Alex Ferguson recalls 14,000-mile trip to scout striker Marcelo Salas

A seriously long trip for one player.

In November 1997, Alex Ferguson wanted to add a new dimension to the Manchester United attack. For the 1997/98 season, the United boss had Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham as the three senior strikers at his disposal.

That trio combined provided plenty of craft and firepower. Cole would go on to score 25 times that season, Solskjaer was fresh off netting 19 times in his first season at the club, while Sheringham both playmaking and predatory powers after arriving from Tottenham Hotspur that summer.

However, Ferguson was searching for another outlet, someone who could help fill the void left by Eric Cantona’s retirement.

And for a while, Ferguson was convinced that Marcelo Salas was the ideal candidate to spruce up United’s frontline.

At that time, Salas was attracting attention from Europe having helped fire River Plate to the Argentine league title in 1997.

United had been scouting the Chile international for a while, with Les Kershaw, Martin Ferguson and Brian Kidd all having delivered positive reports on the striker.

However, given his age (22) and the fact that he was playing in South America, Ferguson wanted to get a good look at the player for himself.

And an opportunity to do so arose during an international break in mid-November.

The trip to scout Salas.

United had just been beaten 3-2 by Arsenal, and with the Premier League taking a backseat to 1998 World Cup qualifiers, Ferguson decided to fly to South America on a personal scouting mission with Salas in action for Chile against Bolivia in Santiago.

“What we have here is a young player, 22 years of age in fact, with a definite chance of playing at the very highest level, but one costing a great deal of money,” Ferguson recalled in his book, A Will to Win: The Manager’s Diary.

“Therefore I have to think very carefully whether this is exactly what I want.

“I am looking for someone who is different from what we already have at Old Trafford. If he were someone like Ronaldo, who can create things on his own from nothing, then I would be tempted.

“I am certainly interested, otherwise I wouldn’t have tackled a round trip of 14,000 miles just to watch one football match.

“I’m pretty tired at the end of it all, but I wouldn’t have felt happy if I had not seen him for myself.”

Salas impressed Ferguson by scoring in a 3-0 win to help Chile qualify for the World Cup in France ahead of Peru. El Matador ended the qualifying campaign with 11 goals, one behind teammate Ivan Zamorano.

Ultimately, the deal did not materialise with River Plate refusing to budge on their £12m asking price.

Ferguson felt £5m was a more reasonable price and ultimately walked away from the deal.

United did, however, spend £12m to sign Dwight Yorke the following summer, with the Trinidad and Tobago striker going on to score 29 goals to help United clinch the treble in 1999.

It is fair to say, then, that United made the right choice.

As for Salas, he went on to star at the ’98 World Cup with four goals before being snapped up by Lazio, his goals helping them win the Serie A title in 2000.

El Matador also came up against United, scoring the winner when the sides met in the UEFA Super Cup in August 1999.

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