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16 of the weirdest transfers in British football history

Steven Caulker Liverpool

Lord knows there’s been plenty of ‘Eh?!’ moments down the years, writes Huw Davies

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Bebe (Vitoria de Guimaraes to Manchester United)

A lot of the things said about Bebe aren’t actually true. So unexpected was his 2010 arrival, British fans and journalists latched onto any rumour: that he’d played in the Homeless World Cup (he hadn’t); that Manchester United paid £7m to a tiny team (the fee went to top-five team Vitoria and third-party owners); that Bebe compared himself to Cristiano Ronaldo (he merely said Ronaldo is one of his idols, and they share shooting and running styles).

Most pervasive is that he disappeared without a trace. In fact, Bebe is featuring in La Liga for Rayo Vallecano – as he has done since 2014/15 with Cordoba, Rayo and Eibar – and in 2013/14 kept Pacos de Ferreira in Portugal’s top flight with a dozen league goals. And he scored for United in the Champions League proper.

But the fact that splashing out on a 20-year-old, despite claiming not to have seen him play, was Alex Ferguson’s most baffling decision – that much is true.

Julien Faubert (West Ham to Real Madrid, loan)

“His agent should be knighted by the Queen.” The words of Paul Merson, after the first recorded incidence of the Soccer Saturday team being shocked into silence.

Football agents speak of Faubert’s January 2009 move from West Ham to Real Madrid in hushed tones of awe. Amid two appearances for the Galacticos, the Frenchman repaid his representative by appearing to fall asleep on the subs’ bench and missing training by mistake (“He got confused,” said manager Juande Ramos, probably baffled to be at the club himself).

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Madrid chose not to make the loan permanent. Maybe they’d spoken to Alfredo Di Stefano; the facial expression of the club legend, one of football’s greatest ever players, in unveiling Faubert said it all.

Papy Djilobodji (Nantes to Chelsea)

It’s no secret that the prospect of trusting an academy player fills Jose Mourinho’s heart with terror (their youth reminds him of time’s ceaseless march towards death). So when wooing Everton’s John Stones in summer 2015 finally proved fruitless, he put out a ‘help wanted’ ad pleading for someone, anyone, to be Chelsea’s fifth-choice centre-back.

And so, Papy Djilobodji arrived for £4m having played nearly 200 games for Nantes – but his omission from Chelsea’s Champions League squad was an omen. “We’d be very unlucky if we need Djilobodji when we have John Terry, Gary Cahill, [Kurt] Zouma and Branislav Ivanovic,” Mourinho mused, 10 days after signing him.

Djilobodji failed to impress in his 62 seconds of match action as a stoppage-time substitute against Walsall, and joined the small army of Blues players out on loan. Three days later, he played 90 minutes as Werder Bremen (16th) won away at Schalke (6th), impressed to the season's end and then joined Sunderland for £8m, thus doubling Chelsea's money. In summer 2018, his contract at the Stadium of Light was torn up after he reported back for pre-season one month late and 'comprehensively failed' a fitness test.  

Kevin Keegan (Hamburg to Southampton)

Today, swapping Hamburg for Southampton would represent a step up, but not in February 1980: Hamburg were defending their Bundesliga title while Saints were re-establishing themselves in the top flight. Keegan, meanwhile, had won his second consecutive Ballon d’Or with the German club by a landslide six weeks earlier.

And yet, manager Lawrie McMenemy announced Mighty Mouse would be joining them that summer. It would’ve been no less surprising if he’d signed the actual Mighty Mouse.

The months that followed only made the transfer seem more absurd. Keegan played in the 1980 European Cup Final as Hamburg lost 1-0 to Nottingham Forest, then captained England in the European Championship, before landing on the Hampshire coast. As for Southampton, even more impressive than the coup was successfully keeping it a secret. Imagine that tomorrow, the European Footballer of the Year was unveiled at Crystal Palace and nobody knew about it. Twitter would combust.

Jamie Stevenson (Alloa Athletic to Real Mallorca)

Film critics would call the 2015/16 Premier League season farfetched and contrived, but it’s a gritty documentary in comparison to Jamie Stevenson’s summer of 2002.

The Glaswegian was just a teenager on holiday when his “messing about on the sideline” of his uncle’s seven-a-side game (possibly underscored by an uplifting soundtrack) somehow caught the eye of an extremely itinerant Iberian scout (possibly played by a jobbing Antonio Banderas). An unlikely trial at Real Mallorca followed, as did seven goals in three under-18 matches, and finally a contract to tempt him away to the Spanish island after two appearances for Alloa.

Sadly, unlike Goal! there was no sequel... or at least none that anyone would watch (so a bit like Goal! then). Stevenson left treasure island and has spent the past decade fulfilling a creditable, but less sunny, career in Scotland’s lower leagues.

Nicklas Bendtner (Arsenal to Juventus, loan)

No doubt Lord Bendtner felt it was justified, but his season-long loan with Juventus in 2012/13 puzzled most people, including Juve fans. As late as March, the club admitted they hadn’t sold one Bendtner shirt.

The Dane, who’d been with Sunderland the previous season, made a handful of substitute appearances but the Italian champions’ starting XI only twice. Injuries were partly to blame, but not as much as the fact that they were Juventus and he was Nicklas Bendtner.

Tommy Lawton (Chelsea to Notts County)

Dressing-room discord, transfer requests and mutiny – and no, we're not talking about the Chelsea of now. No, this is Chelsea in 1947. Flying the flag for old-fashioned football, with its proper balls and preposterous transfers, is Tommy Lawton.

Having scored for fun alongside Dixie Dean at Everton, then Len Goulden and Tommy Walker at Chelsea, 28-year-old Lawton left the top-flight Londoners in 1947 for a record transfer fee... to a club in the third division.

Notts County were managed by his friend and former Blues masseur Arthur Stollery, but the catalyst for Lawton’s request to leave Chelsea was his beef with the club hierarchy and manager. Football hasn’t changed that much in 70 years, it seems.

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Tyrone Mears (Derby to Marseille, loan)

For all the paperwork and fannying about, transfers are a simple business: you need another team to want you, and your club’s permission to go. Tyrone Mears had one of those things.

In 2008, the Derby full-back arrived at Marseille – whose interest was a surprise in itself, following Mears’ lengthy injury lay-off and the Rams’ 11-point season in the Premier League – despite being forbidden to leave. “[Marseille’s offer] is completely and utterly unacceptable,” said a Rams mouthpiece. “It’s laughable. The chairman and the manager made it clear to the player and Marseille there would be no deal.”

The banker disagreed – as did Mears, who literally escaped Derby's training ground through a window to leave for France. A season-long loan followed, including a UEFA Cup goal against Ajax, before Mears joined Burnley.

Carlos Tevez & Javier Mascherano (MSI to West Ham)

This double transfer came out of nowhere in 2006. Yet even when West Ham paid £5.5m in fines for breaching the Premier League’s rules on signing players from third-party owners (Tevez and Mascherano played for Corinthians but ‘belonged’ to companies owned by Kia Joorabchian), they knew it bought them top-flight status.

Allegedly, Tevez was picked at his countryman’s expense, as West Ham decided they could afford match bonuses for only one and chose the guy scoring all of their goals. Thus, while Mascherano played in only five games – all of them defeats – and became back-up to Hayden Mullins, Tevez helped save the Hammers from relegation at the expense of Sheffield United.

The pair’s move to West Ham brought about investigations into third-party ownership, years of Blades litigation and a further erosion of football’s monetary and moral boundaries. But the memory still gives Neil Warnock conniptions, so it was worth it.

Allan Simonsen (Barcelona to Charlton)

Charlton fans are unhappy at their current owner’s dealings. Their protests have merit. We wouldn’t be surprised, though, if a couple of them are disillusioned that they’re no longer bringing in European trophy winners.

