Sport The £3million Manchester United signing who was compared to Cristiano Ronaldo… and it ended in failure – Manchester Evening News
May 15, 2021
“At Cristiano’s request – who has again expressed his desire to leave – and after discussions with the player’s representatives, United have agreed to give Real Madrid permission to talk to the player.”
It was the news every
Manchester United fan was dreading when they read the headlines on the morning of 11 June 2009.
Two weeks after losing the
Champions League final against a Barcelona side inspired by the brilliance of Lionel Messi, United were coming to terms with the loss of their own extra-terrestrial talent.
Cristiano Ronaldo had been linked with an exit from Old Trafford throughout the season, but on the eve of the Champions League final United’s then chief executive David Gill insisted there was no way the club would be entertaining such a proposal.
Sir Alex Ferguson, in typical fashion, had months earlier said he would ‘not sell that mob a virus’.
Ronaldo was one of the two best players in the world when he left United – replacing him was the impossible task. The Portuguese departed Britain having netted a phenomenal 118 goals in 292 appearances, and he ended his final season in English football as the holder of the Ballon d’Or.
However, Ferguson was at least bolstered by the receipt a world-record £80m fee for their bona fide superstar – spending it would be the hard part.
Ferguson was looking for a collective effort rather than an individual to step into the shoes of their charismatic wide man, with summer arrival Antonio Valencia viewed at the heart of a rebuild.
Michael Owen also arrived on a free and inherited the No.7 shirt – the first in a long-line of post-Ronaldo occupants of the iconic number who didn’t live up to its billing. Mame Birame Diouf came in as an unknown quantity to an attacking side which had lost two of its main attacking threats in Ronaldo and the soon-to-depart Carlos Tevez.
Sir Alex Ferguson poses with new signings Gabriel Obertan, Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia
Then there was Gabriel Obertan.
Less than a month after sanctioning the sale of Ronaldo the French winger arrived from Bordeaux as Ferguson took a risk – albeit a small one given the £3million transfer fee involved – on a raw talent who was also being eyed by Arsenal, AC Milan and Inter Milan.
It’s true that hindsight and revisionism makes it seem obvious that Obertan was always going to struggle at United, but in the same month Ronaldo left for Spain the French winger was named most valuable player at the prestigious Toulon international youth tournament.
Ferguson was attracted by the player’s enormous potential and received plenty of positive endorsements from his former defender Laurent Blanc, who was then in charge of the Ligue 1 club.
Obertan, then 20, signed a four-year contact after the two clubs agreed a deal for a player who had all the raw attributes to more than repay that fee.
“Gabriel is a player we have tracked for a few years now,” Ferguson said. “But because of his educational programme our efforts to get him have been delayed. We are delighted to get him now as he is an exciting prospect.”
Instead of arriving to learn from the best player in the world, Obertan was tasked with eventually trying to fill his void as he arrived at a United side in transition.
“I knew they had been following me for a few years but I did not think it was going to happen this season,” he admitted at the time.
Sir Alex Ferguson looks towards French forward Gabriel Obertan during a team training session
“Ferguson has put me at ease. He said to me that he knows my pros and cons. It’s my potential that interests him. He has confidence in me. It is flattering and surprising.
“But I know I still have a lot of work to do to get to Ronaldo’s level.”
Under such circumstances a fast start is essential. Unfortunately for the French winger, he got off to the worst possible one as injury prevented him from joining the first-team squad on their pre-season tour of Asia.
Ferguson later revealed Obertan would be sidelined for a matter of months after developing spinal problems, he’d have to wait until October before his first start – in a Manchester Senior Cup tie against Oldham.
The Frenchman continued to play for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reserve side for three matches before he was finally given a taste of first-team action, being named man of the match on his debut in a League Cup win at Barnsley.
His reward was a Premier League debut four days later when he came off the bench in a 2-0 win over Blackburn, failing to convert a simple tap-in for the dream first goal.
“I hope I will score soon,” he said. “It is possible. I do have to work on my finishing but I am confident it will come.”
Ferguson admitted Obertan was ‘a bit nervous when he came on’ but said he was delighted to see how frustrated he was at missing an easy opportunity to score.
Michael Owen celebrates after scoring with Gabriel Obertan
A month later came the two highlights of his debut season in England – setting up Michael Owen’s second goal in a 3-1 win at Wolfsburg before starting his first league match in a win over Wolves one week later.
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Obertan’s confidence was growing, but again injury would limit his development. He only made 13 senior appearances in his first season.
“I was quite pleased with my first season in the end,” he reflected. “The difficult thing for me was that I arrived at the club with an injury. I had the back problem so was out really for five months.
“I have shown a little bit in games but I don’t think it is anywhere near enough. I aim to prove myself now this campaign.”
While there was certainly mitigation around his slow start in the North West the young winger was sent a reminder of the constant pressure to deliver when Zoran Tosic, who had also arrived in the January of 2009, was sold after over just one year with the club.
In a bid to prove his worth Obertan spoke with Ferguson about a need to improve his quality in the final third. He also worked close with a nutritionist in order to bulk up, adopting a new diet which primarily consisted of pasta and vegetables.
A year after missing out on the tour of Asia he was in the squad for a trip to North America, netting his first goal for the club in a 1-0 win over Philadelphia Union.
Obertan was looking to make up for lost time and, spurred on by the summer arrival of fellow winger Bebe, he knew he would have to make an impression before long.
Gabriel Obertan is mobbed after setting up Michael Owen vs VfL Wolfsburg
Then, disaster struck. One week later Obertan suffered another injury setback midway through the first-half of the MLS All-Star Game. He wouldn’t return until the final weeks of September.
“He certainly has some talent, but also some gaps (in his game),” his former coach at Lorient Christian Gourcuff had warned ahead of his move a year earlier. “I hope he will succeed, but he will have to make the step up mentally.”
That mental strength was being put to the ultimate test as Obertan struggled for the consistency needed to showcase his true talents.
Obertan returned for the League Cup win at Scunthorpe and worked his way back up to fitness over the coming weeks.
His reward would come on a November night in Turkey, as the winger netted his first competitive goal for United in a 3-0 win over Bursaspor in the Champions League.
“I hope the coach picks me,” he admitted at full-time. “We have a good group of 25 players now and even if nine of them are out, we can still do a job.”
Obertan got his wish of a start in the next match against Wolves, playing the full game as United won 2-1, but he was an unused substitute for the next two games.
United celebrate vs Bursaspor
At the beginning of November he would start his final league match for United in a 2-0 win over Wigan and a week later play the full match as they were hammed 4-0 by West Ham in the League Cup quarter-finals. That defeat exposed the huge gulf in quality between United’s starters and their reserves.
Ferguson was losing faith in Obertan but still the youngster believed in himself, citing compatriot Thierry Henry’s own struggles when he first joined as Arsenal as evidence of what can be achieved after a slow start.
“I am trying to take something from his game,” he stated. “Like me, when Henry started out, he was a winger. Then he became a striker because he loved scoring. I am trying to score more and be more efficient in front of goal.”
Henry had scored just twice in 17 appearances before being converted into a striker, Obertan just one in 26. He had a point, but Ferguson didn’t have the time to take such a risk.
At the turn of the year Obertan dropped down into the reserves and he would start 13 times, netting six goals and notching four assists.
His impressive performances earned him starts in FA Cup wins over Southampton and Crawley, with the latter being his final senior appearance for United.
Obertan wasn’t even making match day squads as United closed in on their 19th top-flight title as fellow winger Nani hit stride and earned a place in the PFA Team of the Year.
Gabriel Obertan celebrates scoring the seventh goal during a pre-season friendly match between Seattle Sounders and Manchester United
For a period it looked like United had finally replaced Ronaldo, but that was with Nani – not the French youngster they had signed with the funds from his sale.
The arrival of Aston Villa winger Ashley Young all but spelled the end for Obertan in Manchester and when Newcastle came calling the chance of a fresh start was too good to turn down.
“It wasn’t really a difficult decision to come here,” he insisted. “I spent two good years in Manchester but it was a bit difficult with the competition and I really needed a club where I could play more games. I want a fresh start in football.”
Antonio Valencia battles former teammate Gabriel Obertan of Newcastle
Similar injury misfortune and inconsistency put pay to his chances of making it in the Premier League with Newcastle, before moves to Anzhi, Wigan, Levski Sofia and Erzurumspor followed. At 32, he’s still plying his trade in Turkey’s top tier, operating primarily as an attacking midfielder in a more central role.
Perhaps his move to United came too soon, or perhaps it was always going to be a step too far for him to make the grade at Old Trafford, but maybe, with a little bit of luck, things might have turned out differently for Obertan at United. He was never going to replace Ronaldo, though – nobody was.
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