ShortList is supported by you, our amazing readers. When you click through the links on our site and make a purchase we may earn a commission. Learn more

15 most surprising football transfers of the past 25 years

It's safe to say nobody saw these coming...

15 most surprising football transfers of the past 25 years
30 August 2017

In these days of endlessly dragged-out transfer sagas, the move of a player from one club to another is usually flagged up well in advance, with merely the tedium of posturing and 'derisory' offer rebuttals delaying the inevitable stratospheric fee.

However, every so often comes a transfer that no-one expected. A bolt from the blue: a player crossing the divide between two bitter rivals, or stepping up or down several levels above or below where they should be. And they usually result in some fun and games afterwards...

(Images: AllStar/Rex)

Eric Cantona

From: Leeds United

To: Manchester United

When: 1992

It's gone down in history as the most famous phone call in history. Leeds' Managing Director Bill Fotherby rang his counterpart Martin Edwards at Manchester United to enquire about signing the Reds' wily left-back Denis Irwin. He was firmly rebutted, but Edwards, after prompting from Ferguson, asked whether Eric Cantona – their talismanic centre forward who had scored a hat-trick in the charity shield earlier that season – might be available to buy. Manager Howard Wilkinson gave the go-ahead, and United signed Cantona for £1.2m, with the player going on to become arguably the most important player in their history. When Brian Kidd, assistant manager, was told about the fee, he presumed that Eric must 'have lost a leg or something'.

Luis Figo

From: Barcelona

To: Real Madrid

When: 2000

There are several examples on this list of players crossing the divide between rivals, but perhaps none had the impact of Figo's move from Barça to Madrid. He was loved at the Nou Camp, winning a Cup Winners' Cup medal and two league titles and it was a huge surprise when the £40m transfer went through. The Catalan club's fans promptly showed their sense of betrayal when he returned to the Nou Camp three seasons later, with several objects, including a pig's head, being thrown at him as he prepared to take throw-ins and corners. How did that one get through security?


From: Real Madrid

To: Manchester City

When: 2008

The stuff that Jim White's dreams are made of, this move was an incredible surprise on the summer deadline day in 2008. A £32m move to Chelsea was all but a formality, before news filtered through that Manchester City had been taken over by an Arab investment company, with virtually unlimited funds. Desperate to show that they were serious players, they first attempted to hijack Dimitar Berbatov's move from Tottenham to Manchester United, before turning their attention to Robinho. They blew the Chelsea bid out of the water and signed the Brazilian in the last moments before the window shut. Then Jim White went and had a lie down.

Sol Campbell

From: Tottenham Hotspur

To: Arsenal

When: 2001

A hugely controversial transfer. Campbell's contract with Spurs had expired, and with the Bosman ruling having recently come into effect, was able to weigh up his choices to move anywhere, with no fee. Despite Tottenham offering him a deal to become their highest-paid player ever, and months of public assurances that he would not leave, and would certainly never play for their bitterest rivals, he nevertheless signed for Arsenal. Ever since, he has endured torrents of abuse on his returns to White Hart Lane.

Fabrizio Ravanelli

From: Juventus

To: Middleborough

When: 1996

In May 1996, Fabrizio Ravanelli - aka. 'the White Feather' - claimed a Champions' League winner's medal in Rome, with the Italian giants Juventus. Few would have believed that just 3 months later he would be lining up for Middlesborough. But it came to pass after Juventus refused to sell to a rival European club, and he thus linked up with the Brazilians Juninho and Emerson to add glamour to the 'Boro' line-up. It started well, with a hat-trick on his debut against Liverpool, but ultimately ended in disappointment, with two Cup Final defeats and relegation.

Daniele Dichio

From: QPR

To: Sampdoria

When: 1997

Arguably the strangest transfer of all time, this one came out of nowhere. Dichio had muddled along as an average-to-good striker for the Rs, scoring 12 Premier League goals in the 95/96 season, but being unable to save them from relegation. The following season he was in and out of the side as Rangers struggled, his final game being away at Bradford. However, the call came from Italian giants Sampdoria - presumably thinking that his Italian name meant that he would play like one - and off he went to Genoa, with his butcher Dad Gianni brokering the deal, to start life in Serie A. Ultimately he only played 2 games (admittedly scoring 2 goals), 'enjoyed' a loan spell at Lecce, then returned to England with Sunderland. And all was right with the world again.

Mo Johnston

From: Nantes

To: Rangers

When: 1989

There are rivalries, and then there is Celtic and Rangers. Two bitterly opposed clubs, with an unavoidable background of opposed religious beliefs. In 1989, Mo Johnston, formerly a Celtic hero, and a proud Catholic, became Graeme Souness' first signing as Rangers manager and achieved the unthinkable by uniting the fans of both sets of clubs in their hatred; Celtic, for a 'Judas' joining their bitterest rivals, and Rangers, for making him their first Catholic signing in the modern era. Such was the depth of feeling that the Rangers kitman refused to work for him, making him arrange his own playing outfit.

Andy Carroll

From: Newcastle United

To: Liverpool

When: 2011

January 31, 2011, will forever go down in history as the day that football lost its collective marbles. Chelsea had been circling Fernando Torres for a while, and Liverpool finally caved when a £50m bid was received. Ultimately this was to prove a wise bit of business; not something that could be said about their subsequent purchase of Andy Carroll to replace him. Flailing around desperately to immediately sign a striker - any striker - they set upon young Carroll, who was promising, but had only played half a season of Premier League football. Newcastle knew they had cash, held out, and a staggering £35m bid was accepted. Just 6 goals in 26 games followed, Dalglish lost his job, and Carroll eventually departed for West Ham as an unmitigated Anfield failure.

David Beckham

From: Real Madrid

To: L.A. Galaxy

When: 2007

Probably the most well-known and marketable footballer on the planet, David Beckham could have chosen to go practically anywhere after his four years at Real Madrid. However, at the age of just 32, he shocked the footballing world by deciding to head over to the States to play for LA Galaxy, on an enormous salary - far more than any of his teammates were earning. While the move has almost certainly been good for 'brand Beckham' long term - he is now even more famous in the States, and has the option to buy a franchise in the league - many wonder if he sacrificed what could have easily been another 5 years at the top and many more England caps; certainly his loan spells at Milan and PSG proved that he could still mix it at the top. Still, he's mates with Tom Cruise and Will Smith now, so he's not doing too badly.

Kevin Keegan

From: Hamburg

To: Southampton

When: 1980

Much like Ravanelli's move, this came as a shock to all. Keegan was the toast of Germany and a Hamburg icon, furthermore he was the reigning European Footballer of the Year and had just captained England at the 1980 European Championships. However, a press conference at Southampton - a middling 1st Division side - was called to announce that they had signed him, and the football world was shocked. It turned out to be successful, though, with the free-scoring team netting 76 goals, and finishing a club record 6th.

Edgar Davids

From: Unattached

To: Barnet

When: 2012

Sometimes, very occasionally, football throws you a heartwarming tale. Global superstar Edgar Davids had already shown his true love for the game, enjoying a glittering career across the world, starring for Ajax, AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Spurs and Inter Milan. Even towards the end of his playing life, he turned out for Crystal Palace and stated - probably for the first time ever - that playing for the South Londoners was 'one of the greatest experiences of my life.' However, after 2 years out of the professional game he signed on, with no salary, as player-manager at League 2's bottom side Barnet, saying that he was joining 'my local club'. He quickly showed he was up for the fight and became a club hero after rescuing 36 Bees fans who were stranded on the hard shoulder of the motorway by sending the team bus to collect them. However, his stint ended in acrimony, with relegation out of the football league, and then being sent-off three times in the first eight games of the 2013-14 season; he eventually resigned, finishing a true rollercoaster ride in North London.


From: Vitória de Guimarães

To: Manchester United

When: 2010

Alex Ferguson made a few strange signings in his time - Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson anyone? - but Portuguese youngster Bébé was surely the most odd. Having been fairly successful at Portuguese Second Division club Estrela, he joined Vitória de Guimarães on a free and did well in preseason games. Suddenly, Manchester United came in to sign him for £7.4m - just five weeks into his deal with Guimarães - and despite Ferguson admitting that he had never seen him play. Many thought it might be another classic Ferguson masterstroke - unfortunately it now looks like simply a good old mistake, with Bébé featuring just twice for the first team and making little impression on his loan spells elsewhere.

Ronnie O'Brien

From: Middlesborough

To: Juventus

When: 1999

A player of some promise as a youngster, performing well in the Irish national youth sides, it was, however, no surprise when Middlesborough let him go without playing a game for the first team. Astonishingly, Italian giants Juventus were poised and waiting, and offered him a five year contract to join them, to the bemusement of practically everyone. Had they seen something that everyone else had missed? No, as it turned out, as he was sent on a succession of loans, never appearing for Juve, and eventually moving to the US in 2002, simply to play a first-team match. Just bizarre.

Carlos Tévez & Javier Mascherano

From: Corinthians

To: West Ham United

When: 2006

Both Tévez and Mascherano had been touted as players of huge potential, with a move to the Premier League for one or both highly likely. However, few ever imagined that struggling West Ham would be their destination. Nonetheless, they were unveiled hours before the 2006 transfer window shut to a shocked media. It later transpired that other clubs had turned down the chance to sign them due to the third-party nature of their ownership – a situation which exploded when Tévez kept West Ham in the Premier League at the expense of Sheffield United; the club was subsequently was found to have broken the League's rules, receiving a fine and having to settle out of court with the Yorkshire club. Mascherano went on to have a successful spell at Liverpool before a mantelpiece-bothering time at Barcelona, and Tévez went on to join Man United, Man City, Juventus, Boca Juniors, and Shanghai Shenhua in a career that’s not been short on controversy…

Claudio Caniggia

From: Atalanta

To: Dundee

When: 2000

A legendary striker for Argentina and various top European sides, Caniggia had moved from Benfica to Boca Juniors, before joining Italian Serie B side Atalanta, so his star was somewhat on the wane. However, few expected his next port of call to be Scottish side Dundee, but that was exactly what happened as he joined his friend and manager Ivano Bonetti. The move turned out to be good for all concerned, as he quickly became their star player, rediscovering his form, before moving on to Rangers, where he enjoyed several successful seasons.