Andrei Kanchelskis is a Manchester United cult hero. The Ukrainian winger played a huge part in United’s marvellous mid nineties team – Ferguson’s first great United side. Alongside Giggs, Cantona, Hughes, Ince and the rest, Kanchelskis lightening quick, direct performances down the right flank ensured his place in United folklore. He even scored a derby hattrick against rivals City.
Kanchelskis acrimonious Old Trafford departure in 1995 is one of football’s most intriguing and mysterious tales. Rumoured reasons for his exit are still discussed on Manchester streets to this day 20 years on, with hearsay and gossip spun wildly into webs of urban myths that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Bourne Identity sequel.
Before we talk about the shady end, it is important to discuss the equally shady beginnings. Kanchelskis was recommended to Ferguson by agent Rune Hauge – the same unlicensed agent who was involved in George Graham’s “bung” scandal of 1995. With the help of Hauge and Kanchelskis agent Grigori Yesaulenko, United signed the winger for £1m in 1991 from Shakhtar Donetsk.
In Ferguson’s 1999 book “Managing My Life” he revealed that three years later in 1994, Yesaulenko handed him an unsolicited gift at Manchester airport — £40,000 in banknotes in a shoe box.
“I thought it contained a samovar, or some other typical Russian gift,” Ferguson said. But when he opened the parcel at home, he saw that it was packed with cash. Ferguson decided to put the box in a club safe in the presence of lawyers. The cash sat there for almost a year, before Yesaulenko turned up again and was almost forcibly given back the gift.
Yesaulenko had arrived to talk business though and demanded that United accept an offer from Everton for Kanchelskis. United had earlier rejected an offer, which they felt wasn’t worth enough to the club after the fee had been split according to clauses in Kanchelskis’ contract. Newspaper The Independent obtained a copy of those contract clauses in 1999 which detailed that Shakhtar were to be given 30% of any profit made from any future sale. 30% of any fee was also to go to the player himself.
United’s boardroom wanted to make £5m from the sale and so they pulled the plug on the deal. Yesaulenko, who wanted to make a cut of his own from the transfer, was apoplectic.
In a meeting with United chairman Martin Edwards, Yesaulenko told him “”IF YOU don’t sell him now, you will not be around much longer.” He also told Edwards he would sort out the Shakhtar “problem”, allowing United to keep more of the fee.
A month later, Kanchelskis was sold. Two months after that, Aleksandr Bragin the Shakhtar president and five bodyguards were blown up at Shakhtar’s ground four minutes into a match against Crimean team Tavria. (Bragin was known as “Alik the Greek” in the Ukrainian criminal underworld)
The events which led to his death began after Yesaulenko threatened Mr Edwards and said he would “sort out” the Ukrainians. While the Kanchelskis talks were stalled Mr Yesaulenko sent a fax in English to Shakhtar asking one of the club’s board members, name Kolotsei to forward the fax on club notepaper to Manchester United. The fax, dated 13 July 1995, waived Shakhtar’s rights to their 30% cut of transfer profits and United happily moved Kanchelskis on to Everton.
Aleksandr Bragin and his colleague, Ravil Safioullin, claimed Mr Kolotsei wasn’t aware of what he was forwarding in the fax. In a letter sent to United (dated 19 September 1995) they wrote:
“Mr Kolotsei signed … text in the English language prepared by Mr Yesaulenko … only because Mr Yesaulenko requested and explained that this fax was necessary exclusively for helping Andrei Kanchelskis to solve private problems …”
The controversy surrounding Kanchelskis, caused the Shakhtar board to re-examine the original contract for the 1991 move to United. Clause 3 stipulated they were entitled to even more money: £150,000 after Kanchelskis had played 40 games for United, £250,000 after he had played 80 games, and another £150,000 should Kanchelskis pen a new deal. But a check on their accounts showed the money had not never arrived from United, despite the all the stipulations being met.
Initially the board thought that United were involved in dodgy dealings with Bragin. It emerged that Bragin had sent United a fax, asking them to deposit money in an account in the name of Euro Football Ltd at Coutts & Co in Zurich and not Shakhtar’s usual club accounts based in New York.
Shakhtar maintained that the Euro Football Ltd account had nothing to do with their club. It appeared that Bragin had been attempting to siphon money away.
After Aleksandr Bragin’s death, United and Shakhtar continued to argue over the profits from Kanchelskis Everton transfer. Shakhtar also needed reassurance that United had made the £550,000 payment relating to the appearance clauses in the 1991 contract – money that had “disappeared” thanks to Bragin’s underhanded workings.
In Munich on 23 and 24 January 1996, Maurice Watkins, United’s solicitor, proved to Ravil Safioullin, (Bragin’s successor) that United had been asked to pay the money into a numbered Swiss bank account. The arguments continued until March of the same year, when United made a settlement of £770,000 to bring the chapter to a close. Safioullin claims he was made to sign a confidentially clause after the dispute was eventually resolved.
United declined to make a statement about Bragin’s death and the subsequent contractual controversies.
In 1998 Grigori Yesaulenko was arrested and charged with tax evasion following the sale of Russia midfielder Dmitry Alenichev to Italian Serie A club Roma. Yesaulenko was vice president of selling club Spartak Moscow at the time and was charged with hiding $7m in Swiss banks after the transfer.
It’s easy to see why the Kanchelskis transfer, Bragin’s death and Yesaulenko’s behaviour were strongly linked to involvement with the Ukrainian mafia and criminal underworld from the outset. You get the feeling that we are only scratching the surface of what was one of football’s most unusual set of circumstances.
Follow on Twitter @simonjwinter