The ‘Little Witch’ and his spell among the Red Devils – Juan Sebastian Verón at Old Trafford.

It’s questionable whether there are many transfers involving expensive foreign imports to the English game that have evoked so much varied opinion as when Juan Sebastian Verón joined Manchester United from Lazio in July 2001. The deal was reported as being worth a then British record transfer fee, of around £28million.

An encouraging start to his time in England suggested the move would be a major coup for Sir Alex Ferguson. It even prompted Old Trafford stalwart Nicky Butt to question whether he would ever get back into the first eleven after watching the Argentine play. “I was suspended against Everton,” Butt would recall. “He played and I sat there and I thought: ‘I’ll never play for United again, that’s me done, I’ll have to get a move.’ Veron was the best player I’ve ever seen, except Cantona. In training he was like something I’d never seen.”

Later though, performances tailed off and by May of the following year, Ferguson was dipping into less than diplomatic tones to defend his player when criticism abounded at a press conference. He’s (Verón) a fucking great player,” the knight of Old Trafford hurled at the assembled members of the media. Following up with, “And you’re all fucking idiots,” as he exited the room. It was a robust and impassioned defence, but many demurred from the view, and by the following summer Verón was sold to Chelsea for a fee approximately half of that laid out to Lazio. Much later, both the deal to take him to Manchester, and the latter one that saw him move to west London were both included in The Times list of the worst 50 transfers in Premier League history.

Given this was a player who commanded a British record transfer fee, drew such a belligerent defence from the most forthright of Scottish managers and, at the time of his move to Stamford Bridge, was the most expensive footballer in history with a total of £77million lavished on cumulative transfer fees to gain his services, what went wrong for such an apparently outstanding talent? Here was a player who was still considered exceptional by no less a cognoscente than Pelé, who included him in his list of the 125 greatest living footballers in 2004 – even after he had left Chelsea after a mere handful of games. So, what’s the real story behind the Argentine’s time at Old Trafford? Unsurprisingly perhaps, there’s more than one answer to that particular conundrum. And, like so many such answers, it depends in which chair the respondent is sitting.

Juan Sebastián Verón was born in La Plata, Argentina, on 9 March 1975. His father, Juan Ramón Verón, was also a footballer of repute, and had earned the sobriquet of ‘The Witch’. To no-one’s great surprise therefore, when son followed father into the ranks of the professional game, acquiring the nickname of ‘The Little Witch’ was a natural consequence.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he joined Estudiantes in 1993, before moving on to Boca Juniors three years later where, for just 17 games, he played alongside Diego Maradona. It was a short stay at La Bombonera, though and later the same year, Sven-Göran Eriksson, who would become a long-time advocate of the midfielder took him to Serie A and Sampdoria. Already an international for La Albiceleste at the time, he would also feature for Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, after which he was sold to Parma in a deal worth approximately £15million. By this time, Eriksson had also left the Genoese club to join Lazio. Their paths would cross again in the near future.

In his single year with Il Gialloblù, Parma won both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup. It was enough to persuade Eriksson that the midfielder was precisely the player he required at Lazio to drive his team forward in search of the Scudetto. Eriksson brought him to Rome. Ironically, he made his debut against Manchester United in the European Super Cup played in Monaco. Lazio triumphed 1-0, and his performance left a mark on the Old Trafford maestro.

The deal to take Verón to Rome cost Lazio’s main man, Sergio Cragnotti, in excess of £18million, but the investment brought massive return with the Serie A title going to Lazio in 2000, along with the Coppa Italia and the Italian Super Cup. This however was the time when UEFA had player restrictions for non-nationals, and the pursuit of an Italian passport for Verón brought a morass of legal complications and accusations of fabricated evidence. The player and Cragnotti were both eventually cleared in 2007, but the agent involved in acquiring the passport, Elena Tedaldi, was jailed for 15 months.

