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31 August 2017

Martin Edwards autobiography: Arsene Wenger was my top choice to succeed Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager

A NINE-YEAR trophy drought, calamitous transfer business and European  failure would have been hard to stomach at Old Trafford  after the glory years of Fergie.

But if Arsene Wenger’s recent record is anything to go by,  that could have been Manchester United’s lot had they lured the Frenchman  in 2002.

Arsene Wenger was a fierce rival of Alex Ferguson - but Utd also wanted him to be his successor
Arsene Wenger was a fierce rival of Alex Ferguson – but Manchester United also wanted him to be the Scot’s successor
Martin Edwards oversaw the greatest era in the history of Utd, with Alex Ferguson as manager
Then-chairman Martin Edwards oversaw the greatest era in the history of Utd, with Alex Ferguson as manager
PA:Press Association

United’s attempts to poach Wenger from Arsenal are revealed by former chairman Martin Edwards in Red Glory, his new autobiography.

Alex Ferguson had announced he would be quitting at the end of the 2001/02 season so United approached the Gunners boss.

But Fergie performed a dramatic U-turn in February 2002.

Edwards, though, says he was quietly confident of landing Wenger.

He revealed: “Our first choice was Arsene.

“Since joining Arsenal in 1996 Wenger had been pretty successful, especially in his first full season in charge when he won the Double.


Arsene Wenger felt strong loyalty to David Dein, says Martin Edwards
Arsene Wenger felt a strong loyalty to David Dein, says Martin Edwards
Rex Features
Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson are both fans of flowing football
Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson are both fans of flowing football
PA:Empics Sport

“And while it’s true to say he suffered hard times since, at the time we thought he was the best candidate to replace Alex.

“Certainly he was my number one choice. So we made our approach and Wenger did show a little bit of interest, enough to want to meet Peter Kenyon and me at his house in London to listen to what we had to say.

“In fact, we had a couple of meetings with him and for a while we thought there was a possibility of him joining us.

“But I think Wenger felt loyalty to David Dein.

“He was very close to David and that was the reason he gave us in the end for turning down United.

“He felt he had started something with Arsenal and that his attachment to the club was too great, he didn’t want to break that bond.”

Sven-Goran Eriksson, then boss of England, was even closer.

The Swede agreed terms with Red Devils chiefs before seeing his deal halted as Ferguson made his U-turn.

However, Edwards admits to having reservations over Eriksson’s big-spending approach.

He added: “To be truthful, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure he was the right man for the job.

“Yes, he’d had a bit of success and a good track record, but he’d spent a lot in achieving success. And he was unproven in English club football.”


It was not to be anyway as Fergie changed his mind and led United to further glory.

But although the trophies continued to pour in, it was not always smooth behind the scenes.

Edwards admitted to having a fractious relationship with Fergie  at times during his tenure — and their disagreements were normally regarding the manager’s salary.

One bust-up involved Ferguson threatening to BOYCOTT the Wembley walk-out at the 1996 FA Cup final with Liverpool.

Edwards writes: “At the close of the 1994-95 season Alex was still aggrieved over being paid less than George Graham, and although we’d won nothing that year he asked me for another pay rise.

Alex Ferguson was in dispute with Utd over his pay as they won the 1996 FA Cup final
Alex Ferguson was unhappy with Utd over pay as they won the 1996 FA Cup final
PA:Press Association
England wanted to replace Terry Venables with Alex Ferguson
England wanted to replace Terry Venables with Alex Ferguson, says Martin Edwards
Action Images

“The issue wasn’t resolved to Alex’s liking. In the days leading up to the FA Cup final in 1996 the question  of his salary raised its head again.  I left the negotiations to director of football Maurice Watkins and chairman Roland Smith.

“I heard later that things had got very heated and Alex, frustrated at what had been offered, threatened not to perform the manager’s traditional Cup final role of leading his team out on the Wembley pitch.

“I don’t believe there was any real possibility of Alex walking out on United over his pay dispute with us, but I think the FA smelt blood in the water and as a result wanted Alex to replace Terry Venables as England manager.

“A Scotsman managing England! No chance.”

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MORE FROM MARTIN EDWARDS’ AUTOBIOGRAPHY


Despite their ups and downs, Edwards is adamant Fergie would not have had the success he did without his backing.

The ex-chairman spent 23 years at the Old Trafford helm, starting in 1980  and overseeing United’s growth into a global superpower.

When he left his role in 2003, they had  won eight Premier League titles, six FA Cups and the Champions League — part of the famous 1999 Treble — during his reign. And through financial manoeuvring, such as floating on the Stock Exchange in 1991, United were worth more than £700million by his departure.

He was also the man who  brought Fergie to Manchester in 1986, paying a mere £60,000 in compensation to prise the Scot away from Aberdeen.

