Given their status as England’s biggest and most successful club, it should hardly come as a surprise that some of the Premier League’s most legendary players have at one point in their careers called Manchester United their home, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, and Wayne Rooney all donning the famous red shirt for years.
However, where most big clubs are loath to ever allow their best players to leave, one hallmark of the Sir Alex Ferguson era at Old Trafford, in particular, was a willingness to ship even the biggest names out, often under a black cloud depending on their behaviour. Under Fergie, it didn’t matter if you were a world-class player – if you rocked the boat, you were likely to be forced out.
Having said that, we take a look at five Manchester United legends who left the club on bad terms.
Signed by United from PSV Eindhoven in the summer of 1998 for £10.6m – a fee that made him the most expensive Dutch player in football history – central defender Jaap Stam quickly slotted into Ferguson’s first XI at Old Trafford and created a formidable partnership at the heart of United’s defence with Norwegian international Ronny Johnsen.
United won the treble – the Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League – in Stam’s first season at the club and it was clear to most observers that the Dutchman had been a key part of the team’s success. The Red Devils went on to retain their Premier League title in 1999-00 and 2000-01, with Stam continuing to be one of the side’s key players – but nobody could’ve expected what happened next.
In the early part of the 2001-02 season, the Dutchman released an autobiography titled Head to Head, detailing his career at United. Amongst the anecdotes in the book were slights at some opposing players – and some of his teammates too – and most notably, an allegation that Ferguson had approached him to facilitate a move to United without the permission of PSV.
The results were seismic and incredibly fast too; after one appearance in the 2001-02 campaign, Stam was quickly sold to Lazio for a fee of around £16m, despite reports that he didn’t want to leave Old Trafford. The Dutchman went on to play at the top level for another 6 seasons and reached the Champions League final with AC Milan in 2005.
Ferguson would later claim that he’d sold Stam largely because he felt like he was slowing down following an Achilles injury – but the speed of the sale following the publishing of the book still suggests otherwise.
One of the key members of the legendary ‘Class of 1992’ alongside the likes of Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, David Beckham emerged onto the scene at Old Trafford in the double-winning 1995-96 season, but it was during the 1996-97 campaign that his stardom really began to rise. It was during that season that he scored his famous goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon – and it was also the same year that he began to date Victoria Adams of the Spice Girls, one of the world’s most famous pop groups.
By the late 1990s, Beckham was arguably the most famous sportsman in the UK thanks to his performances for United on the pitch and his relationship with ‘Posh Spice’, and despite earning the hatred of many rivals fans after his red card for England in the 1998 World Cup, he continued to play brilliantly for the Red Devils and was arguably their key man in their treble-winning campaign of 1998-99.
By the early 2000s though, Beckham’s relationship with United boss Alex Ferguson began to wane, largely as the Scotsman felt that Victoria – who the winger married in 1999 – was beginning to have too much of an influence on his career and that he was becoming more focused on being a celebrity than his on-pitch activities.
A row in 2000 over Beckham missing a training session resulted in the England man being dropped for a game against Leeds, and while he signed a new deal at Old Trafford in 2002, the tension between him and Ferguson once again exploded in early 2003, as the manager kicked a boot at him following a defeat to Arsenal, opening a cut over his eye.
Despite Beckham being arguably at the peak of his powers during this period – he was also England’s captain and was arguably the best dead-ball expert in the world – the summer of 2003 saw him linked with a move away, and in June, he moved to Real Madrid for a surprisingly cheap fee of €37m.
Beckham went on to win the 2006-07 La Liga title with Los Blancos and starred with them for 4 seasons, but he would never return to United despite Red Devils’ fans still adoring him. It’s hard to shake the idea that had he not met his pop star wife, Ferguson would never have wished to sell him.
One of the most important players at Old Trafford from the early 1990s until his departure in 2005, Roy Keane’s incredible drive and thirst for success made him epitomise what United were all about under Sir Alex Ferguson. As a box-to-box midfielder, the Irishman was largely unparalleled at his peak, capable of scoring and creating goals just as well as he was able to crunch into an opposing player with a hard tackle.
Keane won 7 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups and the Champions League during his time with the Red Devils, and was the club’s captain during their most successful period. Despite his incredible on-pitch abilities and leadership qualities though, even he found out that at Old Trafford, no player was bigger than Ferguson.
Always an outspoken player, Keane had hit out against his opponents at times and even the fair-weather United fans that he labelled the “prawn sandwich brigade”, but in 2005, he went a step too far. An appearance on United’s TV channel – MUTV – after a defeat to Middlesbrough saw him criticise teammates like Rio Ferdinand and Darren Fletcher, claiming that the former saw himself as a superstar “just because he was paid 120k-a-week”.
The outburst was pulled from transmission by United’s management, but by that point, things had gone too far, and two weeks later – following another row with Ferguson that saw the boss tell Keane his contract was being torn up – the Irishman was allowed to leave the club by mutual consent, and he quickly moved to Celtic.
15 years later, there’s still no love lost between Keane and his former manager; Ferguson’s autobiography saw him state that “Roy had absolutely overstepped the line” with the MUTV interview, while Keane himself has claimed that he’ll never forgive the Scotsman for the way he was forced out of Old Trafford.
Carlos Tevez spent just two seasons at Manchester United but he still made a huge impact during his stint at the club. Unfortunately, the striker left the side on bad terms and remains largely despised by Red Devils fans to this day.
Signed on loan in the summer of 2007, Tevez formed a dangerous attacking trio alongside Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and scored 19 goals in all competitions as United won the 2007-08 Premier League title and their third Champions League.
The Argentine remained one of United’s key players in the 2008-09 season, appearing in 51 matches and scoring another 15 goals, but by May 2009, cracks had begun to appear in the player’s relationship with the club. Tevez’s loan deal with the Red Devils was due to expire in the summer of 2009, and apparently, the striker was unhappy that they had not made any attempt to make his signing a permanent one.
Weeks later, United CEO David Gill announced that the club intended to resolve the Argentine’s future by June, and the club then agreed to meet the £25.5m fee set by his third-party owners MSI. However, Tevez then informed the club that he no longer wanted to be a United player – and in July, he instead jumped ship to the Red Devils’ bitter rivals Manchester City.
To make matters even worse in the eyes of United fans, City’s management then erected a now-infamous billboard in the centre of Manchester, stating “Welcome to Manchester” along with a picture of Tevez in the background. The Argentine went on to win the Premier League title and the FA Cup with City – and remains persona non grata at Old Trafford to this day.
Signed by United in the summer of 2001 for a fee of £19m, Ruud Van Nistelrooy had an immediate impact at the club. He scored 23 goals in 32 league games during his first season, adding a further 10 in Champions League action, and was awarded the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award at the end of the campaign.
The Dutch international went on to win multiple trophies at Old Trafford, including the Premier League title, FA Cup and EFL Cup and ended his United career with an amazing goal record – scoring 150 times in just 219 appearances. However, in the summer of 2006 – despite still being at the peak of his powers – Van Nistelrooy was sold to Real Madrid for a fee of just €14m.
Like Keane and Stam before him, the striker became a victim of Ferguson’s vice-grip around the club, as the Scottish manager preferred to keep harmony within his squad even if it meant removing a key player from it. On this occasion, Van Nistelrooy had fallen out with a younger player destined to inspire United to future success – Cristiano Ronaldo.
When the Dutchman was dropped by Ferguson for a game against Charlton Athletic in May 2006 – and subsequently left the stadium and headed home – it emerged that he and Ronaldo had gotten into a fight during training, after which Van Nistelrooy had told the Portuguese to “go crying to your daddy”. Apparently, this was a reference to Ronaldo’s relationship with United assistant coach Carlos Queiroz – but hit home much harder as the winger’s father had only died 8 months prior.
At any rate, Ferguson clearly took Ronaldo’s side in the spat, and Van Nistelrooy never played another game for the club – departing to the Bernabeu just weeks later, where he would score 33 goals in his debut season for Los Blancos.