There was nothing subtle about Andrei Kanchelskis as a player. With his arms propped out on either side, as if he had a coat hanger lodged in his jersey, the rampaging Russian winger would knock the ball past a defender and invariably leave them for dead with his sheer power and pace. Fancy tricks and flicks? Forget it. More than 20 years since his heyday playing for Manchester United, though, Kanchelskis is still going for the jugular.
His last appearance at Old Trafford was actually on loan for Manchester City against United, a game infamous for Roy Keane’s wild, pre-mediated tackle on Alfe-Inge Haaland. But while Kanchelskis, despite straddling the divide, is very clear that his loyalties will lie with the red half of Manchester in Sunday’s derby, the last player to claim a hat-trick in the fixture is less taken with Jose Mourinho or his brand of football.
Kanchelskis makes no apology for saying he would have preferred to see the City manager, Pep Guardiola, at United, just as he dedicated a section of his new autobiography, RussianWinters, to arguing that his former club also erred by appointing David Moyes over Ryan Giggs in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. The game may have changed and evolved since Kanchelskis claimed the last of his two back-to-back Premier League titles with United in 1994, but his belief that wide play and entertainment go hand-in-hand remains resolutely undimmed, and he sees an advocate of both in Guardiola, just not Mourinho.
“At the moment, yes,” Kanchelskis says when asked if he would have had Guardiola over Mourinho at Old Trafford. “Man City look a bit better – a higher level than United. United have big names, big players but looking at the games City are making a better demonstration of football.
“In my opinion, Manchester United need someone now looking to play wingers. Money is not a problem, so maybe look for two good wingers - left and right. Mourinho plays more defensively.
“Some games I am not happy [watching United]. It is not like we played under Ferguson. We always played with wingers. Now it is City who play with wingers and you can see City are scoring a lot of goals. United need some width to stretch defences.
“When I played, we played to enjoy games and there would be improvisation - sometimes we would play in a different way. Cantona, Giggsy, myself, Mark Hughes. Now, for me, you’re looking at one or two good players.”
It is little surprise, then, that Kanchelskis looks vaguely incredulous when asked if United’s 1994 team – “real tough bastards” as Ferguson once called them - would beat the current crop. “Yes, definitely,” he says. “No problem.”
Kanchelskis played with one of the great goalkeepers in Peter Schmeichel but he believes United are still too reliant on David De Gea, who goes into the derby on the back of making 14 saves in last Saturday’s 3-1 win against Arsenal.
“Marcus Rashford is good but David De Gea is the best player,” says Kanchelskis. “If not for De Gea, United would not be in second position but fifth or sixth because he is an exceptional goalkeeper. Like Peter Schmeichel, he has helped. He is absolutely brilliant and De Gea at the moment is the best player at United.”
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There was little doubt Kanchelskis’s stand-out moment in a United shirt came when he scored a hat-trick against City in a 5-0 thumping in November 1994 and, as he surveys the modern-day City, it is clear the Russian has some difficulty associating the club now with the one he encountered over a four month period in 2001. Out of favour under Dick Advocaat at Rangers at the time, Kanchelskis had answered an SOS from City manager Joe Royle, who had persuaded him to join Everton over Middlesbrough from United six years earlier with a pitch that included the line: “Why would you want to go there? It’s like Chernobyl”.
Kanchelskis was very fond of Royle but, to this day, he cannot fathom why the manager thought it wise to take the squad on a two-week break to Marbella that would prove calamitous. One point from safety when they left for Spain in mid-March, City returned home, lost their next three league games and ended up being relegated and one story, in particular, from Kanchelskis’s book summed up the folly of the trip.
“I was sharing a room with a French defender, Laurent Charvet, and we went over to Steve Howey’s room to ask if he wanted to come with us to get something to eat,” Kanchelskis wrote. “Howey was lying on his bed watching television and all around him he had bottles of beer. ‘Do you want to come for some food?’ I asked him. Steve pointed to one bottle. ‘That’s my breakfast.’ Then he pointed to another. ‘That’s my lunch, and that bottle over there; that’s my dinner.’ Laurent and I went to find a restaurant and at around eight o’clock we came back and looked in on Steve. He was still lying on his bed. He hadn’t moved; he had just called room service and all around him was a mass of empty beer bottles.”
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Kanchelskis believes United and City were poles apart as clubs then. “I knew Joe very well from Everton – nice guy, nice coach, and like any small club, the fans at City were great,” he recalled. “We would play very badly and still the fans wouldn’t criticise. It was, ‘Okay, okay lads’. It was very strange for me. We were bottom of the league and in the international break we went to Marbella! Bottom of the league and we go to Marbella! Smoking, drink, celebrate! Mamma mia! I don’t know why we went. Don’t ask me why. It was terrible and I was surprised. It wasn’t professional. It was bad management. The team needed more concentration, more training, more tactics. But that was City at that time…”
By contrast, Guardiola’s City will move 11 points clear at the top of the table if they win on Sunday and, if that happens, Kanchelskis believes the title race will be over. “If United lose on Sunday it is finished, there will be no chance,” he said. “Eleven points is too much [to make up].”
Russian Winters, the autobiography of Andrei Kanchelskis (deCoubertin), is available now from the following link: www.decoubertin.co.uk/Ka nchelskis