In 2000, a defeat to Real Madrid in the quarter-final of the Champions League may have been the initial trigger for Ferguson to consider his midfield options. A rigid fixation on the 4-4-2 formation that had brought so much success to the club domestically was put into question when Los Blancos, playing a more fluid 4-3-3 system simply outmanoeuvred and outnumbered the endeavours of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes in the United engine room, rendering much of their play impotent. The following year Ferguson experienced a repeat performance when the Bayern Munich team of Ottmar Hitzfeld defeated his team both home and away in the quarter-finals of the competition utilising a similar mode of play to that of Vicente del Bosque’s Real Madrid. A third successive league title had been secured, but although the existing system was still allowing United to dominate at home, Ferguson craved one more European title, and came to the conclusion that against the premier sides in Europe, 4-4-2 would always be likely to come up short. If Ferguson was to adapt his formation however, it would require a different sort of midfielder, and his mind may well have settled on Juan Sebastian Verón as the answer.

Following the 2000-01 season, Ferguson decided to pounce, pushing through the record deal, which the player himself later related was massively influenced by Eriksson. “I spoke extensively with Mr Eriksson, with whom I have an excellent rapport,” he said. “He gave me a lot of advice and explained a lot of things. He really pushed me hard to come and play in England.” At this time, of course, Eriksson had been spirited away from Rome by the persuasive wiles of Adam Crozier to take over as manager of the England national team, so he would have been speaking with the authority of someone already deeply involved in the English game. Perhaps, however, there was little persuasion necessary. Verón would also emphasise his respect for the Manchester United midfielders Beckham, Scholes and Keane, enthusiastically talking of the, “great pleasure to play with people of great calibre.” Adding that, “Manchester United are a great team. And the team is always greater than any player.”

It’s a hoary old chestnut, but often no less valid for that at times, that when a player comes to the ‘thud and blunder’ of the English league, especially from a more studious environment like Serie A or La Liga, there’s often a period of adjustment required as the pace of the domestic game can be as a whirlwind, blowing away composure, closely followed by confidence and form. Many have said that although Verón looked an exceptional player in some of the early games, and outstanding in training, for example witness the remarks of Nicky Butt above, this may have been the prime cause of his deterioration in form, especially as the season wore on and any lack of–some may say application, others would perhaps attribute it to conditioning– perhaps exposed an unsuitability to the English game.

In the early days though, such thoughts seemed far away, as Ferguson slotted his new signing into the team with little disruption. Netting four goals from midfield in his first eight games, Verón hit the floor running. The following month he won the Premier League Player of the Month award and things looked on track. A 1-2 home defeat to Bolton precipitated a bad run though and United went through seven games recording just a single win. Suddenly, there seemed doubt and Ferguson alternated his formation from the 4-5-1 set up to exploit the new signing’s talents, and then back to the tried and tested 4-4-2, meaning doubt crept in and a loss of confidence as players were unsure as to where, or even whether, they would be playing the following week.

United’s exploits in the Champions League competition in that first season may bear witness to this. The more studied tempo of those encounters was certainly akin to the flow and pace Verón had excelled in during his time in Serie A and consequently was a key factor in United’s progress through the group stages, and Verón netted four times across the six group games. A recurring Achilles injury however curtailed much of his time towards the latter part of the season, and it was during this time that, when the value of the transfer fee was being speculated on, Ferguson launched his tirade at the press.

For all Ferguson’s robust defence, and the blandishments of Eriksson that he should make the move to Old Trafford, the player himself also clearly considered that the transition to the English game may well have been a factor in the problems he experienced, especially after the first few relatively successful months. Interviewed by FourFourTwo magazine in 2016, he made clear his thoughts on his time at old Trafford. “The real change was the physical aspect. I regard fitness training as a very important thing. I moved from a country with intense pre-season training to another where football matches are the only way they train. In England they play the whole year: Christmas, New Year, non-stop. The first six months I coped with it well – really well. But after December, it was very difficult for me to keep up.” It’s almost a confirmation of the thoughts so many people were offering at the time, and the sort of explanation that Ferguson seemed to be railing against so stridently.

