Top five: Best & worst rival transfers

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In the wake of recent transfer rumours regarding Cesc Fàbregas to Manchester United and Wayne Rooney to Chelsea, I thought I’d take a look at players who have gone on to play for a rival Premier League club of the team that made their career. 

Direct moves are the most hurtful for fans. Although some fans are so bitter about a player leaving that even if he’s played for a neutral team in between their club and a rival, they won’t accept it.

Rivalries can occur between clubs for many reasons. Sharing the same city is a very common origin of a fierce relationship, such as Manchester City and United, Liverpool and Everton, as well as several London clubs. Even bordering cities have a strong divide in football. 

Other rivalries have spawned from two big clubs being in relative distance of each other, meaning away support can be strong in games.

League success is a more modern cause of rivalries. When Chelsea first entered the Abramovich era, they became rivals of Manchester United and Liverpool who were two of the main title contenders at the time. It also intensified their rivalry with Arsenal, who were the best London club pre-Abramovich’s wallet. 

Newcastle and Blackburn have both had their relationship with Manchester United worsened and dramatised by their table topping campaigns. 

Perhaps the most notable example of success increasing a rivalry is when Manchester City became a Premier League force, turning what was a local, heated derby game into something much more aggressive and important. 

An odd, yet strong reason for rivalry is non-football related history between cities. Manchester and Liverpool were rival cities during the Industrial Revolution. Manchester was famous for its textile trade, while Liverpool was a major port. This, paired with the fact that Manchester United and Liverpool are the two most successful English clubs in history explains why games between the two are so eagerly anticipated by fans and players. 

Ryan Giggs can be quoted as saying that Liverpool vs. Manchester United is “probably the most famous fixture in English football”.

Similarly, the bitter rivalry between Manchester United and Leeds United can be traced back to a period between 1455 and 1485, in what was called ‘The War of the Roses’. Representatives from Lancaster (fighting with a red rose as their symbol) and Yorkshire (fighting with a white rose as their symbol) were engaged in a war for a place on the throne. 

If we move into the modern age, football provided a continuation for the bloodshed in a figurative form, giving us tremendous yet ferocious encounters between the teams, to the extent of single games being remembered as historic victories.

Leeds fans will often boast of the fact that in 2010 they beat Manchester United in the FA Cup, despite being in League One. Such is the importance of rivalries in football. They are cup finals in themselves. This is why players can be berated by fans for joining a rival team.

Sometimes a player can overcome the bad blood and outrage to have a wonderful time at their new club. 

In some cases they can even be instrumental for their new club, stepping up to the challenge.

Other times however, things don’t go to plan. The pressure of the move can hinder a player’s performance, especially if (like is often the case) there is a huge transfer fee involved. 

Subsequently I have decided to not only choose the five best cases of a player joining a rival club, but also the five worst in my opinion. Based on their playing careers at the rival teams, as well as the controversy of the move.

The Best

5 – Carlos Tévez

The talented, hard-working Argentine defied belief when he rejected Manchester United’s offer of a contract in favour of joining Manchester City, in what was a strange deal between a third party claiming to ‘own’ Tévez. 

He wasn’t first choice at United and was rightly upset about this. However, being a fan favourite meant United’s support were not happy about the move.

His hard work and energetic playing style made him shine at United, particularly when compared to Dimitar Berbatov’s relaxed fashion. Therefore his departure was met with great disappointment and anger, especially when Manchester City erected a billboard with his picture on it. 

A particular grievance with the move was the billboard’s caption ‘Welcome to Manchester’. Because of this, Sir Alex Ferguson famously dubbed City the noisy neighbours’.

Overall I think it was the correct choice for him, as he helped City to their first league title in 44 years, as well as three of his four seasons there resulting in very good goals tallies. 

He has now joined Juventus and will no doubt do well in Italy. He finished at Manchester City with 73 goals in 138 games.

Despite all of the controversy surrounding not only his move to City, but his time there, arguments with Roberto Mancini, refusing to be a substitute and other incidents, I think it can be considered a very good example of a player having more success at a rival team.

4 – William Gallas/Ashley Cole

In 2006, Chelsea made a reported £16 million bid for Ashley Cole, when it was revealed that Cole was unhappy at a contract offer from Arsenal. 

Negotiations between Arsenal and Chelsea were apparently civil, although Arsenal wanted an offer closer to £25 million.

Eventually, right on the deadline, they agreed on £5 million and William Gallas.

Cole was treated in an extremely savage manner by Arsenal fans after the move. He was nicknamed 'Cashley', as if to suggest he only left for the money being offered. 

Despite the hostility, Cole went on to be widely regarded as the best left back in the world. I think it’s safe to say he made the correct decision as he won countless trophies with Chelsea.

William Gallas also left under poor circumstances, but these were publicised much less than the Ashley Cole saga. 

He too, wanted more money than was offered and had several issues with José Mourinho. His tenure at Arsenal can be considered a success in my opinion; despite the lack of trophies I feel he was a very talented and reliable centre back. Scoring 16 goals in his four seasons with Arsenal and enjoying two years as captain. 

There were rough moments, and he was not as successful as Cole but I’ve included them both as a double submission because they were transferred in the same deal. 

Gallas went on to join Tottenham Hotspur from Arsenal, another heated transfer. Despite a decline in his ability, his experience proved vital as he steadied an unsure Spurs defence. Injuries however spoiled his time there, and he is now a free agent.

3 – Robin van Persie

It’s bold to put Robin van Persie in at number three even though he has only had a season at Old Trafford, yet I stand by my decision. 

His time at Arsenal can be seen as frustrating for him, and the Gunners.

Inconsistency and injuries plagued a large chunk of his time there, but his talent was always evident. He matured really well towards his last few seasons with Arsenal and was even named captain when Cesc Fàbregas left to join Barcelona. This resulted in him single-handedly saving Arsenal at times, with an outstanding 37 goals for the season. 

There was no doubt that he was Arsenal’s best player at the time. But like any good player, he wanted to win trophies.

Manchester United were rightly interested in the Dutchman after such an impressive season, obviously Arsenal fans would not take kindly to this. 

Eventually, after speculation, Van Persie agreed to join Manchester United for a fee of £24 million. Arsenal’s captain and best player had joined their rivals after what had been his best ever season to date. 

How could Van Persie live this down, or even live up to the hype - by having a Cantona-esque level of influence in United’s league title victory. Having the best striker in the world raised the team’s self-belief.

His 30 goals for Manchester United were undoubtedly the decisive factor in their Premier League triumph. 

He overcame the hatred of Arsenal fans who had been so loyal through his injury troubles, and took to the spotlight in a classy fashion.

This meant Sir Alex Ferguson could end his career with another title win, over-coming the most recent challengers, Manchester City. Such pressure cannot be dealt with by anyone other than a great, and I’m sure many more seasons of joy will come.

2 – Sol Campbell

Sol Campbell became the poster boy for moves between rivals when he left his first club, Tottenham Hotspur, in favour of Arsenal. 

Campbell was a fantastic, young prospect at Spurs. He was very mature at young age, making his debut at 18 and becoming Tottenham’s main centre back the season after. He enjoyed a very good spell at White Hart Lane, captaining his team to a League Cup victory in 1999 but was disappointed at the fact that Spurs couldn’t finish above 7th. 

Wanting to take his career to the next level in 2001, with European and international football his aim, he decided not to sign a new contract with Tottenham, instead joining bitter rivals Arsenal under the Bosman ruling.

Spurs fans were left with a sour taste in their mouths as their captain and best player had joined their biggest rivals free of charge, despite once stating in their club magazine that he would never play for Arsenal.

This move was so hostile that he was given the unaffectionate nickname ‘Judas’ by Spurs fans, which, along with the hatred, they kept up religiously. 

So much so that in 2009, four Tottenham fans were banned from every football ground in the country for offensive chants aimed at Campbell.

His time at Arsenal was very successful. He eased the ageing of Tony Adams and Martin Keown by becoming a certainty in the Gunners defence, partnered by one of the afore-mentioned who were rotated due to their age.

This season finished with the Gunners completing a League and FA Cup double. He was also instrumental in Arsenal’s famous unbeaten run, forming a formidable partnership with Kolo Touré. 

Arsenal went on to win the league that season at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur, another blow to his former club. More success ensued as he joined a unique, short list of English players to score in a Champions League final, although Arsenal went on to lose the 2006 final 2-1. 

He has won several personal accolades to accompany his team triumphs and is widely accepted as one of England’s greatest centre backs. 

He showed great bravery to play so boldly for Arsenal with all things considered. He is worthy of the number two position.

1 – Eric Cantona

It may be considered the obvious choice by some of you, perhaps a wrong choice by others, but I think it is one of the most important transfers in English football history.

He left league champions Leeds United after Manchester United were initially contacted by Leeds about the availability of Dennis Irwin. 

Insisting Irwin was not for sale, Sir Alex Ferguson told then Chairman Martin Edwards to ask if Eric Cantona was for sale, after unsuccessful attempts to sign Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane due to Mark Hughes and Brian McClair being out of form and new signing Dion Dublin breaking his leg.

Within a few days, the deal was done for a meagre £1.2 million.

His season at Leeds was noted for a lack of goals but a bundle of assists for top scorer Lee Chapman. 

So he wasn’t exactly a huge name at the time. Still the deal was frowned upon. Leeds fans were annoyed at selling a player to Manchester United, and of course Manchester United fans resented purchasing a Leeds United player, but in seasons to come, they’d soon feel differently.

During his five seasons at Manchester United, they won four league titles (among other things) the first of which was their first since 1967.

The season United failed to win the league with Cantona was the season of his famous ‘kung fu’ style kick on a Crystal Palace fan. The ban he received meant he missed the final four months of the season, and Blackburn won the league. 

His career at Manchester United was speckled with controversy, but in equal measure there were fantastic moments. 

For his last season, he was named captain and led his team to another league title. 

He is widely regarded as one of the reasons Manchester United became the dominant force in English football and is ranked amongst the greatest players in the club’s history. 

He was a troubled genius, but a genius nonetheless.

The Worst

5 – Abel Xavier

Some people may not remember the blonde haired wonder that was Abel Xavier, but he spent 4 years in England after touring Europe with a number of clubs.

He was Portugal’s first choice at right back, performing well at Euro 2000. 

But, in one game in particular, a semi-final against France, he went from near hero to villain. 

Fabien Barthez saved what looked like a definite goal from Xavier, only for Xavier to give away a penalty for handball when attempting to block a Sylvain Wiltord shot in Golden Goal extra time. Zidane converted the penalty and Portugal were out.

His transfer to Everton in 1999 from PSV raised a few eyebrows, but he settled in well and was a very consistent player for the Toffees during his three years there. 

So much so, that he attracted the attention of Everton’s biggest rivals, Liverpool, after contract talks between himself and Everton broke down.

During an interview with Sky Sports, Paul Gascoigne intruded, begging Xavier to stay at Everton. He had one full season at Anfield, playing 14 league games before being sent out to Galatasaray on loan.

It’s safe to say that this cross-town transfer did not bother Everton fans too much as he made very little impact on the red side of the city. 

For me, despite being a decent player at the time, his transfer to Everton’s biggest rivals can be considered one of the worst rival exchanges. 

Due to the very little impact it had on fans and clubs. It is barely remembered today and unfortunately his name is more associated with the fact he was caught out by a drug test, and has converted to Islam.

4 – Juan Sebastián Verón

Juan Sebastián Verón is a player well known to English football.

His move to Parma for £15 million captured the eye of many European fans. Just a season later, he joined Lazio for £18.1 million. 

Strangely his debut for Lazio was a 1-0 win over Manchester United in the European Super Cup. His time at Lazio saw him improve and become one of the most talented footballers in Europe. 

This provoked Manchester United to bid £28.1 million for him, the most expensive English transfer at the time.

As a youngster he had dreamed of playing for Sheffield United, like his uncle Pedro Verde, but he was set to play for the biggest team in the country.

As with all huge transfers, there’s a lot of pressure on the player to succeed and it’s safe to say Verón didn’t. 

I found him an enjoyable player to watch, creative, skilful and chipped in with goals too. But over two seasons at Old Trafford he was unable to prove he was worth the price-tag, despite Sir Alex Ferguson angrily defending him to the press, calling journalists present at the time “idiots”.

It took one of the most dominant forces in recent football history to make Sir Alex realise it was time for Seba to move on after the two seasons. That force, was Roman Abramovich’s wallet.

Claudio Ranieri declared interest in Verón and suggested that he’d fit in better at Chelsea. 

The persuasion, along with £15 million meant that he was a Chelsea player and the most expensive footballer in the world at the time, with a cumulative total of roughly £77 million (since surpassed by Nicolas Anelka in 2008, and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009).

His time at Chelsea started well. He scored on his debut against Liverpool in a 2-1 win which looked to be a sign of things to come. 

However, due to injuries he made only seven league appearances for Chelsea in his four years there, with a two-year loan spell at F.C Internazionale, and a year at former club Estudiantes de La Plata.

He may not fit the bill of a typical rival switch, because I doubt there was much dismay from Manchester United fans about his departure. 

Also, Chelsea hadn’t made a serious challenge for the title at the time. Regardless I still consider Juan Sebastián Veron to be one of the worst examples of a player joining a rival club. 

It’s almost like Sir Alex tried to hinder Chelsea’s ambitions. For the record, I’d like to say Verón did recapture form after his spell in England and the latter stage of his career is regarded highly.

3 – Alan Smith

Another player to utter the unfortunate promise; “I will never play for Manchester United” said promising English striker and childhood Leeds fanatic Alan Smith. 

A player who was adored by Leeds fans as a hard-working, tough tackling Yorkshire boy. Fans saw themselves in Alan Smith; he was one of them on the pitch. 

A first-team regular from his debut to his last days at the club, nobody considered the fact he’d ever leave Leeds United. 

Until an unfortunate financial situation occurred at Leeds which subsequently saw them regulated at the end of the 2003/04 season.

Leeds could no longer afford to pay his wages, so had to put him up for transfer. Surprisingly, not too many clubs came in with offers.

Speculated bids from Everton and Newcastle were dismissed because they didn’t include the full £7 million valuation up front, instead they were instalment based bids.

Manchester United were the only club to meet this valuation, therefore the offer was accepted. Leeds had to sell him and Smith understood this. 

It was the fans who struggled to come to terms with the transfer, even though Leeds publicly stated that they had no choice, that Manchester United were the only club to offer and that Smith had declined the transfer fee which the club was obliged to pay him, it did not ease the news. 

He had changed from home town hero to a villain overnight. Fans gave Smith the dreaded ‘Judas’ treatment.

His time at Manchester United was marbled with unfortunate injuries and inconsistency. He wasn’t top of the pecking order for strikers; with Rooney and van Nistelrooy both ahead of him. 

This proved to be unimportant anyway because Sir Alex loved Smith for his energy, work rate and tough tackling, comparing him to Roy Keane. 

Keane himself drew the same comparisons. Slowly but surely he was edged towards this midfield role, with views to being the eventual successor of Roy Keane. 

However, several performances were criticised heavily by Keane. Another factor that stopped this from happening was his trouble with injuries, the main one being a broken leg at the hands of a John Arne Riise free-kick.

When he finally recovered from this, Sir Alex Ferguson stated he planned to replace Ruud van Nistelrooy with the returning Alan Smith. 

He scored later that season in the famous 7-1 romp over AS Roma but this proved to be his last season in a Manchester United shirt. 

His spell at Manchester United was, in a word, unfortunate. Due to this, I must declare him one of the worst examples of a Premier League player joining a rival team.

2 – Joe Cole

Joe Cole was a wonderful young prospect.

He caught the attention of the national press when he was part of the England youth-team who scored eight goals past Spain’s equivalent. 

Of the eight goals, Joe Cole scored seven. 

It was reported that Manchester United had tried to sign him, aged 16 for a whopping £10 million. However this didn’t materialise and Cole continued his development with West Ham.

He, alongside Michael Carrick, was a part of the West Ham team that won the 1999 Youth Cup, beating Coventry 9-0 on aggregate. 

After this, he became an important first team player for West Ham. He excited all fans of English football because we thought we finally had that left sided player. No offence, Trevor Sinclair. 

His tenure at the club ended in 2003 and saw him win the ‘Hammer of the Year’ award. West Ham couldn’t convince Cole to sign a new deal and soon enough Abramovich’s wallet came knocking.

He signed for Chelsea in 2003 for a bargain fee of £6.6 million.

His first season at Chelsea, with a newly assembled team wasn’t too bad, but the following season, 2004/05 saw him take advantage of injuries to Damien Duff and Arjen Robben to establish himself on the left hand side. 

He ended the season with a good run of goals and helped Chelsea towards their first Premier League title. The next season was much the same. He was first choice ahead of Damien Duff and Shaun Wright-Phillips, and Chelsea finished the season as league champions again. 

This time, Joe Cole made it into the PFA Team of the Year.

His next few seasons at Chelsea were sporadic.

Patches of great form were spoiled by injury problems and issues with fitness. Despite contributing a fair amount over those four troubled seasons, and showcasing the fact he was still a top player his Chelsea contract was not renewed. 

This allowed Roy Hodgson to make his first signing as Liverpool manager, securing Joe Cole to a contract apparently worth 90,000 a week.

Upon his arrival at the club, captain Steven Gerrard said “Messi can do some amazing things. But anything he can do Joe can do as well, if not better. He used to shock us in training by doing footy tricks with a golf ball that most players can’t even do with a football”.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, and English football, Joe Cole was a shadow of the player he used to be. 

Again fitness issues stopped him from playing to the best of his ability and after a disappointing season, he was sent out on loan to Lille. 

At Lille, he recaptured his flair by scoring and assisting several goals. His general play had improved dramatically from his season at Liverpool to the extent that new Reds boss Brendan Rogers rejected a formal bid from Lille for the player.

