• Rewind to 1987

To Manchester amid acrimony

Alex Dimond August 23, 2012
Before Robin van Persie, Viv Anderson was the last player to go from Arsenal to Manchester United © Getty Images

Last week Robin van Persie became the first player in over 25 years to make the move from Arsenal to Manchester United, although his time at Old Trafford did not get off to the best start as even a 20-minute cameo from the Dutchman could not prevent United losing 1-0 to Everton.

So this week we look back at the last time United bought a Gunner - as a recently appointed Alex Ferguson his first move to refashion his squad by purchasing a £250,000 full-back...

In 1987, Viv Anderson's career appeared to be firmly back on track. The first black footballer to play for England, the right-back had gone from winning European and domestic titles with his first professional club, Nottingham Forest, through a period of slight frustration and general stagnation for both club and country - before a £250,000 move to Arsenal had seen him gradually reclaim a starting role with the Three Lions and return to winning ways at club level, triumphing in the 1987 League Cup.

Gunners boss George Graham had also just presented the 30-year-old with a three-year contract to remain at Highbury, so everything looked to be going swimmingly as he entered the autumn of his career. That was before Manchester United came calling, however - with their new manager, a highly-regarded Scot by the name of Alex Ferguson, looking to make Anderson his first signing.

A move to United, at that point an under-performing First Division outfit, appeared from afar to be a slight step down for Anderson - but outsiders did not factor in the personal feeling Anderson had for the Old Trafford club.

"I got a call from [United captain and Anderson's England team-mate] Bryan Robson and he said, 'We've got a new manager, Alex Ferguson, and he'd like to meet you regarding coming to play for Manchester United'," Anderson recalled to a United fansite, Stretford End, in 2010. "I just said to my wife, "We're going to Man Utd!"

"She said, 'Oh I thought we'd settled here', and I said, "No, we're going to Man Utd!'

"I didn't want to look back when I was old and say I'd had the chance to play for Man Utd and never took it. So Sir Alex didn't have to sell me anything really. I'd made my mind up before!"

It was not as if Anderson hadn't already had the chance to play for United, however. He was actually on the club's books as a teenager - although this was long before the more organised, proactive setup trainees of the modern era are familiar with.

Nevertheless, what Anderson thought was a promising progression at the club he loved abruptly turned into heartbreak.

"I was at United from 15 to 16 over school holidays," Anderson recalled. "I remember going to one game, United against Everton, with the manager at the time [Wilf McGuinness], he took me in his car. So obviously he thought a lot of me.

"But it came to the time when they handed out the apprenticeships and they said, "We don't think you're going to quite make it at Manchester United'."

As the saying goes, however, sometimes when a door is closed God - or, in this case, Brian Clough (who doubtless would have embraced the comparison) - opens a window.

"I went back to Nottingham [where Anderson was born] and got a job as a silk screen printer - I was there for five weeks. Forest asked me to play in their youth team when I was 17, I played once and they said, 'We want to sign you'," Anderson noted. "I signed and made my debut when I was 17 too."

A domestic title, two European Cups, international recognition - all of it followed as Anderson found himself part of the supporting cast in Clough's miraculous managerial achievements. And then, just as his career at the City Ground was beginning to stall, a move to Arsenal in 1984 appeared to re-energise him - before a few years later Manchester United, through Robson, came calling.

While United's interest was not unwelcome at the north London club - Graham had his eye on QPR full-back Terry Fenwick anyway - their offer was. Graham was angered by United's £100,000 bid, looking for something nearer the £450,000 that they were being quoted for Fenwick (who would ultimately join Tottenham for a reported £550,000).

But Anderson's sentimental desire to leave saw the transfer fee go to a tribunal - with the panel eventually deciding, in what appears now to be a rather lazy case of 'split the difference', that Anderson would again cost £250,000.

"Whatever they decide, the system is wrong," Graham had told the Daily Express on the day he was due to make Arsenal's case in front of the tribunal. "Something is wrong when big clubs resort to this sort of haggling."

"She said, 'Oh I thought we'd settled here', and I said, "No, we're going to Man Utd!'

I didn't want to look back when I was old and say I'd had the chance to play for Man Utd and never took it."

- Viv Anderson

His exit from north London officially secured, Anderson quickly became one of the key characters in a United dressing room that was still struggling to translate its undoubted talent, and Ferguson's undoubted expertise, into improved league positions.

"We had a few characters - your Norman Whitesides, your Bryan Robsons, Gordon Strachan, Kevin Moran ... we had lots of characters around, so I was just with the rest of them," Anderson later demurred, although he is often highlighted in accounts of Ferguson's early days at United as one of the more vocal members of that squad.

