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Jul 12, 2012

Veron moves to Manchester

On July 12, 2001, Manchester United paid £28.1 million for Lazio midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron to make him the most expensive player in British football history. The move was hailed as a transfer coup for the club, but he failed to settle and was unable to live up to his considerable hype before moving to Chelsea just two years later.

After the successes of the Treble winning season in 1998-99 and the retention of their Premier League crown in the following two years, Manchester United were sitting pretty at the top of the English game. With an English core containing the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville, they had won the title by ten points from nearest challengers Arsenal but chose in the summer to splash out on two big foreign names.

To replace the departing Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole, Sir Alex Ferguson turned to £19 million Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, who he had been tracking for some time and almost signed a year previous before the PSV man ruptured cruciate knee ligaments and the deal was axed. However, the deal that attracted the most attention was the signing of Argentina international Veron, with Ferguson hoping that the pair would ''kick-start" the team as the signings of Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam and Jesper Blomqvist had done in 1998.

After a career which began in his homeland and was built in Italy, Veron had been the driving force for Lazio as they captured the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Italian Super Cup in 2000, and his control, vision and penchant for the spectacular saw the playmaker rated as one of the best midfielders in world football. After he was acquitted by the Italian Football Federation's disciplinary commission of providing false papers to obtain a EU passport, he insisted: "I definitely want to sign for the club. It would fill me with pride to wear the shirt of Manchester United." And so it was.

"We welcome him because he is a marvellous player, and one who brings just what we need to the team. He brings a nice pace to the team. Every time we have bought this type of player, he has done wonders for us," Ferguson said on his unveiling. "What we have done is bring in a really top player, one of the best players in the world. He is world class - a fantastic footballer. He's a marvellous player and Juan will bring a personality to the team which I feel we need at this moment. I feel we need a challenge.

"We have a fantastic bunch of players who have done magnificently over the years, but nothing beats a challenge. It's a terrific prospect and I am looking forward to it because with my experience of this team is that when we have signed a player of this calibre, he has done wonders for us. I never thought I would spend this much on a player. You believe it is unthinkable, but you have seen the escalation in prices. But it is nothing to do with the player. It is a matter between the clubs."

According to journalist and Man Utd aficionado Andy Mitten, upon arriving in Manchester, Veron showed his personal benevolence by going to the Old Trafford Megastore and buying 42 shirts to send back to Argentina for friends and family, paying the full price. Later he would insist that his entire £82,000-a-week wages for the season were used to fund the youth academy at his first club Estudiantes La Plata.

With many critical of the amount spent by United, Mitten revealed the fans' excitement as such a big-name arrival: "Fans were delighted. Here was a bona-fide world class player at the peak of his game, the type United had been reluctant - and partly because of what would happen with Veron, remain reluctant - to purchase. The expectation was immense, so much that Veron was fortunate the shirts with his name on were in stock. They had outsold those of fellow new signing Ruud van Nistelrooy by three to one that summer."

He began his United career with a 3-2 win over Fulham and there were initial signs that the move would come off. A 4-1 win over Everton saw headlines like 'Veron provides the fizz' written when he scored his first Premiership goal and he won the Player of the Month award that September.

"I was suspended for one of Veron's first game against Everton and sat in the stands," recalled team-mate Nicky Butt. "He was unbelievable, so good that I never thought that I'd play for United again. But then it didn't go great for Seba. It was a shame for him because he was a lovely fella. In European games he was brilliant, but I don't think he got to grips with the tempo of the league games."

Veron had opined that he would "adapt to the physical nature of the game in England" but there was little evidence to suggest that this was the case. "English football had a vestigial pride in its roughness and exciting disorganisation," wrote the Guardian's Kevin McCarra in reference to Veron. "Foreigners were supposed to get used to it. Some did, but others never got over their bafflement." A baffled Veron began to struggle and slid down the pecking order, playing 26 games as the pace of matches passed him by.

The frustrations of losing the title to Arsenal appeared to boil over at the end of the season as Ferguson launched an expletive-ridden tirade against journalists who had criticised his decision to splash out on Veron.

"He [Veron] is a f***ing great player... And you're all f***ing idiots," were his parting words from one press conference in May with Arsenal on the brink of the title, while he dismissed as ''total lies'' the Sunday newspaper report that alleged two United players angrily confronted Veron - "blaming his peripheral displays over the two games for their failure to reach the final" according to the Guardian's Daniel Taylor - after United were eliminated from the Champions League semi-finals by Bayer Leverkusen.

At one point, Ferguson demanded to know: "You tell me what is wrong with Veron. I think he has played well." The following year, after attentions turned to Argentina with England given the chance to avenge their exit at the 1998 World Cup, he railed: "He is a marvellous player but I think since England drew Argentina in the World Cup people have turned on him. I don't know what their agenda is but I think it's sad, very sad."

Playing one game less in 2002-03, and despite a spell in central midfield over Christmas when he looked briefly back to his old self alongside Phil Neville, the evidence was clear: Veron claimed a title winners' medal, but had to go. And Ferguson finally admitted it himself when he made the decision to sell his flop to Chelsea for £15 million that August.

What happened next? Veron's performances for Chelsea were just as bad as at Old Trafford while injury limited him to just 14 appearances for the club in four years and he was loaned out to Inter Milan and Estudiantes before re-joining his first club on a permanent deal in 2007. Proving himself again in Argentina, he captained Estudiantes to the 2009 Copa Libertadores and was named South American Footballer of the Year in 2008 annd 2009 before retiring in 2012. Though he redeemed himself back in Argentina, he remains one of the Premier League's worst foreign imports.

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