But despite Ferguson’s brilliance on the touchline, Edwards suggests the legendary boss has a lot to thank him for. He said: “One of my greatest strengths as chairman and chief executive was being a good delegator.

Jaap Stam proved a superb signing when United strengthened their defence in 1998
Jaap Stam proved a superb buy when United strengthened their defence in 1998
Getty Images – Getty

“I appointed people who I thought were right for the job and let them get on with it and didn’t interfere.

“The best example of this was Fergie. I tried as much as I could to give him the tools for the job.

“In the early days Alex and I had a very close relationship.

“After the club floated in 1991 I had to devote more time to the business of the club, so I was pulled away and wasn’t as close to Alex.

“But I was always supportive of what he was trying to do, particularly with the youth and team building, buying players and paying the higher wages that we had to accept eventually.

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“I believe the way I supported Alex shows in the results and the trophies we amassed over the years.

“I don’t begrudge Alex any of the plaudits he received — he deserved every one of them. Yet however important his role as manager was, Alex was part of a clearly defined system that helped enable his success.

Dwight Yorke formed a superb strike partnership with Andy Cole from 1998
Dwight Yorke formed a superb strike partnership with Andy Cole from 1998
News Group Newspapers Ltd

“Back in 1998, when the club won nothing, I don’t believe any other club at the time would have bought Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke for a combined sum of £23m.

“When things got tough and our ascendency in the domestic game looked like it was slipping, we had the means and  resources to sort it.

“Had we not done that we would never have won the Treble, no matter how good the manager was.”

EDWARDS ON SPENDING

THE accusation has always been United sold out and became overly commercialised —  but every club was doing the same.

While I was running United we never had  a fairy godmother like Chelsea, where a wealthy individual takes over, throws money around and changes their football fortunes.

Everything we generated was off our own back through good management.

GARY AND PHIL NEVILLE

GARY was youth-team captain and leader on the field but some thought Phil was a better player.

Both were also very good cricketers and Phil captained England at Under-15 level. Ray Illingworth, the former captain and manager, told me he was a certainty to play for England.

Gary and Phil Neville played many years together for Man United
Gary and Phil Neville played many years together for Man United
News Group Newspapers Ltd

THE BECKHAMS

I ACTUALLY played a part in the two of them becoming a couple.  Simon Fuller, the manager of the Spice Girls, wanted to come to a game. He brought  Victoria  and Mel C with him, so I escorted them  to the players’ lounge and that’s where Victoria met David for  the very first time.

CANTONA’S CONTRACT

ERIC arrived at my office and I explained that if we lost the league he could end up with less — but if we won it he got more.

I asked: “So for the next three years Eric, how many times will we win the league?”

Immediately, he said “three times” That’s how confident he was.

Eric Cantona was always confident in Man United's title chances
Eric Cantona was always confident in Man United's title chances
News Group Newspapers Ltd

NOT SIGNING ZIDANE

I CAN perfectly understand Alex’s argument at the time for not taking Zidane. Alex couldn’t have known Eric was going to retire.  It is very similar to the Lineker situation in Ron Atkinson’s time… but Zidane  in the red of United is one of  the biggest what-might-have-beens during my tenure at the club.

Man United missed out on the chance to sign Zinedine Zidane
Man United missed out on the chance to sign Zinedine Zidane
Reuters

BOND AND THE GUV’NOR

PAUL INCE was the self-styled Guv’nor, which I don’t think Alex liked at all.

At a pre-season game at Rangers, Sean Connery was there. All the lads wanted to meet him so I took him into the dressing room. He had heard Ince called himself the Guv’nor, so when I introduced them, Sean said to him: “I’d like to meet the Guv’nor . . . is your wife here today?”

EDWARDS ON… VERON

I WAS very disappointed when we bought Juan Sebastian Veron in 2001.

We had  won the league and we had Nicky Butt  in the reserves.  I  felt ‘Why  spend £28million on a player who  costs £5m a year in wages?’

We were breaking the wage structure on a player  I didn’t think was necessary.

POACHING RYAN GIGGS

ALEX worked tirelessly to persuade Ryan’s parents, especially his mother, the best home for him was Old Trafford rather than Maine Road.

He was our best prospect since George Best. Everyone talked about Best — and   it was the same with Ryan. We  knew he was going to be  special.

Ryan Giggs was persuaded to join Man United over Man City
Ryan Giggs was persuaded to join Man United over Man City
News Group Newspapers Ltd

BARGAIN DENIS IRWIN

LOOKING back on my time with  Manchester United, I’ve always said  my best two buys were Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel.

But if I had to pick a third, Denis Irwin would definitely be the one.

He was a fantastic signing  — a huge part of  the trophies we went on to win throughout the 1990s.

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