جهانی از استعدادکتاب: زندگینامه من- الکس فرگوسن / فصل 18
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SIXTEEN - A WORLD OF TALENT
FROM the moment Manchester United became a Plc in 1990, I was certain the club would be bought and taken into private ownership. Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB were the largest of the private bidders before Malcolm Glazer first took a stake in 2003. With our history and our aura, we were too big a prize to be ignored by individual investors. The only surprise to me, when the Glazer family moved in to take control, was that there had not been a host of wealthy suitors.
Once the Glazers had seized their opportunity, Andy Walsh of the United supporters’ group called me to say: ‘You have to resign.’ Andy’s a nice lad but there was no temptation for me to agree to that request. I was the manager, not a director. Nor was I one of the shareholders who had sold the club. The takeover was not down to me in any way.
‘We’ll all be behind you,’ Andy said. My reply was: ‘But what do you think would happen to all my staff?’ The moment I left, most of my assistants would have been out as well. Some had been with me for 20 years. The impact made on others when a manager changes his position is sometimes lost on those outside the circle.
It was a worrying time, I admit. One of my concerns was how much money we might have to invest in the team. But I had to be confident both in my own ability to spot good players and the structure of the organisation. The Glazers were buying a good solid club and they understood that from the start.
My first contact was a phone call from the father, Malcolm. Two weeks later his sons Joel and Avi came over to set out their position. They told me there would be no changes to the way the football side was run. In their view, the club was in good hands. I was a successful manager. They had no concerns. They were totally behind me. All the things I wanted to hear from them, I heard that day. I know there is always an element of window dressing. People tell you everything is fine, then make a million alterations. People lose their jobs; there are cutbacks because debts need to be repaid. But United stayed solid under the new ownership, irrespective of the borrowings people talked about and the interest payments incurred.
Over the years, several supporter groups challenged me to define my stance in relation to the club’s debts and my answer was always: ‘I’m the manager. I’m working for a club owned by people in America.’ That was my standpoint. I never thought it sensible to upset the management side of the club by adding to the debate on models of ownership. If the Glazers had taken a more confrontational path, then it might have been different – if, for example, they had instructed me to get rid of one of my coaches. Any changes that might have undermined my ability to run the club would have altered the whole dynamic, but there was never that kind of pressure. So do you throw down your tools because some supporters want you to walk away from a lifetime’s work?
When I first joined United, there was a group of supporters known as the Second Board. They would meet in the Grill Room and decide what they thought was wrong with Manchester United. Back then, when my position was more fragile, I was more attuned to the damage that might be done to my position should they turn against me. Other United managers before me had felt the same way. In my playing days at Rangers, a group of powerful fans travelled with the first team and were influential lobbyists. At United there was a larger array of supporters’ voices. In disgust at the Glazer takeover, some handed in their season tickets and started FC United of Manchester.
There is a price to pay when you support a football club, and the price is that you can’t win every game. You are not going to be a manager for a lifetime. United are lucky to have had two for half a century. With losing and winning games, the emotions rise and fall. Football naturally generates dissent. I remember us losing a game at Rangers and the supporters throwing bricks through the windows.
There was no reason, beyond my age, for the Glazers to consider a change of manager in the summer of 2005. I never considered that possibility, never felt under threat.
The tens of millions of pounds paid out in interest to service the loans did arouse protective feelings towards the club. I understood that, but at no stage did it translate into pressure to sell a player or excessive caution on the purchasing front. One of their strengths was their commercial department in London, which brought in dozens of sponsorships globally. We had Turkish airlines, telephone companies in Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Thailand, beer companies in the Far East. That sucked in tens of millions and helped service the debt. On the football side we generated huge earnings. The 76,000 crowds helped a great deal.
So at no stage was I held back by the Glazer ownership. Often we would lose interest in a player because the transfer fee or wage demands had become silly. Those decisions were taken by me and David Gill. There was no edict from above to spend only in line with the club’s debts.
Instead our galaxy went on expanding. From 2007 more foreign talent poured into Carrington from South America, Portugal and Bulgaria. No imported player in those years attracted more attention than Carlos Tévez, who was at the heart of a major controversy over the relegation of Sheffield United from the Premier League and was to end up in opposition to us at Manchester City, staring down from that provocative billboard in his sky-blue shirt, underneath the message: ‘Welcome to Manchester.’ The tale begins when Tévez was at West Ham and David Gill was receiving calls from his agent, Kia Joorabchian, saying the boy would love to play for Man United. We had heard that kind of story many times. It was almost routine for agents to call saying their client had a special feeling for our crest. My advice was that we should not involve ourselves in any complicated dealings with the Tévez camp. David agreed. It was clear that a consortium of people owned the player. But, to David, I also remarked: ‘He does make an impact in games with his energy and he has a decent scoring record. It would depend what the deal was.’ David told me he could acquire Tévez on loan for two years, for a fee. That was the way it turned out and Carlos did well for us in his first season. He scored a lot of important goals, against Lyon, Blackburn, Tottenham and Chelsea. There was a real enthusiasm and energy about him. He wasn’t blessed with great pace and wasn’t a great trainer. He would always like a wee break, saying his calf was sore. In the context of the way we prepared, that sometimes annoyed us. We wanted to see a genuine desire to train all the time. Top players have that. But Tévez compensated quite well with his enthusiasm in games.
In the 2008 European Cup final in Moscow, he played and scored in the penalty shoot-out against Chelsea. He was our first taker. In the game itself, I took Rooney off and left Tévez on because he was playing better than Wayne. What planted a doubt in my mind was that in his second season I signed Dimitar Berbatov, and the emphasis was on Berbatov and Rooney as our forward partnership.
Watching Dimitar at Tottenham, I felt he would make a difference because he had a certain composure and awareness that we lacked among our group of strikers. He displayed the ability of Cantona or Teddy Sheringham: not lightning quick, but he could lift his head and make a creative pass. I thought he could bring us up a level and extend our range of talents.
So Berbatov’s arrival relegated Tévez to more of a backup role. And around December in his second season, we started to feel he wasn’t doing especially well. The reason, I think, was that he’s the type of animal that needs to play all the time. If you’re not training intensively, which he wasn’t, you need to play regularly. During that winter, David Gill asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ I felt we ought to wait until later in the season to make a decision. ‘They want one now,’ David said.
I replied, ‘Just tell them I’m trying to get him more games so we can assess it properly, because Berbatov is in the team a lot.’
Tévez did influence plenty of outcomes in the second half of the 2008–09 campaign, especially against Spurs at home, when we were 2–0 down, and I sent him on to shake things up. He chased absolutely everything. He brought huge enthusiasm to the cause and was the one responsible for us winning that match 5–2. His impact changed the course of events.
The 2009 Champions League semi-final pitted us against Arsenal and I was playing a three of Ronaldo, Rooney and Park. That was my chosen group for the final and apparently Tévez was not impressed. We made a mess of the final in Rome against Barcelona. We chose a bad hotel. It was a shambles. We have to hold our hands up about our poor planning.
Anyway, I brought Tévez on at half-time and just felt he was playing for himself a bit. From what I could gather, he had already made his mind up before joining City. After the game in Rome he said to me: ‘You never showed any great desire to sign me permanently.’ I explained that I had to see how the season played out and that he hadn’t played enough games for me to be sure. David offered the £25 million fee for him, but from what I can gather it was as if he were talking to the wall. That led us to think he had already elected to move across town.
The rumour, not confirmed, was that our Manchester rivals had paid £47 million. Tévez spoke to Chelsea at some point, too, and I think his advisers played one against the other. The word was that Chelsea offered £35 million but that City outbid them. To me these were incredible sums. I wouldn’t have paid that kind of money, fine player though he was. To me he was an impact maker. It was a mistake on my part, in the sense that Berbatov was a player I fancied strongly and I wanted to see him succeed. But he is also the sort who wants to be assured he is a great player. The conundrum with him and Tévez was always there.
There was no disciplinary problem with Tévez of the sort Roberto Mancini encountered when the boy declined to warm up for City, apparently, in a Champions League game in Germany, but there was a major hoo-ha over his supposed role in Sheffield United’s demotion to the Championship in 2007. Tévez’s goals had been saving West Ham from relegation when they came to our ground at the end of that season. They were fined for breaching third-party ownership rules with Tévez, but no points were deducted by the Premier League. Inevitably Tévez scored against us for West Ham, which helped send Sheffield United down, and Neil Warnock, their manager, tried to load the blame on us for playing a supposedly weakened team against the Hammers.
We had a Cup final the week after that West Ham game. Our squad was one of the strongest in the League and I had been changing the team all season according to circumstance. If you watch that match, we had two or three penalties turned down and their goalkeeper had a fantastic game. They broke away and Tévez scored. West Ham were never in the game. We battered them. I brought on Ronaldo, Rooney and Giggs in the second half but still we couldn’t knock them over.
Meanwhile Mr Warnock accuses us of throwing the game away. In their last game they faced Wigan at home and all they needed was a draw. In early January, Warnock had let David Unsworth go on a free transfer to Wigan, and Unsworth takes the penalty kick that knocks Sheffield United out of the Premier League. Could anyone with an open mind not say: I made a mess of that, there? Has he ever looked at himself in the mirror and said, ‘All we needed was a draw at home and we weren’t good enough to take a point off Wigan?’ The accusation was ridiculous.
In January 2007 we acquired a real aristocrat – for a two-month spell, at any rate. Louis Saha had returned at the start of the season full of promise but picked up another injury. In October Jim Lawlor, United’s chief scout, pointed out to us that it was a waste for Henrik Larsson to be playing in Sweden when he still had so much to offer on a bigger stage. Helsingborgs, where Henrik was playing, would not sell him, but I asked Jim to ask their chairman what they would think about him coming on loan in January. Henrik pushed the boat in that direction with his employers.
On arrival at United, he seemed a bit of a cult figure with our players. They would say his name in awed tones. For a man of 35 years of age, his receptiveness to information on the coaching side was amazing. At every session he was rapt. He wanted to listen to Carlos, the tactics lectures; he was into every nuance of what we did.
In training he was superb: his movement, his positional play. His three goals for us were no measure of his contribution. In his last game in our colours at Middlesbrough, we were winning 2–1 and Henrik went back to play in midfield and ran his balls off. On his return to the dressing room, all the players stood up and applauded him, and the staff joined in. It takes some player to make that kind of impact in two months. Cult status can vanish in two minutes if a player isn’t doing his job, yet Henrik retained that aura in his time with us. He looked a natural Man United player, with his movement and courage. He also had a great spring for a little lad.
I could have signed him earlier. I was ready to make the bid when he was at Celtic but Dermot Desmond, Celtic’s majority shareholder, rang me and said, ‘You’ve let me down, Alex, you’ve got tons of players, we need him.’
A month after Henrik went back to Sweden, we registered one of our greatest European victories: the 7–1 win over Roma on 10 April, our highest Champions League score. There were two goals each for Michael Carrick and Ronaldo, one from Rooney, Alan Smith and even Patrice Evra, who scored for the first time in Europe.
Top games of football are generally won by eight players. Three players can be carried if they’re having an off night and work their socks off, or are playing a purely tactical role for the team in order to secure the result. But half a dozen times in your career you achieve perfection where all 11 are on song.
Everything we did that night came off. For the second goal we produced a six-man move of one-touch passing. Alan Smith scored from a Ryan Giggs pass between the two centre-backs. First time – bang, in the net. Brilliant goal. So you have these moments when you say: we could not have improved on that.
I remember taking a team to Nottingham Forest in 1999 and winning 8–1. It could have been 20. Roma were a bloody good side too. They had Daniele De Rossi, Cristian Chivu and Francesco Totti, and we absolutely slaughtered them. We had been beaten 2–1 in Rome, where Scholes had been sent off for a suicidal tackle right on the touchline. The boy was practically off the pitch when Paul arrived with his challenge. So we were under some pressure in the return leg. Until the goals started flying in.
Wimbledon away in the FA Cup in February 1994 was another classic. In a 3–0 win we scored one goal with 38 passes. People talk of the best Man United goal being Ryan Giggs’ in that FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, or Rooney’s overhead kick against Manchester City, but for me that goal at Wimbledon was sublime. Every player in the team touched the ball. In the first minute of the game, Vinnie Jones tried to do Cantona. Crack. Down went Eric. All our players ran towards Jones, but Cantona said, ‘Leave him alone,’ because he was a fellow ex-Leeds player, and may have felt a kinship. Then he patted Jones on the back as if to say, ‘You can kick me if you like but you won’t stop me.’ Cantona was marvellous that day and scored our first goal with a beautiful volley that he teed up for himself with his right foot.
People always said Wimbledon couldn’t play. That’s not true. The quality of the service to their front players was high, especially the crosses. Their set-piece delivery was terrific. They were not devoid of talent. What they did was use those talents as a weapon against weaker people. If you didn’t head the ball, you were dead. If you couldn’t handle set pieces you were dead. If you wanted to get into a 50–50 with them – no chance. They were hard to play against. So that 3–0 win in their ground was special to us.
Two big wins over Arsenal also stand out. In a 6–2 win at Highbury in the League Cup in 1990, Lee Sharpe scored a hat-trick. On another occasion, in February 2001, we beat them 6–1 at Old Trafford. An Irish family had bought an auction prize to see us play at Liverpool in December 2000, but were fog-bound and unable to travel. We lost 1–0 to Liverpool in a horrible game. They rang me and asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ I told them, ‘We’ve got Arsenal at home soon.’ And they saw a 6–1 massacre. What a difference. It was 5–1 at half-time. Yorkie tore them apart.
Despite our 7–1 win over Roma, our Champions League campaign was ended by a 3–0 defeat in Milan on 2 May. We had been forced to field a full team on the previous Saturday in order to beat Everton 4–2 at Goodison Park, while Milan had rested nine players for their game against us, which was on the Tuesday. We were simply not as well prepared as our Italian opponents. We conceded twice in 15 minutes, it bucketed with rain, and we just couldn’t break out of our own half. We simply weren’t ready for it. Winning on the Saturday had been a mammoth task because we had been 2–0 down against Everton, yet we won the game to move five points clear in the League.
Along with Tévez and Larsson, other global talents joined us. Carlos, through his Portuguese connections, told us there was a young boy at Porto from Brazil called Anderson. He was 16 or 17. We kept an eye on him. He was in and out of the team. A game here, an appearance from the bench there. Then he played against us in the Amsterdam tournament and I resolved to act, but the following week he broke his leg.
When his recovery was complete, I sent Martin over to watch him in every game for four or five weeks. Martin said: ‘Alex, he’s better than Rooney.’
‘For Christ’s sake, don’t say that,’ I told him. ‘He’ll need to be good to be better than Rooney.’ Martin was adamant. At that stage, Anderson was playing off the striker. At the end of the tournament we moved to buy both him and Nani, who I went to see for myself. What attracted me to Nani was his pace, strength and aerial ability. He had two fine feet. All the individual attributes were there, which brought us round to the old question: what type of boy was he? Answer: a good one, quiet, could speak English reasonably well, never caused any problems at Sporting Lisbon, and was an excellent trainer. My word he’s a fit boy. Gymnastic, too. His athletic read-outs were always first-class. So the foundations were there. Carlos went over with David Gill: called into Sporting Lisbon to sign Nani and then drove up to Porto to capture Anderson. All in one day.
Two years on, we were able to say that the reasons for signing them were correct. There were complications with Anderson in the winter of 2009–10. He wasn’t playing as much as he would have liked to and wanted to return home. He was Brazilian, and the complication, as ever, was the World Cup, which he was desperate to play in. His scheme was to go to Vasco Da Gama for the rest of the season so he could play in the South Africa World Cup of 2010. ‘You’re not leaving here. We’re not investing millions of pounds in a player so he can shoot off to Brazil,’ I told him. Lovely personality, Anderson.
I have always respected Brazilian footballers. Name a Brazilian player who doesn’t excel in big games? They were born for the big occasion. They have a special quality: deep pride in themselves. Great belief. There is a myth that Brazilians regard training as an onerous interruption to a life of pleasure. Not true. They train conscientiously. The notion that they hate the cold is another fallacy. The two Da Silva brothers for example: no tracksuit bottoms, no gloves – out they go. No country can apply the rich mix of ingredients you gain from a top Brazilian player. Argentines are deeply patriotic but I found they lack the expressive personalities of Brazilians.
With Nani we were buying pure raw material. He was immature, inconsistent, but with a wonderful instinct for football. He could control the ball with either foot, head the ball and he bristled with physical strength. He could cross, shoot. When you buy a player with all those talents, the trick is to put them in order. He was a bit disorganised and needed to be more consistent. It was inevitable that he would work in Ronaldo’s shadow because he was a winger from Portugal with some of the same attributes. Had he been from Serbia, no one would have made the comparison. But both Ronaldo and Nani had come through Sporting Lisbon, so they were always being studied side by side.
Ronaldo was blessed with outrageous talent, and was brave, with two great feet and a wonderful leap. It was perhaps daunting for Nani to assert himself as a Man United starter against that backdrop. To be up against Ronaldo in team selection was a problem in itself. In his first year he was on the bench a lot. Nani picked up the language quickly but Anderson took longer. Because he’s Brazilian, though, he brought incredible self-belief to the job. Brazilians think they can play against anybody.
I would say to Anderson: ‘Have you seen this Neymar in Brazil?’
‘Oh, great player. Fantastic.’
‘Have you seen Robinho?’
‘Wonderful. Incredible player.’
Every Brazilian name I mentioned would elicit this response. He thought everyone back home was world class. When Brazil battered Portugal in a friendly, Anderson told Ronaldo: ‘Next time we’ll play our fifth team to give you a chance.’ Ronaldo was not amused. That’s the kind of country Brazil is. I love that story about the competition in Rio to unearth new No. 10s and thousands turning up. One boy travelled for 22 hours on a bus. It’s a massive country, with talent everywhere.
I look back less fondly on our move for Owen Hargreaves, who was phenomenal in the summer of 2006 and was just the type of player we needed to fill the gap left by Keane. We started to put together a bid for him. But I studied his playing record and felt a tinge of doubt. I didn’t feel a strong vibe about him. David Gill worked hard on the deal with Bayern. I met Owen’s agent at the World Cup final in Berlin. Nice man, a lawyer. I told him we could develop Hargreaves at United. It turned out to be a disaster.
Owen had no confidence in himself whatsoever. He didn’t show nearly enough determination to overcome his physical difficulties, for my liking. I saw him opt for the easy choice too often in terms of training. He was one of the most disappointing signings of my career.
He went everywhere in search of cures for his various injuries: Germany, America, Canada. I felt he lacked the confidence to overcome his injuries. It went from bad to worse. He was away in America for the best part of a year. He saw Hans Müller-Wohlfahrt, the club doctor at Bayern Munich, for his calf. In the games he did actually play, I had no qualms about his contribution. He was lightning quick and a great set-piece deliverer. He could play right-back, wide right or central midfield. I played him wide right in the 2008 final against Chelsea, and when we started to struggle against their midfield three, I put him in the middle of the park with Rooney wide right and it worked. He had definite value. But it was all lost in the fog of his lack of games. Yet Hargreaves was fantastic for England at the 2006 World Cup, plugging gaps, racing to the ball.
In September 2011, we took a blast from Hargreaves about how he had been supposedly let down by our medical staff in his time with us. He claimed we had used him like ‘a guinea pig’ for treatments for his tendonitis and various knee problems. We took legal advice and could have proceeded against him, but the doctor was not sufficiently offended to seek legal redress. We did the best for that lad. No matter what the staff did for him, he created his own agenda.
I would say to him, ‘How are you this morning?’
‘Great, boss,’ he would reply. ‘But I think I’ll do something on my own. I’m feeling it a bit.’
One of his allegations was that we picked him for the Wolves game in early November 2010 when he had asked not to be selected. Rubbish. Three weeks before that fixture, he had advised us that he would be ready for such and such a date, which happened to be a European tie. I was reluctant to bring him back in a European game after he had been out for so long. There was a reserve game that week, which he was meant to play in, but he withdrew.
In the week of the Wolves game, to my knowledge, he said nothing to our staff to indicate he had a problem. My concern, which I expressed to Mick Phelan, was that he would pick up an injury in the warm-up. My understanding was that he told one of the players he was feeling his hamstring a bit. When he came in from the warm-up, I specifically asked him: ‘Are you all right?’ I said it to reassure him. My message was: enjoy it. Well, he lasted five minutes. His hamstring went. But it was no surprise.
When I signed him, there was something about him I didn’t like. The thing every good leader should have is an instinct. Mine said to me: ‘I don’t fancy this.’ When he came over to Old Trafford for the medical, I still had some indefinable doubt. He was very hail-fellow-well-met. Almost too nice. Kléberson also left me with doubts, but only because he was so timid, and could barely look you in the eye. He had good ability, Kléberson, but he paid too much attention to what his father-in-law and wife wanted.
I read later that the FA were going to fast-track Hargreaves into coaching. That’s one of the things that’s wrong with our game. That wouldn’t happen in France or Germany or Holland, where you would spend three years earning your stripes.
Bébé is the only player I ever signed without first seeing him in action. We have a good scout in Portugal who had flagged him up. This boy had been playing homeless football and became a triallist for a second division team. He did really well. Our scout told us, ‘We need to watch him.’ Then Real Madrid were on his tail. I know that’s true because José Mourinho told me Real were ready to sign him and that United had jumped in front of them. We took a wee gamble on it, for about 7 million euros.
Bébé came with limitations but there was a talent there. He had fantastic feet. He struck the ball with venom, off either foot, with no drawback. He was not the complete player, but we were coaching him to be better. We farmed him out to Turkey and he injured his cruciate knee ligament after two weeks. We brought him home and put him on remedial work, then in the reserves. He did all right. He trained well in the short games, eight v. eight, goal to goal. On the big pitch his concept of team play needed work. With feet like his he was capable of scoring 20 goals a season. He was a quiet boy, spoke reasonable English, and had obviously had a hard upbringing wandering the streets of Lisbon.
With so many players coming in, I was proud of the work we did on those who were to end up with other clubs. In the spring of 2010, for instance, there were 72 players throughout Scotland, Europe and England who had been through an apprenticeship at Man Utd. Seventy-two.
Fabio Capello told a good friend of mine that if you put gowns and masks on Man Utd players, he could spot them a mile away, which was quite a compliment. Their behaviour and training stand out. We had three in Denmark, one in Germany, two in Belgium, and others all over the place in England. We had seven goalkeepers out there, none of whom had made the first team: Kevin Pilkington, Michael Pollitt, Ben Williams and Luke Steele among them.
We were adept at identifying the players who would become first-team regulars. There is something visible in a top-grade Manchester United player that forces you to promote him to the first team. Darron Gibson was an example of one who brings you to that crossroads where a decision needs to be made about whether he is going to be a first-team player.
