Manchester United without Andrei Kanchelskis came within a minute of losing the FA Cup semi-final and, in all probability, the disappointment would have scuppered the championship campaign too. With him, they ripped Oldham's defence into so many pieces it was not properly restored again.
In a sense that summed up the Ukrainian winger's career at Old Trafford: rival supporters appreciated the dangers of his blistering pace and quicksilver feet more quickly than United forgot or forgave his penchant for steering into culs-de-sac. If looks could kill, then Kanchelskis, who will be playing for Russia in the World Cup finals pending the settlement of a team dispute with their manager, would have been found face down with several hundred of Mark Hughes's withering glances embedded in his back.
As for Alex Ferguson, his diplomacy has been stretched to the limit. 'Andrei has his own way of doing things,' he would say with a shake of the head, giving the listener no doubt that the way he was doing things was giving his manager dangerously high blood pressure. The skill was there but the mind, sometimes, was lacking.
Kanchelskis's aberrations were reflected in the number of first-team appearances. In 1991-92, when United lost out to Leeds in the championship, he made 29 full appearances, while last season he started only 14 times. Worse for a proud man, Ferguson was prepared to play Ryan Giggs, the flower of the nation's young footballers, out of position on the right flank to accommodate Lee Sharpe on the left.
To Kanchelskis, whose reputation in his own country had been similar to that of Giggs in this, it was a perplexing insult compounded when he was asked, and refused, to play in the reserves. That cost him a week's wages.
'Footballers need confidence to produce their best form,' he said, 'and the only way to get confidence is to have a regular place in the team.' It was a circle that probably would have remained vicious but for a long-term injury to Sharpe.
Even so, the period of rejection left a mark on the 25-year-old winger. Before the League Cup final, he said he was 70 per cent certain he would leave Old Trafford this summer, a rare moment of candour from a footballer that would have left Ferguson even more aware of his player's determination to leave, had he realised the figure he had in mind was more like 90. Seventy was the highest number he could translate into English.
Even after United paid his former club, Shakhtyor Donetsk, a further pounds 150,000 on top of their original pounds 650,000 to take up a two-year option on his services, he still delayed agreeing terms until yesterday when he signed on for a further five years. Juventus's chairman, Roberto Bettega, had revealed his admiration for Kanchelskis, describing him as 'among the best players in England', while Rangers, Bayern Munich and Seville were said to be interested in luring him away.
The theme this week has been United's preparations for Saturday's FA Cup final against Chelsea, while the sub-plot was their talks with Kanchelskis. He was rumoured to be holding out for the sort of sum that Eric Cantona receives and it was a measure of Ferguson's appreciation of his winger that he came up with the cash.
The manager knows United are a better- balanced side when Kanchelskis plays well. His pace is the weapon that puts fear in the eyes of full-backs but he also brandishes dribbling and scoring as a back-up. He can still hold on to the ball too long and his crosses, occasionally, are something to bear rather than enjoy. But his form sustained the side when Cantona was suspended and without him it is probable United would now be grimly contemplating a season of near misses rather than the Double.
The supporters have been won over, as their chants of 'Andrei must stay' revealed. He was also touched by the warm and spontaneous ovation he received while limping along half the pitch to leave the scene of the 5-0 rout of Sheffield Wednesday two months ago. It is the rapport with the fans that will have persuaded him to stay at Old Trafford, you suspect, rather than any compliments from the back-room staff.
'Everyone now sees Andrei as the best right-sided player in the country,' Bryan Robson said. '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.'
To have lost Kanchelskis now would have wounded many supporters. Thankfully, a final Wembley fly-past for the jet- powered winger has been avoided.
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