Just over 20 years ago, as the team sheets were read out at Old Trafford, Derby County’s new signing, Paulo Wanchope, could still lay claim to being a relative unknown. Signed from Costa Rican side Herediano for a paltry £600,000 in March 1997, a week or so later the gangly striker was the name on everyone’s lips.
An unfancied Rams side were there for the taking at the Theatre of Dreams against the champions, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were clearly ill-prepared for the impact that the 20-year-old would make. Before half time, the six feet four inch centre-forward had set up Ashley Ward for the opener with a towering header, before embarking on the passage of play that announced him to the wider footballing public.
There appeared to be little danger when Wanchope received the ball just inside his own half, particularly as there were United players on either side of him. Seeing a huge expanse of green directly in front, the striker simply took off, gazelle-like, towards the penalty area. Though Phil Neville was attempting to close Wanchope down, and Gary Pallister had faced up centrally, the pace and awkwardness of their opponent took him past them with ease. By the time he reached the edge of the box, there were now four Red Devils in close attendance and Peter Schmeichel narrowing the angle on his six-yard line.
No matter. He simply opened his body up and steered it past the helpless Dane. Arms spread wide, the acclaim from one end of the ground was total. The three other full stands were open-mouthed in disbelief. As Wanchope finished his celebration, he stood there, fist clenched and right arm raised. He knew, and so did everyone else. He had arrived.
It was a goal worthy of the coverage it duly received, and from being an unknown nine days previously, Wanchope became an overnight sensation and the subject of every football conversation up and down the country. The English national press couldn’t get enough of him. Derby were inundated with interview requests but there was just one man of interest. How had County managed to slip this sensation under the radar? Who was Paulo Wanchope?
As everyone knows, the rewards are there if you know where to look for them and had anyone bothered to mine for their gold in less fashionable areas, they would’ve realised immediately that he had form. Son of Vicente Wanchope, a Costa Rican international, Paulo’s brothers Javier and Carlos also had the honour of representing their country.
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Jim Smith and his backroom staff had certainly done their own homework and shown that by looking a little further afield than the traditional hotbeds of footballing talent, there were bargains to be had.
With only six weeks until the end of that campaign, Wanchope hadn’t really had time to adjust to life in England, so it’s remarkable that he was able to make an such an immediate – and enduring – mark.
A full pre-season behind him, he would hit the ground running in the 1997/98 season, one in which Derby finished ninth, their best since 1989. His 13 goals were a big part of their rise to mid-table, and never better than the brace against Arsenal in November 1997.
The Gunners’ first-ever visit to Pride Park was destined to end in defeat once a certain person provided a second-half master class, and it was also the visitor’s first defeat of the campaign, giving some credence to the ‘performance of the season’ headlines that followed in the Sunday papers.
At this point, there was a genuine feeling that Derby would find it hard to hold onto a player they’d only signed a few months previously, remembering of course that this was the time before transfer windows had existed. Smith’s famous persuasive charms ensured that the big boys were kept from the door, however.
Though Wanchope only managed to find the net on nine occasions in 1998/99, he was still a big part of their eighth-place finish. Far from being a traditional centre-forward, and not one necessarily built for the rigours of the game in England’s top flight, the Costa Rican evidently had skills that he was often not given credit for.
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His movement was particularly good but overlooked for the most part. For one so tall and dangerous, he would regularly find space with ease and Dean Sturridge was as grateful a recipient of his understanding and reading of the game as much as his knock-downs.
Perhaps sensing that his star wasn’t shining quite as brightly as when he was signed, the club did great business with West Ham, Smith selling Wanchope on to his old friend Harry Redknapp for a hefty £3.5 million. A decent profit was enough to pacify the home support who had taken to suggesting that Smith had clearly lost the plot when it became common knowledge that the player was available at the right price.
Not long after, it was the turn of the Hammers faithful to vent their ire. This wasn’t what they were used to down in the East End. Brought up on the likes of Moore, Brooking and Bonds, Wanchope’s arms and legs ‘windmill’ style was anathema to all that the bubble-blowing fraternity held dear.
Despite a reasonably impressive 15 goals in his one season in east London, including two against his former employers, the Costa Rican was never a popular addition. That Redknapp was able to make a small uplift on him said more about his abilities off the pitch than his managerial expertise on it.
During this period of his career, Wanchope continued to excel at international level, remaining one of the highest scorers in Costa Rican history, and that has to be part of the reason that Manchester City – before the cash and oil-rich billionaires left their footprint – was his next port of call.
A knee injury would blight his time there but glimpses of his best form returned from time to time. In danger of becoming something of an enigma, he did at least manage to score the goal in 2003/04 that saved them from a second relegation in three seasons. At 28, he should’ve been at the peak of his powers but a loss of confidence, due in no small part to the long-term injuries sustained in Manchester, contributed to the latter stages of his career being nothing to write home about.
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Málaga took a chance on him in 2004 and his goal against Numancia was voted La Liga’s best that year. It was a fleeting dalliance with the fame that had been part of his daily routine just a few years before. Twenty-six run-of-the-mill appearances later and he was gone. Qatar’s Al-Gharafa, a foray back home to where it all began at Herediano, Rosario Central, FC Tokyo and Chicago Fire were all added to the CV in the space of two years, his knee problems continuing to condition the standard of his performance.
When Wanchope made the decision that every footballer dreads and called time on his career after 13 mostly enjoyable years, it wasn’t a surprise. Far from making headline news again, a sentence or two at best, hidden away inside the tabloids, let everyone know his time was up. Those same newspapers would later revel in the notoriety Wanchope gained in 2015 in an incident that ended his brief managerial career.
Though he would again return to Herediano, this time on the bench, it was a short marriage lasting less than a year, their former star leaving on a whim, citing poor attitude and player performance as the reason for his swift departure. It would subsequently transpire that the administration of the club was to blame.
Back in England to further his knowledge, Wanchope went about his business largely unnoticed and a year later the call came for him to become assistant to Jorge Luis Pinto for the Costa Rican national team. It could be argued that the move came a little too early in his career off of the pitch, but it was never going to be an opportunity that was passed up. Indeed, the pair worked well together for four years until Pinto departed at the culmination of his side’s participation in the 2014 World Cup.
Wanchope took over as interim manager and immediately won the Copa Centroamericana, further enhancing his credentials with the powers that be, who were already convinced that they had the right man. Just four months after that victory, in January 2015, one of Costa Rica’s favourite sons was finally given the accolade of managing his country on a permanent basis. What a shame, then, that it would only be another seven months before he was out of the job again, for one moment of madness.
Overseeing an under-23 game against Panama from the stands, Wanchope went to make his way down to the bench at the end of the game but had his way barred by an over-zealous security guard. In no mood to tolerate the jobsworth, Wanchope pushed past and in so doing was pushed down steps and into a young substitute. Only to be expected, the former player reacted instantly, wildly swinging a punch at his aggressor who retaliated with a flying kick and a flurry of punches of his own.
It was subsequently alleged by the guard that he had no idea who Wanchope was, but in any event, the entire scuffle was captured on camera and was so unsavoury that it left the 39-year-old nowhere to go other than back on the dole. Costa Rica’s FA didn’t comment on the matter at the time but the furore that had erupted, stoked in no small part by the English media who had once revered him, meant that his resignation wasn’t too far off in being delivered.
Since then, Wanchope, the player who put Costa Rican football on the map, has kept away from the limelight and it’s hard to know whether the fire will burn again anytime soon. His career perfectly encapsulates the feeling of hero to zero.
By Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove