Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United were a force to be reckoned with in the transfer market.
Of course they had some clangers along the way (Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Juan Sebastian Veron to name but a few), but they have managed to bring in a few world-class players over the years – for absolute peanuts.
Here’s our list of the Premier League’s greatest ever bargains.
Eric Cantona – Leeds to Manchester United – £1.2m (November 1992)
You couldn’t compile a list like this and not have the man who would become known as ‘The King’ at Old Trafford on top. In 1992, Cantona had helped Leeds beat arch rivals Man United to the title. The Yorkshire club made a massive mistake when they tried to sign Dennis Irwin from United. Instead, Sir Alex Ferguson managed to lure Cantona to Old Trafford.
In five years at United, Cantona won four titles and two FA Cups. He showed consistent brilliance on the pitch and his cult status was enhanced when he earned a chunky ban for kicking a Crystal Palace fan. Enigmatic? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely.
Sol Campbell – Tottenham to Arsenal – Free (July 2001)
What could make signing one of the Premier League’s best centre halves even sweeter? Well, in Arsenal’s case two things: a) they brought in Sol Campbell on a free transfer in his prime; and b) they signed him from a club they utterly detest.
Tottenham fans are still apoplectic about Campbell’s decision to run down his contract before joining Arsene Wenger’s revolution in 2001, but Campbell’s bulging trophy cabinet makes the decision look like quite a good one.
A fearsome and intelligent defender, Campbell was a brick wall in Arsenal’s greatest ever team, whose watertight defence laid the foundations for the Gunners’ momentous Invincibles season. What a signing.
Riyad Mahrez – Le Havre to Leicester – £400,000 (January 2014)
Who said dipping into the January transfer window was for mugs? Leicester unearthed an absolute gem when they snapped up a cut-price Algerian winger in 2014.
Mahrez showed flashes of brilliance in the Championship before bursting onto the Premier League scene. The rise and rise of Leicester culminated in their unprecedented title win in 2016.
Playing off Jamie Vardy and with the support of Ngolo Kante, Mahrez’s trickery and eye for a killer ball gave Leicester a ruthless streak that saw them run out as comfortable and worthy champions.
Peter Schmeichel – Brondy to Manchester United – £500,000 (September 1991)
Before Cantona joined Ferguson at United, the great Scot brought in a man who would become arguably the greatest goalkeeper the English top flight has ever seen for just £500,000.
‘The Great Dane’ was described by Ferguson as ‘the bargain of the century’ and it’s hard to disagree with him. In eight years at Old Trafford, Schmeichel won five titles, three FA Cups, a League Cup and the Champions League.
It took Ferguson six years to replace Schmeichel after he left in 1999. It says it all that David de Gea probably isn’t the best goalkeeper that Ferguson signed. That said, he’s got a couple of years to prove that yet.
He really was farcically good.
Patrick Vieira – AC Milan to Arsenal – £3.5m (September 1996)
When you think of iconic Premier League captains, you probably think of this man (and maybe his arch nemesis Roy Keane). Arsenal still haven’t found a worthy replacement for the man who left a hero in 2005.
At 6ft 4in, he was an intimidating physical presence on the pitch. Scarier still was that it was backed up by sensational technique and a bite that was sometimes worse than his bark.
Vieira picked up three Premier League titles and four FA Cups at Arsenal during a time when they dominated English football. His rivalry with Keane is still the stuff of legend, and Vieira was instrumental when they went unbeaten for the entire 2003-04 season.
This row in the tunnel was worth the £3.5m alone:
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – Molde to Manchester United – £1.5m (July 1996)
In the summer of 1996, after missing out on Alan Shearer to his boyhood club Newcastle, Sir Alex Ferguson would draft in the ultimate super sub for a fraction of the price.
Nobody on these shores had heard of the 23-year-old Solskjaer when he rocked up at Old Trafford, but they certainly knew his name by the time he left.
Few players since have shown the ice-cold composure in front of goal that Solskjaer exhibited – often from the substitutes bench. So useful was he against tired legs, that he once came on to bag four times against Nottingham Forest.
In 11 years at United, he won six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, and netted the winner at the death in the 1999 Champions League final. A snip at just £1.5m.
Gabriel Jesus – Palmeiras to Manchester City – £26m (August 2016)
OK, so this one’s a bit of a wild card, but hear me out. At just 19 and already Brazil’s No 9, there was outcry in Jesus’s homeland when they learned that their most promising talent since Neymar was leaving for (in modern terms) such a meagre sum.
With the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane being valued at more than £150m and Neymar shattering the transfer record with his £196m move to PSG from Barcelona, it’s staggering that a teenage talent like Jesus moved for just £26m.
Jesus hasn’t faced defeat with City in 2017, and is the first striker since Edin Dzeko and Carlos Tevez left the club to threaten Sergio Aguero’s untouchable status on the teamsheet.
Even if Jesus leaves the club in the near future, he looks likely to depart with a couple of trophies under his belt and will cost a significant amount more than the money City bought him for. If he stays he’s already got his sights set on Aguero’s goalscoring record.
Cesc Fabregas – Barcelona to Arsenal – Free (September 2003)
Arsene Wenger strikes again with another killer free transfer. Sensing he would see limited playing time at Barcelona, a teenaged Cesc Fabregas made the call to join Arsenal in 2003.
It turned out to be a pretty good move for both parties. After inheriting Patrick Vieira’s No 4 shirt and partnering Gilberto Silva 49 times in his breakout 2005-06 season, Fabregas was handed the captaincy in the 2008-09 season before being snapped up by his boyhood club Barca in 2011. In 2014, eyebrows were raised by many Arsenal fans when Fabregas returned to the Premier League to play in Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea side.
Fabregas was essential in Arsenal’s run to the 2006 Champions League final, and won the FA Cup during his time in north London. It’s a shame he broke through when Arsenal’s dominance of English football was waning.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Sporting Lisbon to Manchester United – £12.25m (August 2003)
At the time, Ronaldo became the most expensive teenager in football history, but it turned out to be a steal, considering he’d become one of the players of a generation.
After ravaging John O’Shea in a friendly for Sporting Lisbon, Sir Alex Ferguson thought he’d take a punt on the talented Portuguese forward. Under Ferguson, Ronaldo went from strength to strength at United.
At United, Ronaldo won three Premier League titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and the Champions League. He also notched up his first of four Ballons d’Or – something only Lionel Messi had been able to rival him for in the years since.
Ronaldo left as one of United’s finest ever acquisitions when he joined Real Madrid in 2009 as the world’s most expensive player.