“It’s a justifiable risk,” proclaimed Sir Alex Ferguson, as he announced the £650,000 signing of a little known winger from Ukraine on 26 March 1991. Over the course of the Nineties, Andrei Kanchelskis bombing down his right flank and twisting his opposing full-back into knots would become a regular and exhilarating sight for football fans.
Along with a number of other foreign recruits, Kanchelskis would play a pivotal role in catapulting Manchester United to new and unforeseen triumphs. Aside from impressing in Manchester, he would also have an impact at Everton and Rangers. In fact, he remains the only player to have scored in the Manchester, Merseyside and Old Firm derbies.
In signing Kanchelskis, Manchester Utd became one of the first British clubs to take a dip into the murky world of post-Soviet Union Eastern European football. The venture had its own particularly devious ramifications, but in a purely footballing sense signing Kanchelskis was an act of genius. He lit up British football, led the way for future foreign recruits, and became one of the most iconic wingers of the decade.
One of Ferguson’s first moves as Man Utd manager was to establish an extensive scouting network, not just in the UK, but also in other parts of the world. In the Nineties, the club looked to Europe and, in particular, Scandinavia, with likes of Peter Schmeichel, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and Ronny Johnsen, amongst others, becoming essential signings.
This strategy of combining local talents with exciting players from abroad has become part of the Man Utd way. The approach has expanded massively over the last two decades, thanks to vastly increased budgets and fiercer competition from rivals, but the goal remains the same. Nowadays, Man Utd scours the entire planet in search of the next superstar. Kanchelskis was the genesis of this policy.
In March 1991, he became Alex Ferguson’s first successful — Mark Bosnich was signed in 1989, but rarely featured before being let go — non-British or Irish signing, and was followed by Peter Schmeichel in August ‘91, Eric Cantona in 1992, and many others after.
Ferguson became enthralled by Kanchelskis when Rune Hauge — now infamous for his part in the George Graham bung scandal — sent the Scottish manager videos of the winger turning out for Russia. Man Utd subsequently invited Andrei to take part in a trial. Kanchelskis claims the true nature of his trial was kept hidden from him until the last minute. His representatives informed him that a Manchester club was interested in him, but not which one.
Despite being under-prepared, wearing the wrong size boots and in his own words “playing a terrible game”, Kanchelskis impressed the United hierarchy enough for them to pay Shakhtar Donetsk £650,000 for his services. He threw himself head first into British culture, his jovial character endeared himself to his teammates, and he worked hard with iconic footballer translator George Scanlon whilst he settled down in Manchester, where “everything was different, except the football.”
His first involvement came in May ‘91, in a 3-0 loss against Crystal Palace when a second-string side replaced the regular starters, most of whom were being rested for the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. The following season, Kanchelskis’ took advantage of Lee Sharpe’s injury-induced absence to make the right-flank his own. With Ryan Giggs on the left and Andrei on the right, Man Utd became a force to be reckoned with. Although they were pipped to the title by Leeds, Ferguson’s vision of an attacking, youthful, and psychologically robust club was finally starting to take shape.
Sharpe made life difficult for Kanchelskis in the 1992/93 season. The Brit had missed the early part of the season, due to contracting viral meningitis, but he hit the form of his life after Christmas. The Russian was therefore consigned to the role of super-sub as United went on to claim their first championship title since 1967.
In 1993/94, however, he was sublime. There was no stopping him; metaphorically and physically. Bursting into space on the counter and whizzing beyond a flat-footed full-back became his trademark, and the fans loved him for it. He made a total of 44 appearances and scored 10 times as Manchester United won the domestic double, only the fifth time a club had done so in the 20th century. They were so dominant that after going top of the league in August, they didn’t once relinquish the top spot again all season.
There are many who consider the 1993/94 squad to be the best of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. It is believed that their failure to compete at European level was the result of the ‘three foreign players only’ rule which meant Ferguson was forced to choose between Kanchelskis, Schmeichel, Cantona, Keane, and Irwin.
At the end of the season, Kanchelskis quashed rumours that he was looking to leave the club by signing a new contract designed to keep him in the north-west until 1999. Clearly, he was a part of the manager’s long-term plans. Kanchelskis got off to a flying start at the beginning of 1994/95. In November, he cemented his place as a United legend with a stunning performance and hat-trick against rivals, Manchester City. The winger was in scintillating form. Before the turn of the year, he had already scored 11 goals.
However, all was not rosy at the Theatre of Dreams. The relationship between club and player was rapidly disintegrating. After Christmas, Kanchelskis started to develop stomach complaints — he has since said it was a “hernia problem” — but United’s medical team weren’t able to diagnose anything specific. The club staff believed he was feigning injury because he wished to be sold, which he has always denied. In fact, he says the club’s lack of trust was one of the key factors when he did finally leave. But there was more at play. Apart from Sir Alex and the board becoming increasingly agitated with Kanchelskis’ inability to play, the behaviour of the player’s representative, Grigori Yesaulenko, was outright terrifying.
