The incredible story of Andrei Kanchelskis and his time in England


Achieving cult-hero status at one club during a career is a worthy achievement. To do it at two, you have to be pretty special.

That is exactly what Andrei Kanchelskis achieved in six years in English football with Manchester United and Everton. The flying Russian is still fondly remembered by the red half of Manchester and the blue of Merseyside some 20 years since he left England for Fiorentina.

It could so easily have been the Reds of Merseyside who embraced Kanchelskis. Graeme Souness rejected the opportunities to sign Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona before they became United legends, but the Liverpool boss, who only a month previously had replaced Kenny Dalglish, made it very clear he wanted Kanchelskis at Anfield in 1991.

“Souness said if I went to Manchester United I would regret it and should go to Liverpool,” Kanchelskis recently told 888sport. “He said United were not playing very well and told me about the Anfield crowds.

“But I was very happy to join United.”

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It was a smart move. Kanchelskis – or Andrej Kontchelskis as he was initially registered – won two Premier League titles, played a pivotal role in United’s first ever Double, and also claimed League Cup and European Super Cup winners’ medals.

His subsequent success at Everton was more personal as he finished as top scorer at Goodison in his only full season at the club.

Kanchelskis’ exits from both Old Trafford and Goodison Park puzzled outsiders and dismayed many Red Devils and Toffees alike. Rumour and speculation filled the void of clarity, with all sorts of theories offered for a couple of getaways equally as speedy as his bursts beyond left-backs.

But 20 years almost to the day since he left these shores for Florence, both United and Everton supporters still recall Kanchelskis with a warm, fuzzy sense of nostalgia.

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If any of those fans tell you they knew of Kanchelskis when he signed for United on March 26, 1991, the vast majority of them would be lying.

The club paid Shakhtar Donetsk £650,000 for the 21-year-old, who Alex Ferguson had first seen on video playing for Russia Under-21s. The manager viewed the purchase as a “justifiable risk”, having identified the wideman as having “tremendous pace, tremendous strength and tactical intelligence”.

If Kanchelskis failed to settle in England or adapt to the hustle and bustle of Barclays Division One football, Ferguson believed United would still make their money back.

Kanchelskis had to wait two months for a sniff of action, with his debut coming in United’s penultimate league game of the 1990-91 season.

The Red Devils had Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona to contend with in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam a few days later, so Ferguson rested most of his first XI at Crystal Palace, giving Kanchelskis the opportunity to shine alongside the likes of Mal Donaghy, Danny Wallace and Paul Wratten. United, for what little it mattered, were beaten 3-0.

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Kanchelskis was in Rotterdam to see his new team-mates turn over Cruyff’s crew to win only their second European trophy, continuing their progress under Ferguson from mid-table obscurity to championship contenders.

The signings of Peter Schmeichel and Paul Parker in the summer strengthened United’s title credentials further, and Kanchelskis made his Old Trafford bow alongside the pair in the opening game of the 1991-92 season against Notts County.

Craig Short, who started for County that day, remembers the day clearly.

“I remember before the game our assistant manager, Mick Jones, asking ‘Who is this Kanchelskis?'” Short told us. “But he soon found out who Andrei was after the game as he gave Alan Paris a real tough game and was outstanding for United that day.”

The sight of Schmeichel launching a missile over a dizzy left-back’s head into Kanchelskis’s path was one which the Stretford End grew to love. But the Russian was still learning on the job.

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“It’s quite different here,” Kanchelskis told The Independent when asked about the adjustment. “You’ve no time to dwell on the ball. Once in a while in Russia you’d play a bad team and they’d have a defender you could beat once, beat twice, and still be able to stand around deciding what to do next. Here you might have three opponents pressurising you.”

But Kanchelskis caught on quick. He was never a tricky winger, instead preferring the direct route and able to pass defenders inside or out before using his arms and upper-body strength to deny opponents a route back goalside.

Like many young wide players, Kanchelskis’s final delivery, often too flat, frustrated those looking to feast upon it, but Ferguson was delighted with his new recruit, hailing the Russian’s debut season ‘an outstanding success’ as he made 32 First Division appearances, scoring five goals.

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Kanchelskis earned the first two medals of his United career within a year of arrival. The first came in the European Super Cup when, according to Ferguson, United won 1-0 despite being “absolutely annihilated” by a Dejan Savicevic-inspired Red Star Belgrade.

A second medal followed at Wembley where Kanchelskis played 75 minutes of the Rumbelows Cup final win over Nottingham Forest – but there was a sting in the tail of the season for United when they almost gift-wrapped the championship trophy before sending it along the M62 to Leeds.

Any fears of Kanchelskis failing to acclimatise to the north west appeared unfounded, though learning the English language came a lot slower than his runs off the right touchline.

Kanchelskis relied heavily on George Scanlon, his hugely-respected interpreter, who Ferguson allowed to sit on the United bench owing to the importance of his role with the Russian and later with Eric Cantona.

Kanchelskis later acknowledged that having Scanlon so close “slowed down the process of settling in at United”. But the language barrier was proving to be little obstacle on the pitch.

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Battling Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe for two wide slots, Kanchelskis made the most of Sharpe’s meningitis-enforced absence at the start of the 1992-93 season, when he was just one of 13 non-British or Irish players to start the inaugural Premier League campaign.

But when Sharpe returned to fitness, the left-footed England star was preferred on the right wing to Kanchelskis, who was used more sparingly throughout the second half of the season. Ferguson’s choices were justified by the eventual arrival of United’s first league title in 26 years, but cracks were beginning to show in the pair’s relationship.

Ferguson fined Kanchelskis a week’s wages when the player refused to turn out for the reserves during the first title-winning season, and when the manager had to choose between his foreign players in the UEFA Cup and subsequently the European Cup, Kanchelskis was often the odd man out.

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Perhaps the language barrier contributed to the difficulties Kanchelskis had fathoming Ferguson’s rotation, especially with his performances continuing to improve. “I just couldn’t understand why I wasn’t in the team,” he later said.

“Everyone now sees Andrei as the best right-sided player in the country,” said United skipper Bryan Robson in 1994. “He used to drive everyone potty because he ran with his head down and his delivery never matched his build-up. That’s changed with maturity and confidence.”

During the 1993-94 season, Kanchelskis took on more responsibility, though again he was a beneficiary of Sharpe’s fitness woes. The Russian made 28 starts in the Premier League, with another three coming off the bench, but he was relegated to the role of spectator for United’s Champions League campaign.

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Despite being a firm favourite with United fans, Kanchelkskis did not feel as appreciated by his boss. Towards the end of a season in which United won their first ever Double, it seemed highly likely that Kanchelskis would leave Old Trafford to seek the confidence of a manager elsewhere.

Indeed, before a Coca-Cola Cup final defeat to Aston Villa in which Kanchelskis became the first player ever to be sent off in a League Cup final, the Russian said he was “70 per cent certain” to be leaving United in the summer.

Honest though his answer was, a more accurate response would have put the figure closer to 100, but 70 was highest number Kanchelskis could translate into English when he was put on the spot.

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With Juventus, Bayern Munich, Sevilla and Rangers all sniffing around Kanchelskis, United fans were keen to make their winger feel wanted. “Andrei must stay!” was chanted loud and often towards the end of the campaign, especially after the No.14 returned from suspension to rip Joe Royle’s Oldham Athletic to shreds in the FA Cup semi-final replay.

The supporters were granted their wish when the 25-year-old signed a new four-year contract to put him on a par with the club’s highest earners. But Ferguson’s problems with his jet-heeled winger were only just beginning.

On the pitch, Kanchelskis justified his rise in status at Old Trafford during the first half of 1994-95 season, failing to start only one Premier League game prior to Christmas – a 1-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday which coincided with international duty for Kanchelskis and Eric Cantona.

The winger had 10 goals by mid-November, including a derby hat-trick in the 5-0 Thursday night thrashing that served as sweet revenge for City’s 5-1 pasting at Maine Road in 1989. But off the pitch, Kanchelskis, or more specifically his representatives, were causing headaches for Fergsuson.

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Kanchelskis’s first goal of the campaign came in his second game –  a 1-1 Monday night draw at Nottingham Forest on August 22. United returned to Manchester at 1am, where the Russian’s agent Grigori Yesaulenko was waiting for Ferguson. With Kanchelskis’s lucrative new contract signed, the agent insisted on presenting the manager with a gift.

“He said, ‘This is for you and your wife, thanks for all your help'” Ferguson recalled in his autobiography, Managing My Life. “I got home, my wife opened it – £40,000. I thought it contained a samovar, or some other typical Russian gift. What the box contained was money, bundles of the stuff.”

With the George Graham ‘bung’ scandal fresh in everyone’s memory, Ferguson was concerned he might have been filmed receiving the box, unaware of what it contained. The manager documented and deposited the cash in the club safe under the watch of club solicitor Maurice Watkins the following morning until it could be returned.

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Ferguson was also unaware at the time of a clause in Kanchelskis’s new contract that the manager believes was one of the root causes for his player’s post-Christmas decline. Kanchelskis finished the 94-95 season as United’s top scorer, but 11 of his Premier League 14 strikes came before the turn of the year.

Kanchelskis completed 90 minutes only five times in the second half of the season, compared to 15 occasions before Christmas. The winger developed a mysterious stomach complaint that United’s medical staff could not diagnose, and after being left on the bench for the February defeat at Everton, Kanchelskis made clear his desire to quit.

The Russian played only four more league games for the club, missing the final seven matches of the season as United lost their title to Blackburn on the final day and the FA Cup final to Everton.

The winger then spoke out: “My heart is with Manchester United, but I cannot stay for one reason and that is the manager. Our personal problems are just too big.”

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It was only then Ferguson discovered that written into Kanchelskis’s contract was a clause that stipulated the player was entitled to 30 per cent of any transfer fee United would receive should he be sold. Kanchelskis’s former club Shakhtar were also entitled to the same amount.

By now, the manager had had enough. “No one can quite understand that one,” said Ferguson shortly after he had packed off Kanchelskis to Everton. “Okay, you’ve had an argument with the manager, but to get into those histrionics… dearie me.

“The best thing to do in these situations is to get it done and get it out of the road. Get the players you want and the players who want to play for United. There’s no point trying to twist a player’s arm. We tried it with Andrei for a while and it didn’t work.”

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Middlesbrough, now managed by Kanchelskis’s former team-mate Bryan Robson, had a £5million bid for the winger accepted, but Everton boss Joe Royle, whose Oldham side had been destroyed by the Russian in the 1994 FA Cup semi-final, intervened.

Kanchelskis was reluctant to uproot his wife and son from their home in Cheshire and Royle admitted in his autobiography that he used it to his and Everton’s advantage.

“I admit that I cheekily played on this when, with the bleak, lunar-landscape surroundings of Boro’s brand-new Riverside Stadium in mind, I suggested to Andrei that he had only recently escaped Chernobyl – why would he want to return?”

The amazing story of Kanchelskis’ transfer to Everton 

Royle, in his book, also alluded to some of the possible reasons Kanchelskis may have wanted to cash in on the clause in his last United deal.

“Rumours about the dark side of Kanchelskis’s life were rife, that he was an addicted gambler, who spent most of his time in the casinos of Manchester and, worse, that the midfielder was run by the Russian mafia, in the shape of his agent, the formidable Yesaulenko.”

It was a fair description of Yesaulenko, whose shadow hung over Old Trafford for a good while after the player’s departure.

United, not unreasonably, wanted to make a decent sum if they were to sell their top scorer, but with 60 per cent of any fee they received to be diverted to Kanchelskis and his former club, the Red Devils decided the £5million Everton had offered was not enough.

Yesaulenko – not licensed as an agent with FIFA – was furious the transfer had stalled and told United chariman Martin Edwards he would sort the Shakhtar “problem”.

In July 1995, just after United returned for pre-season, the club received a fax from Shakhtar Donetsk stating that the Ukranians waived their right to a cut of the fee Everton would pay the Red Devils. “Problem” solved. But not for long.

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United received further correspondence two months later from Shakhtar demanding what they were owed, claiming that both parties had been duped by Kanchelskis’s agent.

Shakhtar said Yesaulenko had asked one of their vice-presidents to forward a fax written in English – a language the official did not speak – to United on club notepaper.

The club carried out the request believing it “necessary exclusively for helping Andrei Kanchelskis to solve private problem”. But now realising they had been conned by Yesaulenko, Shakhtar were calling in the £1.5million debt.

Shakhtar president Aleksandr Bragin began settlement negotiations with United, but he was not around when they were concluded the following March with a compromise of £770,000 being reached.

Prompted by Yesaulenko’s mischief, Shakhtar went back to examine the terms of the deal which took Kanchelskis to Manchester in 1991, and they found they were due another £550,000 from United due to performance-related clauses that the player had met at Old Trafford.

United were able to prove to Shakhtar that they had paid the money owed over those clauses, but the Ukrainian club never saw the cash. President Bragin was suspected of siphoning the money off into a Swiss bank account.

Three months after Kanchelskis was sold to Everton, Bragin and five of his bodyguards were blown up at Shakhtor’s stadium four minutes into a match, though a club spokesman told The Independent in 1999 that he doubted the murder of Bragin – a figure involved in the Ukrainian mafia – was linked to the Kanchelskis deal: “That is not enough money to cause what happened. It is only a small amount of money.”

Bragin, it seems, had plenty of other enemies.