Allan Simonsen had just scored the goal that brought Barcelona their biggest continental crown, the Cup Winners’ Cup, when they signed Diego Maradona to make Simonsen a surplus overseas player destined for the exit.

Quite why second division Charlton were top of a list headed Literally Anywhere That Isn’t Barcelona is anyone’s guess, but Simonsen once claimed it was because he wanted a quiet life. Also, his mantelpiece was full and all that money was creasing his wallet.

Steven Caulker (QPR to Liverpool, loan)

Jurgen Klopp signed Caulker having last seen him in a Southampton defence ripped apart 6-1 by his Liverpool team. Naturally, he played Caulker up front in his first three matches.

To the bespectacled oddball’s credit, Caulker was instrumental to Adam Lallana’s winner in Liverpool’s mad 5-4 victory over Norwich. It harked back to Manchester City boss Stuart Pearce sticking David James up front, where he was dreadful but brought such chaos that City won a penalty that would have taken them into Europe – except Robbie Fowler missed it, still dazed by what had just happened.

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Klopp’s a clever man, but we can’t rule out the possibility that in Caulker he saw a man averaging a goal per game at international level and thought he was onto a winner.

Sergei Yuran (Spartak Moscow to Millwall, loan)

“Jimmy Nicholl said I was the most unprofessional player he’d ever met. That was true.”

Yuran admitted his disastrous 1996 spell with Millwall – a move seen then as equal parts exciting and unexpected – was down to partying, and that he reassured his newly wed wife it was “the way all footballers live in England”.

You have to respect Yuran’s candidness – and that he had the balls to take liberties with Millwall, of all teams.

Craig Davies (Oxford United to Hellas Verona)

Many wondered why Davies thought joining Verona would improve his odds of playing for Wales. The real question, surely, is why a club targeting promotion to Serie A did their shopping in the English fourth division.

Bought for £85,000 and given a five-year contract, 20-year-old Davies played one match before returning homesick to join Wolves. Meanwhile, Verona and Oxford were both relegated. Everyone’s a winner!

Esteban Cambiasso (Inter Milan to Leicester)

There’s no shortage of older players making random moves for a new experience or new offshore bank account – that’s why they’re not on this list. However, Cambiasso following life as an Inter regular by rocking up at newly promoted Leicester was truly unexpected.

He remains a fan favourite, having brought graft as well as craft; a Champions League winner, happy to slum it. As it turns out, though, the Argentina legend had been dragging a team of title contenders down into a relegation scrap all along.

Alejandro Sabella (River to Sheffield United)

Never has such a talented player been forgotten by posterity simply for not being Diego Maradona. Well, apart from Allan Simonsen.

Sabella was a highly rated midfielder when second-tier Sheffield United signed him from River Plate, having been priced out over a 17-year-old Maradona. Ever since, Maradona has been the centre of that story. Sabella’s big-money arrival leaves people nonplussed now, like an American reality TV brat shrugging because her Sweet 16 present is a Porsche, not a Lexus.

Sheffield United fans didn’t feel that way, of course: ‘Alex’ Sabella was popular and said himself: “I’m happy with my years in England.” Years later, he coached Argentina to a World Cup final. Have that, Diego.

Kyle Lafferty to everyone

He joined Rangers from Burnley (after the move had initially broken down), left Scotland under a cloud to play for Sion in Switzerland, alongside and then under renowned nutcase Gennaro Gattuso (once FIFA had stepped in to approve the deal), swapped Sion for Palermo in Serie B (where president Maurizio Zamparini – hardly the shy and retiring type himself – called him “an out-of-control womaniser”, “an Irishman without rules” and “completely off the rails”), went to Norwich, found himself frozen out, popped over to Turkey for a loan at Caykur Rizespor and then returned to Norfolk, all while firing Northern Ireland to their first European Championship. You'll currently find him at Rangers (again) after spells at Birmingham and Hearts.

All hail the king.

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