After his season at Lille, he returned to Anfield and was given a handful of games by Brendan Rogers, scoring against West Ham to bring the game to 2-2, Liverpool went on to win the game 3-2. 

Sadly this was not enough to impress Rogers who let Joe Cole leave on a free transfer to re-join former club West Ham. 

When asked about his time at Liverpool, Cole said it was a mistake and that he didn’t feel a connection with the club or the fans.

He may not have been world class at the time, but definitely had promise.

His signing was considered a coup that could put Liverpool back on track in terms of challenging for the league title. 

They may not have been a major threat to Chelsea, but a rivalry was definitely in place from seasons gone by.

Games were always anticipated by fans with an aggressive desire to win. 

It’s a shame that Joe Cole’s class could not influence Liverpool’s season. For this reason, I feel he was a let down, leaving the club feeling almost as gutted as the fans who had his name printed on their shirts. 

1 – Fernando Torres

At the peak of his powers, Fernando Torres was the best striker in the world. He developed through the youth ranks at Atlético Madrid and become one of the most promising young strikers in Europe at the time.

The 2002/03 season was his first in La Liga, netting 13 goals in 29 games.

This spawned Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea to bid £28 million for the teenager, but this bid was rejected. 

Torres improved the following season, scoring 19 goals in 35 games. As well as being named club captain at the age of 19. 

Continuing impress domestically and on the international stage, Atlético Madrid received another offer from Chelsea at the end of the 2005/06 season, in which Torres had scored 13 league goals. 

Again, they stood strong and rejected the bid. Another fair scoring season passed, with Torres getting 14 this time and this proved to be his last in Spain. 

It was reported that Liverpool had offered £25 million for Torres, with a deal for Luis García to go the other way. 

Before this deal had been completed, Diego Forlán joined Atlético Madrid from Villarreal, many expected this to open the door for Torres to leave, and he did.

He shocked the Premier League with an outstanding first season, beating Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record for the most Premier League goals scored by a foreign player in a debut season. 

It was speculated that Chelsea were set to offer £50 million for Torres, but the player himself dismissed any chance of a move. Saying he wanted to stay at Liverpool for many years.

Despite a number of injuries during the 2008/09 season, Torres achieved his 50th Liverpool goal was named in the PFA team of the year. The next season saw Torres score more goals, even though he’d played fewer games. 

Showing how truly gifted he was, and just how well he’d taken to the Premier League. Although this is where his Liverpool dream would end. At the halfway point of the 10/11 season, with Liverpool under the new management of Roy Hodgson, Chelsea offered £40 million for the Spaniard.

This initial bid was rejected and as a result of this Fernando Torres handed in an official transfer request.

The request was also rejected by Hodgson but a bid in the region of £50 million proved too tempting and Torres was allowed to join Chelsea in January 2011. They’d finally got their man.

Many thought this acquisition would propel Chelsea to win the Premier League, however something that nobody foresaw occurred. He flopped.

A new haircut couldn’t even save him from what can only be seen as a disappointing first season with Chelsea. 

The next season was an improvement, but still not good enough for a £50 million player, even though Chelsea won the Champions League. 

2012/13 saw a re-emergence of the Torres we remember, still a far cry from El Niño but his scoring record had improved. Netting 22 times in 64 games, he could be on the path to greatness once again.

For now, he will remain my pick for the worst transfer between rival clubs, because the huge transfer fee has not been justified and he is a fraction of the player that Liverpool had. 

The rivalry between Liverpool and Chelsea may not be as prominent anymore, but during Fernando’s time at Anfield, Liverpool had finished 2nd, above Chelsea and along with Arsenal and Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea made up the so called ‘big four’.

You may disagree with my selection of the best and worst. 

You may even disagree with my definition and classification of a rivalry. 

I’ll just explain that my selection is not purely based on the most controversial moves, it’s a combination of the controversy as well as how they’ve performed for the clubs they’ve joined in my opinion. 

There will be notable omissions as there always is with lists. Rio Ferdinand joined Manchester United from Leeds United, Andy Cole from Newcastle. Paul Ince and Michael Owen played for both Manchester United and Liverpool. 

I’ve tried to keep it roughly within the past 10 years as I believe it is more unlikely to happen in the modern game, due to the increasing popularity of foreign leagues in terms of destinations for players to go to, but also as a source to obtain players from.

Nevertheless, I believe these players have all experienced one of the most exciting things about football.

Whether they were good or bad, overrated or too soon to tell, they’ve all felt the great pain of leaving loving fans, and the great fear of returning to face those fans. 


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