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Back to football

Once United and Everton had ironed out what needed to be agreed in their transaction, a process that took five weeks, Kanchelskis was in the Everton side and able to concentrate on football again.

After two wins in his first two appearances, the former United winger came up against his old side at Goodison Park. The reunion lasted 14 minutes, at which point Kanchelskis was sent to the turf thanks to a robust challenge from former team-mate and rival for the right-wing spot, Lee Sharpe.

Ferguson’s day got even better when Sharpe’s brace helped earn United a 3-2 victory.

Kanchelskis missed a month with a shoulder injury but made up for lost time upon his return in mid-October. A month later, he scored his first two goals in a blue shirt – at the Kop end to give the Toffees a 2-1 win in the derby.

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Everton spent only one week of the first half of the campaign in the top half of the table. After New Year’s Day, they were never out of it, with Kanchelskis driving the Toffees on to a top-six finish, scoring 10 goals in the final 10 games of the season, including a hat-trick in a 5-2 win at Sheffield Wednesday on the penultimate week of the season.

Many of Kanchelskis’s goals for Everton came in similar fashion, cutting inside, where defenders where happy to chaperone the right-footer, before lashing home with his left.

Craig Short, who joined Everton on the same day as Kanchelskis told us this was no coincidence.

“Andrei was a throwback to the old fashioned wingers, not like the ones these days who play on the opposite sides and cut in and shoot with their stronger foot.

“Actually with Andrei because he was so quick full-backs used to show him inside thinking that was how to keep him quiet, but he was so good he would then would cut inside and smash in a goal with his left foot.

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“That was no fluke either with Andrei as he worked on his left foot a lot. I remember after training every day he would come into the gym with a ball and hit it as hard as he could with his left foot against the wall as he practised getting power on his left foot.

“In his first year at Everton Andrei was outstanding. He was a big reason why we finished sixth that year in the Premier League and he quickly became a big fans’ favourite.

“Off the pitch he was a quiet person, but he did like his cards on the bus when going to away game.

“He mixed well with most of the lads and he was a big favourite with the players and the fans who absolutely loved him.”

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Kanchelskis remains in the hearts of those Evertonians. In a Liverpool Echo poll last year to decide Everton’s greatest player of the Premier League era, the winger came third behind club legends Tim Cahill and Duncan Ferguson.

Just like at Old Trafford, Kanchelskis was adored by the Gwladys Street, but once more that appreciation was not enough. His second winter at Goodison Park brought more speculation over his future. Serie A sides were said to be interested, which saw Kanchelskis’s focus slip.

The winger’s final contribution in a blue shirt, in an FA Cup fourth-round tie at home to second-tier side Bradford, summed up his last weeks at the club. Kanchelskis, head down, ran blindly infield, backwards in his own half before panicking and presenting the ball to Chris Waddle, who executed a sublime chip over the bemused Neville Southall.

The Bantams went on to triumph 3-2, with The Guardian’s match report ripping into the wideman: “Everton’s answer to Waddle should have been Andrei Kanchelskis but once again the Russian was a disgrace; in his present mood he could not find a settee in a bedsit.”

The following Wednesday, Kanchelskis was on a plane to Italy, with Everton receiving a club-record fee of £8million – a £3million profit – from Fiorentina.

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Both Royle and Kanchelskis look back at their parting with some regret.

“He gave Everton one magnificent season, but the next season he was muddled,” Royle told Four Four Two. “He had a succession of niggling injuries and knew the Italians wanted him. I could see it was getting to the other players.

“In the end I felt it was really getting on top of him. In hindsight, if I was in the same position again I’d probably just send him on holiday for a few weeks.”

Kanchelskis refuted the allegation that he wanted away, telling the Liverpool Echo last year: “The chairman told him that he had no money and they sold me to Italy. The directors told me that they needed the funds to buy new players. It was a good investment for the club to buy me for £5million and sell me for £8million.

“I’d have liked to stay here because this is where my family was, living in Manchester, and my kids were born here.”

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Kanchelskis would never recover the same form. He struggled in Serie A before returning to Britain for spells with Rangers, Manchester City and Southampton, with rumours about alleged involvement with the Russian mafia never far away.

But 20 years after leaving England the Premier League for Italy, United fans and Evertonians alike still smile at the memory of Kanchelskis in full flow.

He received a rapturous reception when he was invited back to Goodison Park last season, and though it is unlikely the United hierarchy would roll out the red carpet for their former winger and his associates, Kanchelskis he would surely be given an equally enthusiastic ovation from supporters at Old Trafford.

Words by Ian Watson. Main illustration by Paul Clay.

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