In all his 26 years at the helm of Manchester United, only once did Sir Alex Ferguson deem it necessary to repurchase a player he had previously allowed to leave his club. Not David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Gerard Piqué nor Carlos Tevez did the legendary Scot see fit to bring back after selling. No, the only player to have been signed to United twice by Ferguson was Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich.
Yet Bosnich was also the player Ferguson described, in his second autobiography, as a “terrible professional.” This contradiction goes some of the way to outlining just what a bewildering, divisive, frustrating footballer Bosnich could be.
Born and raised, rather ironically, in the Sydney suburb of Liverpool, Bosnich first moved to England as a teen and joined Manchester United after a successful trial in 1989, choosing them over their Merseyside rivals. He debuted for the United first team at Old Trafford on 30 April in a goalless draw at home to Wimbledon, but was soon after made to return to his homeland.
Intent on circumnavigating any pesky work-permit issues by any means necessary, Bosnich had enrolled in the local Manchester Polytechnic university, “though I don’t think I ever saw the inside of a lecture hall” he wrote in 2004. But, before long, immigration caught up with him, dragged him Down Under once more, kicking and screaming, and sent him to see out a period of military service in Yugoslavia.
Back home, he continued playing football, turning out for Sydney United until he was granted permission to head back to England to reside, after a far from inconveniently-timed marriage to an Englishwoman, which would last about as long as it took for the Home Office to deem it “not a wedding of convenience.” Keen to return to the Premier League, Bosnich signed with Aston Villa.
After an introductory year of apprenticeship to the Villans’ starting custodian Nigel Spink, much of his season spent watching on from the bench as his side earned a surprising runners-up place in the Premier League behind old club Manchester United, it was during the 1993/94 season that Bosnich first flourished, foregoing his relative inexperience alongside fellow newly-instated youngsters Ugo Ehiogu and Graham Fenton.
Despite a poor league showing from his team, dropping from second to tenth in the space of a season, Villa triumphed in the year’s League Cup, the first of two Bosnich would lift with the claret and blues. Villa had their ambidextrous Aussie to thank for ensuring their safe passage to the final, as he exhibiting himself to be something of a penalty expert, pawing away three Tranmere spot-kicks in the shootout required to split the two teams after a 4-4 aggregate draw. Bosnich remained in fine form, coming back to bite his old team and aid in denying them a domestic treble as Villa vanquished Ferguson’s men 3-1 at Wembley.
By the following season, Bosnich was rightfully Villa’s number one keeper and there, from his regular vantage point between the sticks, the Australian witnessed some rather wild oscillations in form over the course of his seven full seasons in Birmingham. Bosnich’s personal fortunes also swung fiercely from the laudable to the lamentable.
Frequently, he would be commended by fans and pundits alike for his performances, fancied by some, at times, as the finest goalkeeper in the division. Yet his career would become blotted by incidents such as that which took place in 1996, as Villa played away to Spurs, and Bosnich saw fit to respond to vitriolic chants from the home crowd with a blatant Nazi salute and the evocation of an unsubtle “Sieg Heil”, even electing to goose-step across his penalty area, before later claiming the act to have simply been “acknowledgement of the crowd’s banter.”
Ashamed at having enormously miscalculated the severity of his actions, along with desecrating his own Jewish heritage, being warned by the police, fined £1,000 by the Football Association and formally charged with misconduct, Bosnich could do little to redeem himself and instead set about refocussing himself on his football. Three months later, his contract with Villa would expire and he’d make the decision to take the next step forward in his career, a step that would see him move backwards in more ways than one; beginning with a move back to Manchester.
As legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel ended his Manchester United tenure with a historic Treble, followed by a move to Sporting in Portugal, it was Bosnich who slotted into the position vacated by the great Dane. United proceeded to win the ensuing Premier League by a then-record 18-point margin and triumphed in the Intercontinental Cup, with a single Roy Keane goal enough to see off their Brazilian counterparts Palmeiras. But Ferguson remained unconvinced by Bosnich whom, it was seemingly becoming increasingly apparent, had only been signed out of convenience.
With Massimo Taibi swiftly sent packing back to Italy, dispatched post-haste after a string of high-profile blunders, and the club no longer able to depend upon the retiring Raimond van der Gouw, Ferguson snapped up French World Cup-winning goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and, with that, the Australian had unknowingly played his final first-team game for the club. Thus began the beginning of the end of Bosnich’s career.
Despite signing for Chelsea in the January 2001 transfer window, shackled to the sidelines by injury, Bosnich was forced to wait until the following season to make his bow for the Blues. Even then, he managed no more than a handful of appearances before being sacked by the club and banned from football entirely for nine months, after a drugs test had come back positive for cocaine.
Bosnich protested the ban, exclaiming his innocence: “I still maintain that at the time of my drugs test, I was not taking cocaine. That came after,” Bosnich wrote in The Observer, two years after his ban. “I had a big argument with my girlfriend [supermodel Sophie Anderton] and decided to go to a nightclub. I got talking to a girl who later admitted that she had slipped the drug into her drink. I must have had a sip of her glass.” Nevertheless, Bosnich’s excuse of implausible obliviousness failed to aid in recovering the tattered wreckage that was his professional career.
Though he battled back to something comparable to his old level of fitness five years later, earning short-term contracts to play briefly for Central Coast Mariners and, the following year, Sydney Olympic, the dye had long since been cast and there was no returning to the glory days for Bosnich.
This brief comeback followed a destructive cocaine addiction that, at its worst, allegedly had the Australian snorting ten grams a day, costing some $5,000-per-week. Likely the worst of all the many confounding consequences of his actions during this regrettable period of his life, reports claimed Bosnich had come close to shooting his father with an air rifle, believing him to be an intruder in his home. That he played football at all again after these events remains a cause for great astonishment.
Ultimately, in spite of the good times, Bosnich and football seemed better off without one another, prospering without the corrupting influence of the other. As he wrote in 2004, “I don’t miss football. At first, I thought I was reacting against the way I had been treated. Now I realise I just don’t need it. I appreciate what the game has done for me … but I owe it nothing and it owes me nothing.”
However he may view his legacy in the game, five, 10, 20 years from now, the fear remains that one day, Bosnich may just look back upon his football career and wish he’d not let it slip so easily through his fingers – partly because, at his best, he was a goalkeeper of outstanding quality.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp