Given Manchester United’s standing as one of the world’s most famous and storied football clubs, when a great player leaves it tends to be on the club’s terms.
But that’s not always the case, as United have experienced once more with Paul Pogba, the club’s record signing who has left the club on a free for this summer for a second time after a similar exit in 2012. And he isn’t the only great player the Red Devils have allowed to leave without recouping a fee.
Given his recent antics, Cristiano Ronaldo is next player on the list to leave Old Trafford on a free.
We’ve taken a look at eight examples of great players that left United for nothing. Note: we’ve not included players that retired immediately after leaving United.
Arriving at Old Trafford as PSG’s all-time top scorer – something that former team-mate Edinson Cavani would repeat four years later – Ibrahimovic showed there was still life in his 34-year-old legs, scoring 17 goals in his first 28 Premier League appearances.
That great debut campaign was unfortunately curtailed by a serious knee ligament injury, and he struggled to make the same kind of impact on his return.
He was then allowed to make the switch to LA Galaxy on a free transfer in March 2018, announcing the move with a full-page ad in the LA Times that read: “Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome”. Of course he did.
In 2021-22, he continued his seemingly interminable victory march in Milan, winning a twelfth domestic league title of his career. Some going, that.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 9, 2020
United’s and England’s all-time top scorer controversially threatened to leave the club on more than one occasion over the course of his wildly successful 13-year stint. But when his exit eventually arrived, it was with a whimper rather than a bang.
As his body started to slow down, a return home to Everton suited all parties. He scored 10 Premier League goals during his brief second spell at Goodison Park before heading to MLS.
Given how his time at the club went, few fans would describe Pogba as a ‘United great’ but it can’t be denied he’s an exceptional footballer – a World Cup and four successive Scudetti with Juventus attest to that – so there remains a wistful collective sigh over what might have been.
When Pogba left as a promising academy player back in 2012, there was a fear that the club was making a mistake in allowing him to leave for free – something they hoped to rectify with a club-record £89million fee for his signature in 2016.
But six years and just a Europa League and League Cup trophy to show for it is probably not what Ed Woodward had in mind. And now he’s going for nothing once more.
United got eight exceptional years of service out of a player later voted the Premier League’s all-time best centre-half.
Vidic saw out the final year of his contract during David Moyes’ reign before signing for Inter Milan, but perhaps he regrets not following Sir Alex Ferguson out on a high 12 months prior.
On the subject of great United defenders of the last two decades, Ferdinand was a stalwart alongside Vidic and the perfect complement, the Englishman providing the grace to go with the Serb’s grit.
After 12 seasons of brilliant service, he sidled away from Old Trafford aged 35 in 2014, joining up with ‘Arry Redknapp at QPR. Ferdinand’s peak had passed, however, and he only made 11 league appearances before hanging up his boots.
Whilst warming the Rangers bench, he told the Sun: “When you have enjoyed all the success of being at a club as big as Manchester United for more than a decade, there is no hiding the fact that my current circumstances are a bit of a comedown.”
Never flash, but another bona fide club legend – Antonio Valencia, whether on the wing or at full-back, could always be relied upon.
In 2019, a decade and six major trophies after joining from Wigan for £16million, the Ecuadorian jetted off home to join LDU Quito. He stayed there for a couple of seasons, winning the 2019 Copa Ecuador before joining Mexican side Queretaro for a swansong campaign as a professional.
The Scottish academy graduate made well over 300 appearances for United and, having overcome early doubts, was absolutely brilliant at his best, a tireless presence in the centre of the Old Trafford pitch.
Unfortunately, the latter part of his time in Manchester was severely disrupted by an illness for which he had to undergo surgery.
In January 2015, Fletcher finally flew the nest, joining West Brom for nothing. Two and a half seasons there were followed by a spell at Stoke before Fletcher returned to United in a coaching capacity. Having proved his worth on the Carrington pitches, he was made their technical director in March 2021.
Whilst some of the players already mentioned left United on friendly terms after coming to the natural end of their United careers, that was never going to be the case with Keane.
Keane left United in November 2005 by mutual consent, by which time tensions had been rising for a while. The legendary Irish midfielder had clashed with Sir Alex Ferguson over his choice of pre-season training camp and, while injured, said on MUTV that he’d be “prepared to play elsewhere.”
Things came to a head when he used another MUTV appearance to criticise some of United’s young players and Sir Alex decided he’d had enough.
“We decided we had to do something and the meeting in the room [with Keane] was horrendous,” Ferguson later said. “I just couldn’t lose my control in this particular situation. If I had have let it pass, I think the players would have viewed me differently.”
Keane got the old heave-ho and, after a short stint at Celtic, retired.