Perhaps it was that outgoing nature that ensured his integration into the dressing room was relatively seamless, as was his move into the United first team. He started in United's opening game of the 1987-88 season against Southampton on August 15, and went on to be a fixture in the side for the remainder of the campaign.

At 31 when he played his first game for the club, however, time was never on the former silk-screen maker's side. As the 1988-89 season matured his place in Ferguson's side was decreasingly assured, with utility man Mike Phelan - an England one-cap wonder, now Ferguson's assistant manager - increasingly picked instead as another underwhelming campaign passed by.

It became clear the writing was on the wall for Anderson at the end of the 1989-90 campaign, as Ferguson opted against picking him for the pivotal FA Cup final with Crystal Palace, a tie that would come to change the course of the club's future. Instead, the Scot picked Paul Ince - a promising, uncompromising young central midfielder poached from West Ham - as a makeshift right-back, with Phelan moved to the right of midfield.

That he did not once, but twice - Ince filling in again at the position Anderson had played his whole life in the replay, as United finally ended Palace's resistance to bring Ferguson the first trophy (but far from the last) of his Old Trafford career.

Anderson watched from the sidelines as the Cup was hoisted, although he insists that he did not feel anger or disappointment at not being selected.

"Obviously the manager makes his choice," Anderson said years later. "I was disappointed in terms of being a natural right back, and seeing someone else out of position there, but I'd been injured anyway and truth be told I wasn't 100 per cent fit.

"But at the end of the day those things happen and you move on."

Anderson would move on - or be moved on, as the case may be - but not for another six months. Ferguson solved his right-back quandary permanently that summer by signing an up-and-coming Irishman by the name of Denis Irwin for £625,000 from Oldham Athletic, and it was subsequently no great surprise when Anderson's contract was allowed to expire.

After 69 appearances for the club he supported as a boy he joined Sheffield Wednesday on what was initially a short-term deal in the January of 1991, quickly slotting in to the defence and helping the club win promotion from the Second Division.

Ironically, Anderson's new club would face his old one in the 1991 League Cup final - but the player himself was forced to watch from the sidelines, having been cup-tied on a rare appearance for United (indeed, his last ever start for the club) earlier in the competition.

Without Anderson, Wednesday won 1-0 - it remains the last time a club outside the top flight has won a major cup competition in England. Anderson may not have played in the game but some of the key themes of his career were in evidence with the main protagonists; the goalscorer, John Sheridan, was another boyhood United fan who had passed through Clough's finishing school at Forest (although Sheridan, unlike Anderson, never gained Ol' Big 'Ead's trust - failing to actually play a league match for the team despite being bought for over £600,000) while Wednesday's manager, Ron Atkinson, had been sacked by United in 1986 to make way for Ferguson.

Anderson became a key figure for Sheffield Wednesday © PA Photos

Perhaps Anderson shared Atkinson's feelings about the match; the gregarious boss insisting there were no hard feelings at work when many felt sure there would be.

"It's nonsense to say it is a grudge match for me against the club that sacked me," Atkinson had claimed on the eve of the final. "When we won the semi-final, I couldn't have cared less if it were Hartlepool playing us in the final."

With the opportunity to gloat just sitting there after victory had been secured, Atkinson instead reiterated that admirable sentiment: "I couldn't care less who we beat."

While Atkinson would squander much of the good feeling he earned that weekend by departing for Aston Villa in the summer (just a week after saying he would be a fool to leave the Owls). the Wednesday move worked out wonderfully for Anderson. He experienced something of an Indian summer to his career after shifting to centre-back, becoming a key figure in their subsequent First Division campaign after Wednesday's hierarchy quickly realised it would be foolish not to sign him to a long-term deal.

He would go on to play his part in Wednesday's rise to prominence in English football, still in the squad when Trevor Francis's team reached the final of both domestic cup competitions in 1993. After watching two such occasions from the stands in recent times there would be no happy ending, however - Wednesday lost out to the club Anderson left under something of a cloud, Arsenal, on both occasions.

The move to United may not have worked out entirely as he might have hoped, but it was nevertheless an important phase of his career - and one Anderson looks back on as fondly as any other, despite the relative lack of silverware.

As Anderson himself noted succinctly: "It was just a great honour to play at the football club."

What happened next? Anderson became a well-liked figure at Hillsborough, before joining Barnsley in a move that would kick off a somewhat promising first step into coaching. He subsequently linked up with his old mate Bryan Robson, helping the former United captain for a number of generally successful seasons at Middlesbrough before his coaching career ended abruptly after Robson was dismissed.

Anderson is proud to see someone like Van Persie follow in his footsteps, and expects him to be a valuable addition for Manchester United.

"I think he's a great acquisition, a fantastic and exciting signing," Anderson said last week. "[Manchester] City would have paid anything to get him there, so it can't be about money.

"He wants to play for United and be a part of the tradition of this club - and that says a lot."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk