The quality of competition that Manchester United had for places in the 1990’s meant that their squads regularly featured several world class players. Players such as Giggs, Cantona, Keane, Beckham and Scholes are among the legends from that era. So much so that it is easy to forget players like Andrei Kanchelskis. The flying Russian winger terrorised Premier League defenders during his time in England.
Kanchelskis was born in the now Ukrainian city of Kirovograd in 1969, to Lithuanian parents. After excelling in football and gymnastics at school, he joined FC Zirka Kropyvnytskyi. Dynamo Kyiv signed him in 1988, and he made his full debut later that year.
Under the old Soviet Union regime, men aged 18 were expected to complete two years national service. Anybody who played football for any of the Dynamo teams (Kyiv, Tbilisi, Moscow or Minsk) was exempt. The reason for this is that they were associated with the country’s police. Two years playing for one of these teams was considered the equivalent of national service.
In two seasons, he made just 22 league appearances. Because of his involvement with the USSR under 21’s, however other clubs had begun to take notice. He won his first full international cap for his country in 1989. In the summer of 1990 Shakhtar Donetsk, the team Kanchelskis had supported growing up, signed the young winger. His first season saw him score three goals from his 21 appearances, and provided numerous assists.
He enjoyed such a good season that Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was alerted. The Old Trafford boss had been looking for a right winger for some time, and nobody in his squad met his requirements.
The transfer talks were conducted in such secrecy that Kanchelskis himself did not know which club he was joining. He only found out once he landed in Manchester that he was joining United. In March 1991, a fee of £625,000 was agreed and he became the club’s first ever player from the Soviet Union. He made his debut in May that year, in a 3-0 away defeat to Crystal Palace.
Settling in Manchester
Andrei Kanchelskis struggled to adapt to his surroundings at first. Apart from the fact that he didn’t speak English, he had a bit of a culture shock. In spite of his off-field struggles, he made a scintillating home debut. The opening day of the 1991-92 season saw United beat Notts County 2 – 0 at Old Trafford.
The crowd were instantly impressed by the raw power, pace and athleticism of their new winger. Not one for fancy tricks and stepovers, he would knock the ball past a defender and leave them for dead. What usually followed was a quality cross or a demonstration of his terrific shooting with either foot.
With Ryan Giggs on the left and Kanchelskis on the right, United came flying out of the traps and topped the table at Christmas. It seemed that United’s 25 year wait for a league title was about to come to an end. They led the table up until the final two weeks of the season. While the Red Devils faced a fixture pile-up brought on by their progress in the domestic cups, Leeds United had a clear run at the title, which they duly went on to win.
In his first season at Old Trafford, Kanchelskis had scored six goals and collected two trophies – the League Cup and the UEFA Super Cup.
At Euro 92, he represented the C.I.S (Commonwealth of Independent States). This was the side that took the place of the now-disbanded Soviet Union, who had originally qualified for the tournament. Although the side didn’t make it out of their group, Kanchelskis played in all of their games. He returned to Manchester determined to prove that his debut season had been more than just a flash in the pan.
United’s start to the newly formed Premier League did not quite go to plan. They lost their first two games, and found themselves bottom of the table. The manager rotated his side, often putting Giggs on the right and Lee Sharpe on the left. The competition for places increased further in November 1992, when Eric Cantona shocked the world by joining from Leeds.
Prior to Cantona’s arrival the team had struggled to score goals, but he galvanised the whole side. United won match after match but Kanchelskis found himself in and out of the side. One of the main issues he had was that even in the matches he started, he was often substituted.
While United fans worldwide were celebrating the club ending a 26 year wait for the title, Kanchelskis was seeking assurances about his future. Alex Ferguson advised him that he would get his chance, and that it was up to the winger to take it. Both men kept their end of the bargain.
A Vital Cog
The 1993-94 season is one that will provide fond memories for any United fans who experienced it. The club won the Premier League and F.A. Cup double for the first time in their history.
During the early part of the campaign, the Russian endured similar frustration to the previous season. Another factor that annoyed Kanchelskis was that he was not considered for selection in the European Cup. UEFA’s rule stated that clubs could only have a maximum of three foreign players. As United crashed out on away goals to Galatasaray, the winger was not even in the squad.
As the year turned to 1994, Kanchelskis saw his patience and hard work pay off. For the rest of the season, he missed only four games. One was through suspension, when he received a one match ban for his sending off for handball. This was in the League Cup Final defeat to Aston Villa.
The F.A. Cup semi-final replay with Oldham Athletic took place at Maine Road. With United a goal up, the winger picked up the ball on the right wing and started on a run. He cut inside and ran through the Oldham defence towards the opposite flank before hitting a left foot shot that glided into the corner of the net. This set United on their way to a 4 – 1 victory.
His performances away to Leeds, where he also scored, and at home to Manchester City were crucial to United. With Cantona having returned from a five match suspension, United held off the challenge of Blackburn Rovers. They made it a double by beating Chelsea 4 – 0 in the F.A. Cup Final.
Andrei Kanchelskis had an eventful summer of 1994 for so many reasons. He signed a new contract at United to beat off interest from Juventus and other European clubs. He then led a protest against the manager of the Russian national team, Pavel Sadyrin. Many of the squad believed he was not the right manager to lead them into the World Cup. Although the majority of his team mates went back on their decision, Kanchelskis didn’t. He stuck to his beliefs, which cost him the chance to perform on the biggest stage of all.
