – Barthez was wheeled out for both games – but the Scotland veteran made his debut against Coventry on the weekend United wrapped up another league title. He was substituted in a pre-planned move to ensure Van der Gouw qualified for a league winner’s medal, and the same happened a month later when Goram lined up against Southampton at the Dell.

Read more: Five Man Utd left-field goalkeeper signings


2) Wout Weghorst
The Netherlands international is widely derided on the basis that he failed to score a Premier League goal in his half-season at Old Trafford. Which isn’t a good look for a centre-forward.

But Weghorst endeared himself to the United faithful just by running around a bit. That’s how low the bar was for a fanbase fed up of watching Anthony Martial’s mard-arse saunter around Old Trafford. He scored two goals, one in the Carabao Cup and another in Europe, and seemed to relish his big opportunity. But, enthusiastic though he was, he was never likely to be the top-class striker Erik ten Hag needed.

When his loan ended, a permanent deal wasn’t discussed and he now finds himself on loan at Hoffenheim.


1) Odion Ighalo
The Weghorst deal didn’t raise as many eyebrows as it ought to have done because United had form for borrowing unglamorous veteran strikers from random places. Indeed, an Ighalo-type deal has become a transfer genre of its own at Old Trafford these days.

Ighalo certainly blazed the trail for Weghorst when he arrived on loan from Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua in January 2020. “Dreams do come true,” said the former Watford forward; the reaction of United supporters was somewhat more muted.

But Ighalo did pretty well. He bagged five goals in 19 appearances in the Covid season to earn a six-month extension before heading off to Al Shabab to complete the CSL-Pro League double bubble.

Hojlund next: Ranking Man Utd’s striker signings since Ruud van Nistelrooy left