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Mar 5, 2009

A new career in a new town

Sir Alex Ferguson's capacity for successful reinvention matches that of a younger David Bowie. Though, unlike the Dame, his later career has matched the achievements of an early flush of success. That said, some of his dealings in the transfer market still register as failures. Though not quite a "Laughing Gnome", Juan Sebastian Verón will always be remembered as a "Glass Spider Tour", the moment that ambition and flight of fancy got in the way of doing what he did best.

In signing the dome-headed midfielder, who celebrates his birthday on Monday - he is just 34 - Fergie made his gravest error in the transfer window. Strange as it seems now, with United fans well acquainted with Brazilians, Argentines and, briefly, a Uruguayan, Verón was the first South American to call Old Trafford home. At £28.1m, he was also their most expensive ever-signing and, nearly eight years on, is still third on their all-time spending list. He is remembered by many as a big-time flop, a wasted talent and the signing that signalled United's concession of their Premiership primacy.

Verón had his moments but his greatest crime - not that he perpetrated it - was to unbalance a team's equilibrium. In the previous two seasons Paul Scholes had become United's creative fulcrum as they secured three successive titles. David Beckham got all the headlines, yet Scholes was the player's player. A quartet of Beckham down the opposite flank to Ryan Giggs with Roy Keane partnering Scholes in the centre had a claim to be the best midfield in Europe.

Yet Ferguson did not agree. United's defence of their European title had been ended in 2000 by a Real Madrid team who had exposed United's defensive weaknesses. The following year, Bayern Munich were able to achieve an element of revenge by out-thinking and out-muscling United's midfield.

Ferguson wanted another taste of European glory and had a further reason; it was to be his last chance. The Scot had long said he would walk away in his 60th year. That birthday landmark lay on January 1st 2002. Destiny awaited yet further when it was announced that the Champions League Final of 2002 would be staged at Hampden Park in Glasgow, the town of Ferguson's birth and the venue where as a teenager he had watched Real Madrid demolish Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in 1960.

Granted the highly expensive services of Ruud Van Nistelrooy a year later than first planned, Ferguson still wanted more. His first target was a player whose Premiership class could not be doubted; none other than Patrick Vieira. Behind the scenes United made plenty of efforts to lure Arsenal's captain-in-waiting to first partner then succeed Keane. Those European failures had convinced Ferguson of the usefulness of playing with two anchor midfielders, with Fernando Redondo and Ivan Helguera being as effective as Steffen Effenberg and Jens Jeremies had been in stopping the supply to United's striker.

Though Ferguson at one time believed a deal for Vieira could be a goer, the chances of the Gunners letting go of their captain-in-waiting were remote to non-existent. The fee most quoted at the time was around the £20m mark; Ferguson was being granted a significant warchest. With the devil-may-care air of a man who knows he will get one last crack at the big time, Ferguson set his sights further afield and on Serie A. Hailed for the last couple of seasons as the best midfielder in Italy and a playmaker of the Redondo type, Lazio's Verón was a deep-lying schemer whose quality of passing was proven in its ability to pick the lock on continental defences.

A lengthy bidding process followed. Every summer has its drawn-out transfer odyssey. The summer of 2001 had Verón as its leader in column inches. A couple of false starts and he was Ferguson's for a not-so-cool £28.1m. For the first time, United had signed a world star from a foreign league. It was a voyage into the unknown they will only repeat with great caution.

The initial signs were good. A thrilling sub's cameo in a 3-2 opening day win over Fulham at Old Trafford had fans drooling. So too a virtuoso display against Everton on September 9 which had Alan Hansen predicting that Verón was nailed on to be PFA Player of the Year. Yet United had problems. Scholes had not been dropped but pushed forward as a support striker to Van Nistelrooy and looked nowhere near as effective as in a more withdrawn role. He was unhappy too. In a completely out-of-character move, he refused to board the bus for a League Cup tie with Arsenal and, for once, engaged the wrath of Ferguson.

By then, a 2-2 draw with Blackburn had revealed United's fragility as had a late rescue act at Villa. A 4-3 defeat at Newcastle compounded the feeling that United were there to be got at, not least because Jaap Stam, the man Johan Cruyff once called a "one-man" defence found himself at Lazio, having been sold to balance the books. Ageing slowcoach Laurent Blanc was brought in to replace him. Verón was not United's only problem yet he would become a symbol of their fading.

While Scholes moped so too did Keane, who now had to do the defending of two midfielders; his new partner patrolled the pitch as though he were above the physical side. The Irishman was now forced to curb his attacking instincts. That infamous temper boiled over at Newcastle as he aimed a punch at Alan Shearer. The dramatic thrill of a 5-3 comeback win at Spurs did not paper the cracks. Defeats in quick succession to Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea gave United a mountain to climb in the league. A winter surge featuring Verón out of position and trouble on the right wing kept them in contention yet a defeat to Middlesbrough, with a Verón lapse culpable for Alen Boksic's early winner ended faint hopes.

Europe remained the primary aim. There, Verón was handed the reins of playmaker with qualified success. United meandered through the twin group stages before a quarter-final despatching of heavily fancied Deportivo in April; the night Beckham's metatarsal gave way. Yet Verón himself was struggling with an ankle injury himself.

The semi-final with Bayer Leverkusen is bitterly remembered as one of United's great lost opportunities. A 2-2 draw at Old Trafford meant a 1-1 draw in Germany was enough to knock United out and end Ferguson's dreams of Glasgow. By then, he'd gone back on his decision to retire but the damage had been done. Uncertainty and the shoe-horning of a player whose style was unsuited to United's pacy attacking style had derailed a tried, trusted and trophy-laden system.

Verón was accused of slowing down the speed of counter-attacks, failing to shield the defence and looking lazy when not in possession. There were still moments - a YouTube Verón highlights reel would have looked sublime - yet United fans felt they had not seen the player they had been promised. The 2001-2 season, with Arsenal collecting the Double at United and Real Madrid winning in Glasgow, was their first potless season in four years.

Verón became a scapegoat, rightly or wrongly, for United's failings when his manager was truly the man to blame. The following year, far more successful for both him and United, he admitted that he had suffered his darkest hour saying he "liked to walk alone at night. I seemed like a lunatic."

United reclaimed the title in 2002-3 with a stirring late run to deny Arsenal. Verón had played his part, scoring against the Gunners at Old Trafford in December, threading a perfect pass for Diego Forlan to score the winner against Chelsea yet injury, the same ankle/foot injury rearing its ugly head as the run-in began. Yet Ferguson, one last time, placed his faith in him, picking him for the Champions League visit of Real Madrid in April ahead of Beckham.

The England captain came on for a clearly unfit Verón and scored two quick goals that were not nearly enough to save matters. The selection snub further opened the rift between Beckham and Ferguson, resulting in his eventual departure; another example of Verón's catalytic quality of causing problems in a United unit that was beginning to come apart at the seams.

Whenever questioned on the subject of "Seba", Ferguson became more defensive than usual, memorably hitting back at a journalist with the response that "He's a f***ing great player. Youse are all f***ing idiots." Yet when offered £15m by Chelsea in the summer of 2003, United were happy to sell. It came as small consolation that he made even less impact at Stamford Bridge and that his selection was blamed for a disastrous Champions League exit at the semi-final stage.

Though United's spending has continued since, they have never spent as much money on a player from the continent. The likes of Ferdinand, Rooney and Berbatov were all proven in the English game while those arriving from foreign shores are usually of the young and promising type who can be moulded into the United way.

Verón may well have been "Fergie's Folly" yet the lessons look to have been learned.

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