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 more than 20 years since he left England for Fiorentina.
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 during his four years at Old Trafford before top scoring for Everton in his only full season at Goodison.
His exits from both Old Trafford and Goodison Park puzzled outsiders, but the rumours and speculation that filled the void of clarity have only added to his cult-hero status all these years on.
Not a lot was known about Kanchelskis when he signed for United on March 26, 1991, but Alex Ferguson viewed the £650,000 signing from Shakhtar Donetsk as a “justifiable risk”, having first spotted him on video playing for Russia Under-21s.
Kanchelskis had to wait two months for a sniff of action, making his debut in United’s penultimate league game of the 1990-91 season at Crystal Palace when most of the first XI was rested ahead of the European Cup Winners’ Cup final against Barcelona in Rotterdam a few days later.
It was not until the opening game of the 1991-92 season, however, that Kanchelskis made his Old Trafford bow against Notts County.
Craig Short, who started for the visitors, 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 Peter Schmeichel launching a missile over a dizzy left-back’s head into Kanchelskis’s path was one which the Stretford End grew to love.
He was never a tricky winger, instead preferring the direct route but he was able to pass defenders inside or out before using his arms and upper-body strength to deny opponents a route back goalside.
Ferguson described the Russian’s debut season as “an outstanding success” as he made 32 First Division appearances, scoring five goals.
Learning the English language, however, 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.
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.
The first cracks
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.
He made 28 starts in the Premier League in 1993-94 as he again benefitted from Sharpe’s fitness woes, but he was relegated to the role of spectator for United’s Champions League campaign.
Despite being a firm favourite with United fans, Kanchelskis did not feel as appreciated by his boss and said before a Coca-Cola Cup final defeat to Aston Villa in which he became the first player ever to be sent off in a League Cup final he was “70 per cent certain” to be leaving United in the summer.
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.
An unwanted gift
The supporters were granted their wish when the 25-year-old signed a new four-year contract, and Kanchelskis started all but one of United’s Premier League games before Christmas in the 1994-95 season, when he was on international duty.
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 Ferguson.
Kanchelskis’s first goal of the campaign came in his second game – a 1-1 Monday night draw at Nottingham Forest on August 22 – and when United arrived back in Manchester at 1am the following morning, 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.
Ferguson was also unaware at the time of a clause in Kanchelskis’s new contract that stipulated he 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.
Ferguson believes it was one of the root causes for Kanchelskis’ post-Christmas decline. He finished the 94-95 season as United’s top scorer, but only three of his 14 goals in the Premier League were scored after the turn of the year.
Kanchelskis completed 90 minutes only five times in the second half of the season, developing a mysterious stomach complaint that United’s medical staff could not diagnose, and eventually Kanchelskis made clear his desire to quit.
“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.”
Kanchelskis would go on to join Everton, but it would be fair to say it was not a straightforward transfer.
With 60 per cent of any fee to be diverted to Kanchelskis and his former club, United wanted more than the £5million Everton had offered, stalling the move, but Yesaulenko promised to sort the Shakhtar “problem” and soon after United received a fax stating the Ukrainians had waived their right to a cut. Problem solved.
Or so it seemed.
Two months later, United received further correspondence two months later from Shakhtar demanding what they were owed, claiming 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 a 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.
Prompted by Yesaulenko’s mischief, Shakhtar reexamined the terms of the deal and found they were due another £550,000 from United due to performance-related clauses.
United could prove they had already paid the money owed, but Shakhtar never received it and president Bragin was suspected of syphoning 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 Shakhtar’s stadium four minutes into a match.
A club spokesman later told The Independent he doubted the murder was linked to the Kanchelskis deal, but as transfers go, this one was a bit more complex than your average.
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 celebrating two wins in his first two appearances.
His third, however, a reunion with United at Goodison, lasted only 14 minutes, at which point he was sent to the turf by a robust challenge from his former right-wing rival Sharpe.
Sharpe scored twice to help United win 3-2, and Kanchelskis missed a month with a shoulder injury.
He returned in mid-October and scored his first two goals in a blue shirt a month later – at the Kop end in a 2-1 win at Liverpool. Hero status secured.
Kanchelskis went on to score 10 goals in the final 10 games of the season, including a hat-trick in a 5-2 win at Sheffield Wednesday. Many of them involved him cutting inside, where defenders were happy to chaperone the right footer, before lashing home with his left.
Craig Short, who joined Everton on the same day as Kanchelskis says 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.
“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.”
Kanchelskis remains in the hearts of those Evertonians. In a Liverpool Echo poll in 2016 to decide Everton’s greatest player of the Premier League era, the winger came third behind club legends Tim Cahill and Duncan Ferguson.
The beginning of the end
Sadly, though he once again had the support of the fans, it was not enough. Kanchelskis’ second winter at Goodison Park brought more speculation over his future, and with Serie A sides interested, his focus slipped.
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 when, head down, he 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.
Everton lost 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.
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, however, denies ever wanting to leave, telling the Liverpool Echo in 2016: “The chairman told him that he had no money and they sold me to Italy.
“I’d have liked to stay here because this is where my family was, living in Manchester, and my kids were born here.”
Whatever the truth and despite everything that went on off the field, Kanchelskis will always be a hero to those who saw him play at United and Everton.
By Ian Watson
This article was originally published in January 2017.