First of all, the agent gifted Ferguson a package which he assumed contained a “decorative samovar” or something of that ilk. The Man Utd manager initially refused but the agent insisted, he said it was a “thank you” for everything he had done for Andrei. When he got home, his wife, Cathy, discovered the parcel was stuffed with £40,000 in cold hard cash. With George Graham’s scandal still fairly fresh, Ferguson immediately contacted the club’s lawyers and all the money was stored in a safe before being returned to Yesaulenko a year later.
It soon became clear Kanchelskis no longer wanted stay at Old Trafford. The main obstacle to the transfer were a couple of clauses: one which gave Shakhtar Donetsk 30% of the profits of any transfer fee, and another which granted Kanchelskis the same percentage. Manchester United were reticent to sell for less than £5 million after deductions.
After Man Utd rejected an offer from Everton, Yesaulenko’s got aggressive, telling chairman Martin Edwards that he “wouldn’t be around much longer” if Kanchelskis wasn’t sold. What’s more, to get around the clause and finalise the transfer, Yesaulenko duped Shahktar’s vice-president into forwarding Manchester United a note on headed paper in which the Ukrainian club forfeited the sell-on fee.
Yesaulenko’s actions and further fraudulent deeds committed by ex-Shakhtar president Aleksandr Bragin were eventually exposed and the disputes between the respective clubs wouldn’t be settled until well after Kanchelskis had left.
Kanchelskis initial desire was to join up with former teammate Bryan Robson at Middlesborough, but Man Utd held out for a higher bid and he was eventually sold to Everton for a reported £6 million. Whether Kanchelskis truly wanted to leave Manchester is unclear. He has since expressed regret, saying that “it was a mistake on both sides.” There were also rumours regarding mafias and gambling debts, but Kanchelskis has dismissed them all as “stupid stories.”
He has stressed that money was never an issue and that he left simply because his relationship with Ferguson broke down. As with all things, the truth probably lies somewhere between the lines, Kanchelskis was angry at the club for doubting his injury and this meant it was easy for Yesaulenko, who stood to gain a “significant commission”, to turn his head.
Kanchelskis’ exploits at Everton turned him into a Goodison Park hero. His 16 goals in the 1995/96 season fired Joe Royle’s side up the table as they finished just short of qualification for a UEFA Cup spot, in sixth place. He once again became the source of much transfer speculation and, when he suffered a serious dip in form halfway through the next season, the cash-strapped Toffees accepted an £8 million offer from Italian club Fiorentina. In Florence, Kanchelskis would join a tantalising line-up which included stars such as Rui Costa and Gabriel Batistuta
Though he would return to the Premiership years later, with Man City and Southampton, Kanchelskis’ time in the top English division was, for all intents and purposes, over. He would not be the same player when he came back.
His time in the Serie A was not so distinguished. He suffered some horrendous injuries, which stripped him of his ferocious pace and, apart from his physical issues, Kanchelskis also struggled to adapt to the defensive nature of the Italian game. The space that would be ahead of him on the counter at Manchester Utd and Everton had now disappeared, rendering his speed and power useless. It was a fruitless period and, after the 1998 World Cup, he was shipped off to Rangers for £5.5 million.
At Rangers, his career limped into its twilight. His relationship with the notoriously strict Dick Advocaat was strained. There were, however, brief glimpses of his genius, such as the time he stopped mid-gallop to stand on the ball and survey his surroundings before setting up a goal, but these moments were infrequent. After two full seasons at the Ibrox and a loan spell at Man City he was released on a free, going on to Southampton. He wound up his career with the briefest of spells in Saudi Arabia and a couple more seasons in Russia before calling time on his playing days.
Andrei Kanchelskis left on a mark on almost every club he played for, he is an icon of Nineties football. In general, he was a pioneer who helped open English eyes to the merits of foreign imports. But it is without a doubt at Manchester United where his best work was done.
For decades Man Utd have had an affinity for wing-play, it’s the Manchester Utd way. The number 7 is sacred at Old Trafford, it takes a lot of guts to wear it. For some, the burden is too heavy, but Kanchelskis revelled in the limelight. Billy Meredith, George Best, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo: Andrei Kanchelskis is in exalted company.
Nothing delights the Old Trafford crowd quite like a winger accelerating past an opposing full-back, and there weren’t many who did it better than Kanchelskis. His pace, power and unpredictability made him a defender’s worst nightmare. If shown the outside, he would leave his marker for dead before sending in a cross; if shown the inside, he would drop the shoulder, cut in at pace and try his luck with his left. At his peak, he was irresistibly brilliant. He was a quintessential Man Utd winger, a player made in the club’s own image.
By Dan Parry @DanParry_