London to Lille by train takes around two hours, and maybe five from Manchester, but that’s all in a day’s work for Sir Alex Ferguson.
So desperate was the legendary Manchester United manager to sign one of the most exciting centre back talents in modern history, he made the foray down to the north of France, for a chat with Raphael Varane’s mum.
Later explaining the trip in his autobiography, the Scot said: “The mothers are always the strong ones in the family, without question. I always say, ‘Get the mother’”.
Ferguson thought he’d done it too, when a chat to Mrs Varane in 2011 seemingly sealed the deal ahead of rivals Arsenal.
Varane, a teenager at the time, barely had a season of senior football under his belt, debuting for Lens at the start of the season with displays so good every team in Europe were after him, and France were considering a record-breaking call-up.
Both The Daily Mail and The Guardian reported that Arsenal had made their move first, and thought Arsene Wenger had managed to snag them another French talent, but they didn’t factor in the extraordinary lengths Ferguson would go to for a personal touch.
Unfortunately for the Premier League’s most successful-ever manager, he didn’t factor in another French great.
“I hurtled down on the train from Euston to Lille to sign the young French defender Raphael Varane,” he explained.
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“David Gill [Man United’s CEO] was getting into the finer points of the contract with Lens when Zinedine Zidane got wind of this and somehow scooped him up for Real Madrid from under our noses.
“I don’t think Jose Mourinho, who was managing Real Madrid, had even seen Varane play.”
Real Madrid legend Zidane was working as an adviser for Madrid at the time, well ahead of taking over coaching duties five years later in 2016, when he’d enjoy Varane’s impact like no other.
The pair won three consecutive Champions League titles together from 2017 to 2019, with Varane, a 2018 World Cup winner, cementing himself as one of the game’s greats.
The £7million paid to Lens proved to be the biggest bargain in the club’s history, but it could have been so different if it wasn’t for Zidane, or if the legendary midfielder had taken offence to being screened by his countryman.
Recounting the drama, Varane remembered: “There had been a lot of rumours and a lot of people speaking about me and Manchester United since 2011, when Sir Alex Ferguson came to my mother’s house.
“I was looking out of the window to see if he is really coming in my house.
“When he came, I didn’t speak English, my mum speaks perfect English so she spoke more with him. It was a discussion for an hour about how he can help me to grow as a person and player. It was a big experience.
“Zizou [Zidane] called me and the transfer accelerated very quickly. I went to Madrid, I spoke with Mourinho, I went back to France and then I took the Baccalaureate exam the day after I saw Mourinho.
“It was a crazy moment of my life. I was playing with the first team at Lens and the club knew I had to be sold. So a lot of agents called me.
“I was very tired because there were a lot of things to do and to think about. So when Zizou first called me, I was really busy and I didn’t know it was him at the beginning.
“When I recognised him, I was in shock. It was crazy, so I asked him to call me back!
“He was fine. Zizou is very humble and a very normal person so he understood completely. Ten seconds after, I called my brother and told him ‘You don’t know what I just did!’
“It was crazy, crazy. For my generation, if you ask ‘tell me about one football player’, it’s Zizou. He’s the most famous and most respected player.”
Zidane later said Varane meeting Mourinho was important, but the Portuguese confirmed the transfer was all about the former France captain
“I was on holiday and in Madrid,” Mourinho said. “Zinedine Zidane arrived with a DVD and I thought, “That player, with two years’ work with us, would be fantastic”.
“Varane had one foot at Manchester United but Real Madrid are very strong and Rapha came to us.”
Spurned by Varane, United later turned to Phil Jones, signing the English centre back for £20m from Blackburn, of whom Ferguson later said: “He could be our best ever player.”
A decade later though, and Varane marches onto the Old Trafford turf holding the No.19 shirt after a £42m move from the Spanish capital.
That number on the back of his red jersey would have been the No.4 he wears for France, but he was denied the opportunity by its current holder who snubbed the suggestion.
That man is Phil Jones, who remains at the club to this day, despite playing just 14 games out of a possible 202 over the past four seasons.
United now seem to be emerging from their decade of post-Ferguson pain, with Varane in part to thank, summing up just how important that train journey to Lille was.
Ferguson was undoubtedly gutted as news emerged on the long journey back home, but his old rival Wenger likely had a big grin upon learning what Zidane was up to.
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- Raphael Varane had ‘one foot at Manchester United’ after Alex Ferguson fought off Arsenal by meeting his mum in 2011, but Zinedine Zidane’s call saw Real Madrid complete transfer for defender
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