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World football’s greatest rejects: Top 10 players who got away

Zlatan Ibrahimovic 

The young Malmo striker joined QPR as a 16-year-old trialist in the late 90s, but, after a week of training with the reserves, he was shown the door. I suppose the big question for Rangers’ management team at the time must have been, ‘Why do we need Ibra when we’ve got Iain Dowie?’ Rumour has it that the ponytailed one’s response to being tackled by then Hoops boss Gerry Francis was to wipe out the gaffer with a heavy challenge before telling him to ‘go away’, in rather robust terms. The mercurial Swede hasn’t done too badly since his Rangers rejection; he’s now approaching 300 career goals for the likes of Ajax, Inter, Barcelona, AC Milan, PSG and his national team.

Arsene Wenger’s inability to sign the ‘next Patrick Vieira’ wasn’t a case of ineptitude on his part, just rank bad luck as passport issues scuppered the move, and he would instead sign for Shakhtar Donetsk. Yaya’s older brother, Kolo, had already made a massive impression on his first day on trial at the club 12 months previously. In a ‘non-contact’ small-sided game, the Ivory Coast defender managed to floor legendary duo Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp with two-footed challenges, before accidentally smashing into Wenger, who hobbled off and spent the next hour with an ice-pack strapped to his damaged ankle.

In 1982, Bolton Wanderers were a struggling side whose best player, Peter Reid, had just signed for Everton. Gloom and outright desperation filled the air at Burnden Park. The board of directors decided that a big name manager would lift flagging spirits, and, after lengthy deliberation, they decided to approach the most famous name in football and try and tempt him to swap Copacabana beach for the muck and nettles of the English Second Division. Unsurprisingly, the Brazilian legend declined the offer, so the delusional directors jumped on a plane bound for America to see if a certain George Best would take the reins. The booze-addled Irishman agreed in principle to become player-manager, but then failed to turn up for the formal interview. Surprise, surprise.


Back in 2009, I spent a week with a Liverpool FC Legends team in Grenada, writing a magazine article about the players and a charity football match they were playing in aid of the Jason Roberts Foundation. However, after John Barnes pulled out of the trip at the 11 hour, Legends boss Phil Thompson was in dire need of a replacement right-winger for the match against an All-Star team at the national stadium. He chose me… It wasn’t the first time Thompson’s judgment had been called into question. Six years earlier, during his time as number two to Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, the former Reds skipper was sent to Portugal to run the rule over a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who was making a name for himself at Sporting Lisbon. Thompson’s verdict? “Too individual. Not a Liverpool player.”

Yes, read it again Blackburn Rovers fans; one of the greatest players of the last 20 years could have plied his trade at Ewood Park instead of Juventus and Real Madrid. Zidane was offered to the then Premier League high flyers during his time at Bordeaux in France, but Rovers passed on the offer. Owner Jack Walker said, without the slightest hint of irony: “Why would we sign Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?” Er…

Former Everton manager Gordon Lee built his sides on the core values of hard work, fitness and teamwork, rather than encouraging gifted individuals to express themselves on the pitch. In the late 1970s, after leaving Newcastle for Everton, Lee said: “People keep talking about stars and flair. As far as I’m concerned you find stars in the sky and flair at the bottom of your trousers.” So, with this in mind, is it any surprise that Lee passed up the opportunity of signing a 17-year-old Ruud Gullit?

When Arsene Wenger signed boy wonder Theo Walcott from Southampton in 2006, he was also offered a certain Gareth Bale as part of a double deal. However, the Frenchman decided to pass on the future Galactico, who was then plying his trade as a left-back. “We didn’t take him [Gareth Bale] as we had Ashley Cole and Gael Clichy and didn’t want another left-back,” he told The Mirror newspaper. “I must confess it was a huge mistake. He struggled at the start at Tottenham, then they moved him to midfield and he has done exceptionally well. The career of a player sometimes depends on playing in the right position.”

Before the kung-fu kicking French genius became the king of Old Trafford, he spent a few days on trial with Sheffield Wednesday. It was January of 1992 and the north of England was covered in a blanket of snow, forcing trialist Cantona and the Wednesday team managed by Trevor Francis to train indoors. After the week-long trial Francis asked Cantona to spend another few days training with the team the following week so he could assess him properly on grass. He refused and joined Leeds instead; winning a league title four months later before being snapped up by United boss Sir Alex Ferguson for a paltry £1.2m ($2.4m). The rest, as they say, is history.

During Tottenham’s miserable defeat to Liverpool last Sunday, boss Tim Sherwood sat stony faced in the stand instead of hollering out instructions from the technical area, prompting the club’s travelling fans to sing: “Where is our manager, where is our manager”. They should be thankful Sherwood wasn’t on a scouting mission judging by his decision not to sign Luis Suarez from Ajax a few years ago. Dutch legend Ruud Gullit told the Daily Mail newspaper: “I met Sherwood together with Les Ferdinand, they were Harry Redknapp’s assistants and also his scouts. They asked me all kinds of questions about Suarez, so I just point blank said: ‘You have to snap him up, without any hesitation, in a heartbeat’. ‘Well, we’re not sure,’ they said whilst they actually watched him play. That was a huge mistake.” You don’t say. 2013-14 EPL goals: Luis Suarez 29. Roberto Soldado 6.

Diego Maradona 

In the late 1970s, former Argentina international Antonio Rattin was working as a talent scout in South America, so, when the Football Association lifted their ban on allowing foreign players to play in England in 1978, he soon began recommending players to clubs in the UK. Rattin was swiftly employed by Second Division Sheffield United, and he promptly recommended a certain Diego Maradona to then boss Harry Haslam. Haslam was blown away by the ability of the man who would become arguably the greatest footballer the world has ever seen, and did everything he could to persuade the powers that be at Bramall Lane to bring him to South Yorkshire. Alas, the £200,000 fee was a bridge too far for the board of directors and the deal collapsed. That season the Blades were relegated to Division Three.

This article first appeared in
The New Paper. For more of this, follow me on Twitter @RichardLenton.