Nevertheless, it’s perhaps not difficult to understand the manager’s desire to protect his player from what he perceived as a media witch-hunt – or perhaps ‘Little Witch’ hunt. Ferguson was also at pains to deny any truth in rumours – promoted by a Sunday newspaper – but quickly spreading, that two of United’s more senior players in the midfield area had ‘taken the player to one side’ to explain how things were supposed to be conducted at the club, after defeat to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-final of the Champions League. The story went that the pair had decided that enough was enough and that the player’s apparent peripheral attachment to the team ethic in both legs had cost the United a place in the showpiece final. The statement from the manager was unequivocal. “It’s absolute nonsense, total lies.”

Clearly, the truth of it will probably never be known, so there’s little justification in doubting the manager’s word with no evidence to the contrary. Former players however have voiced their own opinions as to why things fell apart for the club’s record signing.

Speaking on Sky sports, Gary Neville appears to both accept that the signing was intended to precipitate a change in formation, but also doubts the efficacy of such a ploy, citing it as one of the reasons for the ultimate failure of Verón’s time at Old Trafford. The pundit expressed his opinion commenting that, “I think one of the biggest challenges is when you have a set XI and you can name the set XI. It happened at United when we had Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs. You think to yourself: ‘Do you buy a player to back them up? Or do you buy a player to challenge and replace them and potentially upset the apple cart?’ I think of when Verón came in, he was £28million which was a huge signing at the time. He probably wasn’t as good but you had to play him and Scholes moved forward and it disrupted the team.” The comments may suggest that Neville saw little reason to disrupt the system of play that had been the foundation of so much success at the club, and may not have shared his manager’s view – if that was the case – of a need to adapt if they were to be competitive with the best teams in Europe.

Nicky Butt who, as mentioned above felt his place in the squad threatened by the new signing, has a slightly different take. Perhaps leaning towards the theory that Verón was simply not used to the style of the English game and couldn’t – or wouldn’t – adapt, there’s also a hint that perhaps some players did try to convince the newcomer of the sorts of things that was expected of him within the team ethos. The midfielder who eventually left Old Trafford to join Newcastle in 2004 is reported in The Times as saying. “There have been superstars who’ve come to this club and can’t live with it. Juan Verón comes to mind. But as much as Veron was a great lad, and an unbelievable footballer, he didn’t know what it meant to be a Manchester United player. He didn’t know the feeling of the club. He couldn’t handle the pace, the tempo. The fans didn’t want the little rollovers, the technical outside of the foot passes. They wanted blood and thunder, give it to Peter Schmeichel, throw it out to Giggs, attack, attack, attack. Players need to know that.”

As with Neville’s comments, Butt seems to reinforce the idea that, for whatever reason, Juan Sebastian Verón never really ‘belonged’ at Old Trafford. Perhaps it was the English game. Perhaps it was the particular demands of playing for Manchester United. Perhaps it was because he was seen as the man who had been brought in to change everything, when so many members of that team believed that nothing actually needed to be changed.

For whatever reason though, a bright start to his spell at Old Trafford was as good as it got. Understandably, his manager sought to make the situation work, and offered outspoken support. Nevertheless, by the following year, Ferguson appeared to have deemed the move a failure, and accepted a 50% loss on the money spent to bring Verón to Old Trafford, and shipped him out to Chelsea, newly flush with Abramovich’s roubles. The move did little to put Verón’s career back into an upward curve and after only a handful of games, he was loaned out first to Inter Milan, and then to Estudiantes, back in Argentina until his Stamford Bridge contract expired at which time he signed for his home town club.

When Juan Sebastian Verón signed for Manchester United, it was seen as a major coup for the Old Trafford club. One of the brightest midfield stars plying his trade in Europe had been secured. Yes, a record fee had been claimed for his services, but at the time, few questioned the value involved. Two years later, his career was on a downward slope, something hardly altered as he flitted through the doors – both in, then out – at Stamford Bridge. Those two years saw the player’s transfer value diminish by half and his regard within the game tumble by much more than that. For the ‘Little Witch’ the spell at Old Trafford had simply failed to produce the magic.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ website.

 

 

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