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Football's Greatest What If….

Thursday 21st July 2011
As football fans across the country scour the back pages and the column inches in search for the transfer talk linking new and exciting names to their clubs, many hopeful followers will be left to rue missed opportunities and failed bids by their clubs, come August 31st. Gossip will remain just that, and they will resume proceedings with the same old back line, that loyal but uninventive centre midfielder who'll never leave the club, and the journeyman striker who somehow evolved into your target man, because no one else could head a ball.

But one of the greatest what ifs in footballing history has to be those of St Mirren fans back in 2001, as the Scottish minnows considered the possibility, yet ultimate failure to secure the signing of Ronaldinho, the man whose career would disappointingly stay well clear of Paisley but still manage to claim the title of World Player of the year on two occasions.

Ten years ago this season, St Mirren were fighting for their lives in the Scottish Premier League, struggling to stay in the big time under the stewardship of former player turned manager Tom Hendrie. The club were desperate to add firepower to an attacking line up that already boasted the talents of Camebridge United bound Paul McKnight and Monserrat International Junior ‘Judas' Mendes, a player that felt the wrath of the Love Street faithful by moving to fierce rivals Dunfermaline, and kissing the badge in the process.

St Mirren had coveted the talents of Nigerian Daniel ‘The Bull' Amokachi, who had once upon a time commanded a six figure transfer fee, Paul Kitson, then of West Ham United, and the controversial Italian Benito Carbone, a player whose nineteen year professional career would see him play with more clubs than Jack Nicholas, and cause controversy at every one of them. However, all three of the potential transfers turned down the move up north, with the allure of Scottish Premier League football, albeit for half a season, not proving strong enough.

Hendrie, concerned that a lack of goals would bring a premature end to their spell in the top flight, was confident enough to turn down the opportunity to sign a former World Cup winner in Bebeto of Brazil. The then 35 year old, who had found himself playing for the Kashima Antlers of Japanese J League football, was lacking the match fitness expected of the weighty salary that a man of his reputation, as probably bulk, commanded.

In Bebeto's homeland of Brazil, the season had finished and there remained a six month period before Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, known to the lay man as Ronaldinho, would make his move six thousand miles away to Paris Saint Germaine, in July of 2001.

Eying up this period of transition, where Ronaldinho was effectively a lame duck in the Gremio ranks and free agent for a significant period of the remaining year, The Buddies put together a sensational move to sign football's most notable buck-tooth Brazilian. Hendrie and his crack team of South Scottish football wizards assembled a package which promised Ronaldinho first team football experience in a major European league before his more high profile transfer to France later in the year.

If the dream of playing in the SPL was not big enough, the chance to play alongside a stellar cast that included Ryan Robinson, a goalkeeper capable of being subbed after coming on as a substitute himself and German striker and journeyman Jens Paeslack, whose loan spell ended in mysterious circumstances after allegations of dressing room theft, must have been enough to sway Ronaldinho into accepting the invitation of a three month spell in the Scottish lowlands.

A buzz of anticipation, excitement and probable disbelief descended on the club as memories of Carbone and Kitson faded within an instant upon hearing of the imminent arrival of their Brazilian wonder kid. But as in all fairy tale stories, the dream never became a reality. Ronaldinho was involved in a fake passport scandal which postponed any move and meant the star had to remain in his country until the matter was settled.

At the time, a disillusioned Hendrie was angered by the downfall of his grand plan, lamenting that, ‘Because of the problem, the Brazilian FA would not release the player's international clearance in time for us to register him ahead of the deadline.'

The eleventh hour collapse of the deal was said to have damaged morale within a fragile squad, and added to the burden placed on Ronaldinho's young replacement, Steven McPhee of Coventry City. Despite picking up the SPL young player of the month award during his brief seven game stint at the club, McPhee never reached the heights that had been artificially set by the hope of signing Ronaldinho. His goaless streak meant that he was soon shipped back to Coventry, where he would continue to playout his career in Ronaldinho's shadow.

As Ronaldinho himself was passed over from South America football to light up the European game, St Mirren were relegated with just 30 points, and lower league football would remain the staple diet for St Mirren's followers for the next five years. In that time Ronaldinho would become one of the greats of the modern game, winning the World Cup a year later with Brazil, the Champions League with Barcelona, and putting in some of the great individual performances that St Mirren Park has never seen.

In a season that boasted a notable -40 goal difference, a 7-1 hammering at the hands of Rangers at Ibrox, and a 5-0 home defeat to second from bottom side Dundee United, fans will always ask what if the great man had signed. Despite divine powers that tore apart defences at the Bernabeau, the Mestalla, Stamford Bridge and other great stadia, there remains doubt whether the man who grew up on the beaches of Porto Alegre could have performed such tricks at the Beach End of Pittodrie.

Since that illfated and unsuccessful transfer ten years ago, the footballing gods have looked down on some individuals better than others. Ronaldinho reached the pinnacle of the game, whereas those notable names from St Mirren's class of 2001 such as Ryan Robinson, who would quit the game at the age of twenty eight, and Jens Paeslack, who would be found playing third division Crypriat football, faired slightly differently. Either way, such a story should be celebrated and retains its rightful place as a legend of the Scottish game and amongst football's greatest what ifs.
Andrew Greasley

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