When Luis Figo almost joined Manchester City
In Brian Horton's new autobiography, the former City manager reveals how Lionel Messi is not the first Barcelona great to attract the club's attention
Lionel Messi will not be moving to Manchester City this summer, but he is not the first Ballon d’Or-winning Barcelona great to attract their attention.
More than a quarter of a century earlier, a flair player whose eventual departure from the Nou Camp proved controversial was the subject of a bid from City.
It may sound improbable that Luis Figo could have teamed up with the Brightwell brothers and could have been competing with Nicky Summerbee and Peter Beagrie for a place on the wings, but Brian Horton, then City’s manager, revealed the Portuguese was an audacious target. “When Francis Lee had taken over as chairman in 1994, we made a serious attempt to bring Luis Figo to Maine Road,” he wrote in his new autobiography, Two Thousand Games.
The inspiration was a man who was a byword for ambition and excitement at City. Malcolm Allison had been Joe Mercer’s charismatic assistant in City’s glory years in the 1960s and 1970s, when Lee’s goals had helped them win six trophies, and, in two spells, a less successful manager at Maine Road. But, in an eventful career, Allison had won the Portuguese double with Sporting Lisbon in 1982.
Fast forward to 1994 and Horton recalled: “Malcolm was living in Middlesbrough but, under Franny, he became a frequent visitor to the boardroom at Maine Road, where he would hold court with his cigars and champagne – and he still had some good contacts in Portugal.
“It was in that boardroom that Malcolm asked me: ‘Have you ever seen Luis Figo play?’ I told him I hadn’t. This was before the days when you could watch every foreign league on satellite television. ‘Check him out,’ Malcolm said. ‘He’s going to be an absolute star.’”
Horton went to watch Portugal beat Northern Ireland in Belfast, accompanied by Tony Book, the former City captain and manager who was part of his coaching staff. “Figo, who was then 21, turned in an astonishing performance,” he said.
“When I returned to Manchester, I told Francis Lee that City should do whatever it took to get him. We made contact with Figo’s agents – he had several – and had a meeting. The fee would have been £1.2 million.”
It was less than City had paid for Keith Curle, Terry Phelan, Alan Kernaghan and Summerbee, but the price was not a problem. “We came to the conclusion the transfer was simply not viable,” Horton wrote. “There were too many agents, each of whom wanted their cut, and there was a regulation that prevented Portuguese clubs selling their players to foreign clubs during the season.
“Barcelona managed to manoeuvre around that by agreeing a £2m fee with Sporting Lisbon and then loaning him back for the remainder of the season.”
Horton, recalling how he had been greeted by journalists when City hired him from Oxford in 1993, added: “Had we done the transfer, it would have been quite a coup for ‘Brian Who?’ There were, however, some entertaining players who, while not being Luis Figo, I was able to bring to Maine Road – Uwe Rosler, Paul Walsh, Nicky Summerbee and Peter Beagrie.”
Figo’s move to Barcelona illustrated Horton’s theory about the difficulty of dealing with his representatives as he had signed contracts with both Juventus and Parma, meaning he was banned for two years from signing for a Serie A club.
Before he swapped Barcelona for Real Madrid for a world-record fee in 2000, he won La Liga twice, the Copa del Rey twice and the Cup Winners’ Cup. Horton, meanwhile, was sacked after City came 17th in 1994-95.
Updated: September 6, 2020 09:29 AM