It is not often a player turns down the chance to join Manchester United. It is even less often that they do it four times.
Yet that is the situation Sir Alex Ferguson found himself in as he looked to reinforce his defensive options with a centre-back numerous times during his most successful spell at the club.
In the summer of 1995, the legendary manager was searching for a new defender when he made an approach to signing one who had shone against his side four years earlier.
Laurent Blanc was already 29 at that point but Ferguson wasn’t deterred from bringing the French defender to Old Trafford, having been so impressed by him when they had played Montpellier in the successful European Cup-Winners’ Cup campaign.
The experienced defender had just scored 13 goals, yes, really, in his last season at Saint-Étienne, one in which they only avoided relegation because Marseille were denied promotion due to their financial difficulties.
An offer to join United was tempting, but Blanc was reluctant to leave France again, having struggled during a solitary season with Napoli earlier in his career.
Instead, he joined Auxerre, who he helped win a famous league and cup double, which again alerted the top teams in Europe to his signature.
Another offer from United came, but instead, Blanc opted to join Barcelona and the opportunity to play under legendary figure Johan Cruyff. The very same day that he agreed to join the club, the Dutchman was sacked.
“The funny thing is that when I arrived in Barcelona [in 1996], Sir Alex Ferguson called me,” he would later recall. “He asked me to sign for United, but I couldn’t go, I had already signed with Barca.”
After an injury-ridden campaign, he was on the move again as he looked to play regular football ahead of the home World Cup in France, a decision that would pay off when his performances for new club Marseille earned him a place in their triumphant squads for the World Cup and following the European Championship.
The second international success came midway through a two-year spell with Inter Milan and another failed United bid as Ferguson looked to replace Jaap Stam with the experienced French defender.
Having just won the Pirata d’Oro (Inter Player of the Year award) he turned them down once again. Yet Ferguson hadn’t given up hope of bringing him to Manchester.
“We weren’t looking for anyone else,” he asserted. “I have tried to sign Laurent maybe four times now – as recently as last season and when he was at Auxerre, Barcelona and Inter Milan. It was always the wrong time.”
A year later, his persistence would finally pay off when the 35-year-old defender agreed to a one-year deal to finally become a United player.
It even meant Ferguson opted not to attend a G14 managerial conference in Geneva in order to sign the veteran French defender.
“People keep going on about this age thing,” the United manager said. “Steve Bruce was 35 and Bryan Robson was 36 but they both played important roles. Players who are prepared to look after themselves – their careers carry on much longer than we think.
“We’ve followed him around the world but now we are delighted he has joined us. Laurent’s experience will be vital to the younger players like Mikael Silvestre, Wes Brown, Gary and Phil Neville.”
Blanc was delighted at the lucrative deal but denied the suggestion that he had ever ‘rejected’ the club, rather that his personal situation never allowed a move to happen.
“I am honoured to play for such a big club like Manchester United,” he said. “I never refused them. There was always something that prevented the transfer. That’s all.”
A decade after they first met, Ferguson was keen for Blanc to prove that he had been well worth the wait, but things didn’t exactly go to plan.
The French defender took time to adjust to the pace of the Premier League and was criticised for poor performances in his first few months at the club, ironically featuring in league defeats to teams whose names began with the letters that spell out Blanc’s surname – Bolton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea.
After such a tough start to the campaign, the veteran defender was having second thoughts about the decision to join United and even signalled his intention to retire at the end of his debut campaign.
“At the moment, there are too many other things to concentrate on rather than thinking about retirement,” he admitted. “As things stand, I still intend to retire at the end of the season.
“I know Sir Alex Ferguson has changed his mind, but that’s not the case for me. I must emphasise, I am not even thinking about that at the moment.
“All I’m focused on is giving of my best and trying to achieve something for Manchester United.”
He would soon settle in, though, and although Blanc lacked the mobility required to keep up with the very best in the Premier League, his football intelligence and reading of the game were also clear to see.
As his form improved, so did that of the team, as United eventually clawed themselves back into a title race but ultimately fell short of Arsenal by the end of it.
Blanc was clearly talented but was also clearly on the decline. As he continued to mull over his retirement from the professional game, Ferguson urged him to reconsider as they approached a transition period in central defence.
Wes Brown and John O’Shea were the only other senior centre-backs following the sales of the two Ronnie’s, Johnsen and Wallwork, while the club worked on a deal to sign Rio Ferdinand.
Blanc agreed to a new one-year deal to repay the faith Ferguson had shown in him. “He told me: ‘I want you to work with me for at least one year. I have very young defenders, like the Neville brothers, Rio Ferdinand, West Brown… and you have a lot of experience’.
“At the beginning, some of the players were not so keen, but we got into the habit of dedicated sessions on defending, practicing different scenarios. I had a few ideas. In the first few sessions we had specifically on defending, I contributed some ideas. It led to improvements.
“I did spend some time with Rio and Wes Brown, and maybe I was there when there was a bit of cultural change at United and in English football generally.”
Ferguson admitted he was astounded to get 46 matches out of the veteran defender in that first season, but the duo reached an agreement that he would only re-sign if he would play a limited number of matches.
Instead, due to an injury crisis, Blanc played the full 90 minutes in all but one of their first 14 matches of the campaign and would have 21 to his name by November.
It was clearly unsustainable; a calf injury caught up with the defender and he made only seven further appearances that season as United went on to reclaim the Premier League title.
After months of rehabilitation, Ferguson wanted to give the legendary figure a fitting send-off, with a role in their final match of the season away at Everton.
“It hasn’t just been what Laurent did on the pitch but also what he did off it with the young players. It was marvellous, really first class,” Ferguson said.
“He gave our young lads the assured confidence of knowing their job. He has been terrific—a truly marvellous pro. The respect he commanded in our dressing room was immense.
“He is a great player. His greatest qualities were his reading of the game, his composure on the ball and his vision. His control of situations when you are under the cosh and the way he brings the ball into midfield is marvellous. He brought a calm to it and our young defenders are lucky to have had the time with him. It’s been a great education for them.
“He has also showed us great temperament in that he was aware of a lot of criticism last season early on, unfair of course, but the critics were simply looking for a scapegoat. But they picked the wrong one in Laurent because he was fantastic for us.
“I am delighted he was able to win a title medal with Manchester United this season. It was a fitting end for him.”
Blanc would play the second-half as United picked up their trophy with a 2-1 win at Goodison Park and was seen celebrating wildly in the scenes that followed.
It was the ideal ending for his two-year spell at the club but Blanc was not going to be carried away by the high and consider a third year at Old Trafford.
“No, that’s it for me,” he insisted. “I don’t want to look an idiot again like I did last season. I’d made up my mind to retire, then I was given an interesting proposition to play for another year.
“I love playing so I decided to do another year but I looked like an idiot as I’d told everyone I was quitting. I’m not talking about it any more!”
‘Larry White’ is still remembered fondly by United supporters who observed personally the class and composure he brought to their moment of need.
Ferguson’s persistence paid off at the fourth time of asking and Blanc’s only regret is that he hadn’t been able to play under him sooner.
“It was incredible, and now I regret not having gone to England earlier.” Fergie knows best.