In 2009–10 he was at the stage where we were in danger of not being fair to him. He had different qualities to most of my other midfielders. His main attribute was that he could score from outside the box. Scholes was the only other player who could do that, but he was coming to the end. So the judgment was a tough one, as it was with Tom Cleverley, who was at Watford, where he had scored 11 times from midfield. Cleverley had no physique, was wiry as hell, but he was as brave as a lion, had good feet and could score a goal. David Gill said one day, ‘What are you going to do with Cleverley next year? He’s scoring a lot of goals at Watford.’ My answer was, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to play him, to find out whether he can score goals for me as well as Watford.’ Could he score six for me? Nobody else was getting half a dozen from midfield. Michael Carrick had struck a high note of five. If Cleverley could score six goals in the Premier League from midfield, he would become a consideration. The demarcation line was always: what can they do and what can they not do? The can-do question was: can they win me the game? If they could score six goals, I could ignore some of the negatives.
At 20 or 21, players would sometimes stagnate. If they were not in the first team by then they could become disheartened. I reached that moment in my own playing career. At 21 I was fed up at St Johnstone and took papers out to emigrate to Canada. I was disillusioned. Football’s not for me, I was saying. I’m not getting anywhere. At the United reserve level, we encountered this dilemma all the time. We would send players out on loan in the hope they would come back better, but often sent them to a level that would suit them more in the long term anyway, so they could find careers. We were proud to have relocated the 72 players I talked about elsewhere in the game.
The ones who make it have a way of telling you they are certainties to reach the grade. Welbeck is an example. At one point I tipped him to make Fabio Capello’s 2010 World Cup squad, but he had issues to do with the pace he was growing at. At 19 he was still shooting up and encountering problems with his knees. I told him to go carefully in training sessions and save his best for matches. He was on course to end up 6 feet 2 inches or 6 feet 3 inches tall. But what a good player. Such a confident boy. I said to him: ‘One of these days I’m going to kill you,’ because he was such a cocky so-and-so, and he replied, ‘I’ll probably deserve it.’ Touché. He had an answer for everything.
A constant in our discussions about young players was whether they could handle the demands of the Old Trafford crowd and the short patience span of the media. Would they grow or shrink in a United shirt? We knew the make-up of every young homegrown player who came into the United starting XI, from the training ground, from reserve team football. By the time a player graduated from youth or reserve team football, we aimed to be sure about their temperaments, sure about their characters and sure of their abilities.
But plainly, when we bought players in from abroad, we knew less about them, however hard we investigated their backgrounds, and the peculiar swirl of playing for United could undo some of these imported names. In 2009–10, we were researching Javier Hernández – nicknamed Chicharito (it means ‘little pea’). He was 21 years of age. We sent a scout out to live in Mexico for a month. The information we received was that he was a family boy who was reluctant to leave Mexico. Our contact out there helped us research his background down to every detail.
United’s support is odd in some respects. We would sign a player for £2 million and some fans would consider it a sign of weakness and believe we had lowered our standards. Gabriel Obertan was in that price range. He was greased lightning. But in the final third of the field, his feet were sometimes all over the place. His task was to coordinate his speed with his brain and deliver the hurt in the final third of the pitch.
Mame Biram Diouf was recommended by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer through his contacts at Molde in Norway. Hannover 96 and Eintracht Frankfurt were starting to sniff around him when we stepped up our interest. So we sent Ole and a club official over and acquired him for 4 million euros. Again, the background was right, though he never established himself with us.
Chris Smalling was bought from Fulham in January 2010 with the idea that he would join us for the start of the 2010–11 campaign. He had been playing with non-league Maidstone until 2008, but Roy Hodgson developed a high regard for him at Fulham. He cost us around £10 million. We moved for him when Rio Ferdinand started having problems with his back and other parts. We were on to centre-backs everywhere, all over. We watched them all through 2009–10 and thought Smalling was a young guy who would mature into his frame. Long-term, I could imagine a central defence forming around Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans.
There was no resting on the status quo, even in the best times. The longer I stayed, the further I looked ahead. Regeneration was an everyday duty.
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