Man United’s French Connection.
If Manchester United go ahead with the purchase of Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton he will be joining a French Legion of players that have graced Old Trafford.
It all began with ‘Le Roi’ Eric Cantona, who was a chance purchase by Alex Ferguson in 1992. While overhearing a telephone conversation between then United chairman Martin Edwards and his Leeds United counterpart who was making enquiries about United full-back Denis Irwin, Ferguson declined their advances for the Irish defender but told Edwards to ask about the availability of their troubled French star Cantona.
Within days the deal was done and a beaming Ferguson paraded his new signing to the world media telling them that Old Trafford was the stage on which Cantona was made to play on, and how right he would be proved to be.
The talisman of the team from his debut in 1992 right up until his retirement in 1997. A Premier League champion in all his seasons at United except the one in which he had to serve an eight-month ban and a double winner twice.
Fans to this day still honour his achievements for the club by singing his name at matches both home and away even though it has been almost twenty years since he left. A true testament to a legend and the love goes both ways as Cantona has often said that his heart is still at Manchester United.
‘1966 was a great year for English football Cantona was born’
The next Frenchman to join United was full back Mikaël Silvestre who joined the club in September 1999 and immediately gained the respect of the Old Trafford faithful when it was clear that he had rejected an offer from Liverpool for his services. Ironically, he made his debut against Liverpool.
Silvestre was a classy defender who could play at left-back or in the middle of the defence and would make almost 250 appearances for the Red Devils over nine years. In that time, he won five league titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Champions League winners medal in 2008 although he was an unused substitute.
Never one to give up Silvestre had to battle through long absences due to injuries and along with the challenges for his position from Heinze and fellow countryman Evra but he persevered and that commitment endeared him to the fans.
Following the retirement of treble winning goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel the hunt was on to find his replacement a task that would prove extremely hard to fulfill. One man who tried was Fabien Barthez who joined the team in 2000 and quickly realised that he had a huge task on his hands to literally try and fill the big gloves vacated by Schmeichel.
Barthez had enjoyed success with France at the World Cup and The Euros, but was well known as an eccentric keeper which he showed many times between the sticks for United especially when he would let United defender and best friend Laurent Blanc kiss his bald head before the start of matches. Having said that he did end up as a champion in his debut season, pulling off some fabulous saves which ensured United won many matches.
The following season wasn’t so good for Barthez as he was blamed for making too many unforced errors in matches one game, in particular, was against Arsenal when he had a nightmare and allowed his countryman Henry to score two goals that were basically gift wrapped for him.
At the end of his final season, 2002/03, he and United finished as champions, but Ferguson had had enough of Barthez and the mistakes he was making, this was highlighted in the match against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final second leg when Brazilian Ronaldo scored a hat trick. This was a match in which the keeper received criticism from all quarters and, in fact, that would be his last game for United.
Barthez was joined at United by his friend Laurent Blanc who joined in 2001 after Jaap Stam had been sold to Lazio by Ferguson after a bust-up over the Dutchman’s comments in his autobiography.
A central defender who oozed class and valuable experience, Blanc had the United fans raising their eyebrows due to his advanced years, he was 35 when he signed for United.
After helping United to the title in 2003 his legs finally gave up and he retired from playing to focus on management and I wouldn’t be surprised if he will be in the running for the hot seat at Old Trafford sometime in the future.
Louis Saha’s United career was blighted by injuries, but when he was fit he certainly knew how to score goals. Saha was transferred to United for a fee of £12.4 million in January 2004 having scored 15 goals so far that season for Fulham. His United career got off to a similar start by scoring seven goals in just ten starts.
The following season was the start of his injury woes, especially to his knee then his hamstring. When fit he started a partnership with Ruud van Nistelrooy and then the teenage Wayne Rooney.
In 2006, a fully fit Saha was among the goals again and was on a roll. However, the injury jinx returned.
When he returned for the last time Ferguson had a built a forward line around Rooney, Tevez and a certain Ronaldo so Saha played mainly from the bench, but when called upon he did his job. His United career ended when he was sold to Everton in 2008.
A quality striker and his love for United was plain to see, it was only the injuries that held him back. During his time at United, he won two Premier League medals and a League Cup.
Possibly the second most popular French signing behind Monsieur Cantona was Patrice Evra who was brought to Man United from AS Monaco for a fee of £5.5 million in January 2006. Evra took his time to settle at the club making his debut in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City. So poor was his performance in that match Fergie took him off at half-time.
Fast forward eight years and the Frenchman left United having won almost everything in the game. The only trophy to elude him was the FA Cup. Probably his greatest achievement was winning the double of the Premier League and Champions League in 2008.
At left-back, Evra became an important cog in United’s defence, forming an uncanny understanding at the back with Ferdinand and Vidic. This was the rock that Fergie built his last great teams on. Evra had the honour of captaining United on many occasions and did so with a great gusto.
It was a sad day when he departed for Juventus as I’m sure he still had plenty of playing time in him and judging by our current defence his leadership and defensive awareness are certainly being missed.
Paul Pogba would have been included had he only stayed at United longer, but as great a talent as he is now he only had a fleeting moment at the club, but you never know what the future will hold.
Last but not least the trio of ‘Les Miserables’ William Prunier, Gabriel Obertan and David Bellion…….only kidding.
So there you have it the French stars that have lit up our great club and if Morgan Schneiderlin does join their ranks, he has some work cut out holding up the honour of his countrymen.
Thanks for reading and au revoir.