Having had a full summer break, he returned to Old Trafford and found the best form of his career. Following goals against Liverpool, Everton, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, Kanchelskis scored a hat trick in the Manchester Derby, the first player to do that in more than 30 years. Manchester City were beaten 5 – 0 at Old Trafford.
Within weeks of this marvellous performance, Kanchelskis began experiencing stomach problems. There were also rumours of another rift with Ferguson but it turned out that there was another underlying issue. The contract Kanchelskis had signed the previous summer entitled him to a third of any future transfer fee.
After he was left out of United’s 1-0 defeat at Everton in February 1995, the winger handed in a transfer request. Kanchelskis was United’s top scorer, with 14 goals at that point, and the fans were stunned. He barely played for the rest of the season, and scored just once more, in a 3-0 win over Arsenal.
United surrendered their Premier League crown to Blackburn, without their top scorer. A fully fit Kanchelskis may just have been enough to see the Old Trafford club to the title. Nobody will ever know for certain but Ferguson was resigned to losing the winger.
The summer of 1995 saw United lose Paul Ince to Inter, Mark Hughes to Chelsea and Kanchelskis to Everton. The fans were up in arms, particularly when Ferguson did not sign anybody to replace them. Instead he placed his confidence in the likes of Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham.
Kanchelskis completed his £5 million transfer to Goodison Park in August 1995, but even that did not run smoothly. A summer row had emerged over who was to pay the sell-on fee to his former side Shakhtar Donetsk. The whole matter took around five weeks to resolve before United finally paid it.
One of his first games was against United, in which he sustained a dislocated shoulder. The injury kept him out for around six weeks. It also meant that he missed all of Everton’s European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign. By the time he returned to action, they had been eliminated
Kanchelskis made an immediate impact on his return. He scored both goals Everton’s 2 – 0 win over Liverpool at Anfield, gaining instant hero status with his new fans. He finished as the clubs top scorer with 16 goals, including a hat trick against Sheffield Wednesday. His goals helped the club to a sixth place finish. He also played for Russia at Euro 96, but just one point from three games saw them eliminated early.
The Everton fans were looking forward to the 1996-97 season, but the team totally disappointed them. Kanchelskis himself was accused by the fans of not showing the same commitment as the previous campaign. In January 1997, Kanchelskis moved to Italy joining Fiorentina for £8 million.
The transfer of Kanchelskis to Fiorentina caused much excitement. The Florence side had some genuine world class talents and his arrival was expected to strengthen them further. The Russian winger was added to a midfield that included Rui Costa, Stefan Schwartz and Anselmo Robbiati. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the great Gabriel Batistuta led the attack for La Viola.
After winning the 1996 Coppa Italia, Fiorentina had been expected to challenge for the title. They finished in 9th position, just eight points clear of the relegation battle. Their defence of the cup ended in the last sixteen. They did have an impressive run in the Cup Winners’ Cup, however, losing to Barcelona in the semi-final. Manager Claudio Ranieri was sacked in the summer of 1997. His replacement was Alberto Malesani.
Kanchelskis scored his first goal for the club in their first home fixture of the 1997-98 season, a 3-1 win over Bari. Unfortunately he never hit top form in Italy, and his cause wasn’t helped by various injuries which he suffered. This meant that in eighteen months in Serie A, he made just 26 league appearances, scoring twice. His only other goal for the club was in his final game, a 2 – 0 win over AC Milan.
Fiorentina finished in fifth place, qualifying for the UEFA Cup, but lost Malesani to Parma. New manager Giovanni Trapatoni decided that Kanchelskis was one of a number of dispensable players in the Fiorentina squad. In July 1998 Glasgow Rangers paid £5.5 million to make him their record signing.
New Ibrox manager Dick Advocaat had inherited an ageing squad, which had just lost the Scottish Premiership to Celtic. A rebuilding job was needed and other recruits included Rod Wallace, Colin Hendry and Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
Kanchelskis hit the ground running in Scotland, given the freedom to express himself. He scored nine goals in 1998-99 as Rangers won the domestic treble. The following season saw the winger write his name into the history books. His goal in a 4-0 win over Celtic meant that he became the first (and so far, only) player to score in the Manchester, Merseyside and Glasgow derbies.
Over the next two seasons, Kanchelskis found playing time hard to come by. The form of Fernando Ricksen saw him make only fleeting appearances. In 2001 he spent a brief loan spell at Manchester City.
At the end of his contract in 2002 he joined Southampton, but made just two substitute appearances at The Dell. He was released after just six months, and moved to Saudi Arabia for a brief spell with Al Hilal. The last few years of his career were spent in Russia with Saturn Moscow and Krylia Sovetov. Following the expiration of his contract with latter, Kanchelskis retired from football in 2007.
Since retirement, he has tried his hand at management, in both Russia and Latvia. He has also occasionally played Masters Football for his former side, Manchester United.
Kanchelskis will always be remembered as a great player by United fans, especially for his hat-trick against City. Had he not been in such a hurry to leave Old Trafford, he might have been classed as a legend.