Fellaini – from villain to hero

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It would take quite a lot to get Fellaini to swear, in fact. It would take mention of the criticism he received last season.

‘Bull****,’ says the Belgian, as he picks, with irritation, at a little scab on his knee.There has barely been an annus as horribilis as Fellaini’s first as a player at Manchester United.

He was intended to be one of several significant signings by new manager David Moyes but ended up arriving expensively alone in an unseemly transfer deadline day scramble. Moyes was going to be the chosen one, instead he was saddled with the responsibility for a dreadful post-Ferguson decline.

Fellaini, also struggling with injury and poor form, came to epitomise his floundering regime: mediocre Moyes and his mediocre protege. And then, a year ago this week, Moyes was sacked.

Fellaini wasn’t picked by caretaker manager Ryan Giggs for his first game in charge and wasn’t thought to be in Louis van Gaal’s plans, either. He was a substitute in the defeat by Swansea City on the first day of this season, then didn’t play another game until October 5.

Yet, slowly, since then, his fortunes have changed. After scoring within three minutes of coming on at half-time against West Bromwich Albion, Van Gaal told him he would keep his place if he continued hitting that level. And Fellaini did.

As United climbed the table, he became a fixture in Van Gaal’s team — a wide No 10 role he calls it.

Fellaini’s position is unique, however, that of a midfield target man, and this has not gone unnoticed.

Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, admitted his team spent all week preparing specific ways to stifle the 27-year-old before last Sunday’s win at Stamford Bridge. He ended up deploying Kurt Zouma as a man-for-man marker.

High praise, although Fellaini doesn’t see the positives. ‘Yes, it’s a good compliment,’ he said, ‘but it was difficult, because all game the guy was on me and I couldn’t play. Against Everton as well, there was a player on me. It was the same.’

He goes at the scab again, blemishes cover his legs, looking like bites. What are they? ‘Kicks,’ he insists. ‘The football in England is very hard, very intense. Every player wants that physical contact — it is different to every other league.’

It must have been hard to stick with it. Not just when he arrived at Everton from Belgian side Standard Liege, but last season when he became United’s whipping boy, seen as representative of Moyes’ failing command.

He wasn’t intended to be United’s only major signing the summer Sir Alex Ferguson left — but that’s how it was.

Worse, Moyes going back to his old club for a player whose physical attributes stood out seemed to sum up the earthbound nature of Ferguson’s successor.

It was a false impression, but he was perceived as the big lump, brought in to play a style of football that was foreign to the club. As Moyes floundered, so did Fellaini, until it looked like there would be no way back for him at Old Trafford.

Asked if it needed Moyes to leave for him to be viewed in a different light, he is certain.‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ says Fellaini.

‘Now David Moyes is in Spain, so if I came here it would be different. We were together. People saw us like that. Of course I feel sorry for him, but’ — lots of heavy sighing — ‘it’s over now. Everyone thought we were very close, but he was my manager. I was close to him, but I did not live with him. I respect him but it’s not like we were best friends.

‘It was a difficult season for everyone, not just me, but the criticism was on me because I was the transfer of Moyes. I did some good games but even those I was criticised for. A lot of people talked about me, about my quality.

‘I had played five years in England and every season I played very well for Everton. Then, for one year, I lost my football, I lost my quality, I lost everything. Bull****. That’s my opinion. And now my quality has come back. But that’s not right, that’s not right.

‘The difference this summer is five players come, not just me. It would have been completely different if five players had arrived at the same time as me, but they did not. Just me. So I was in the middle of it. Sometimes, I didn’t play — and it was still me. I was injured for three months — still me. It was stupid, a bad experience.

‘I would go home and it would feel so complicated. I thought about it all, it was very difficult. What kept me going was the World Cup. I was determined to have a good World Cup as a way of forgetting the rest of the season. I was injured for three months, I had a lot of small injuries, and all I would do is think about it. At the World Cup I did well. It was a bad season for me with United, but good with the national team.’

And, gradually this season, change. Big men are often seen as mentally strong also, but Fellaini, who goes back to Everton with United, seems the type that can suffer a crisis of confidence if he feels the club is not with him.

The criticism, the negativity of his own supporters at times, seems to have hurt him deeply. ‘It is different now,’ he says. ‘The fans, the people, they are with me, not against me. Last season was bad for everyone — but I have had the strength to move on. That is football. I learned a lot from that. I am stronger mentally. I always thought I was, but now more than ever.’

Did he ever think he would have to leave? ‘Yes,’ he admits, ‘but I have a contract. I talked with the new manager and he told me I have to show him, prove to him. I accept that. I am a footballer so I like that competition. I said I will fight for my place and then we will see at the end of the season.

‘This is a big club and I wanted to show I can play here. I worked hard. This season I haven’t played every game, but I have played more than last season. I play much better than last year, but the team play much better as well, so it has been good for us all.

‘Now we’re one year on and I’ve forgotten about the past. It is a new challenge. About last season, I don’t care anymore. I play. That is all that matters.’

The fact Fellaini isn’t going to be lined up for an appearance on The Graham Norton Show any time soon is well known at Old Trafford.

Giggs, on hearing he had conducted his first newspaper interview since joining the club, could barely conceal his merriment. ‘You’ve been with Felli?’ he grinned. ‘Get much out of him?’

Not as much as Van Gaal would be the accurate answer to that one. Indeed, few can believe how much the new manager has extracted from the player this season. Would he be at Manchester United now if the club could have recouped its money on him in the summer? It is unlikely.

Nor does he fit the perceived Dutch model of a midfielder. Yet Van Gaal saw something.

It was as if he took the idea of the old-fashioned British target man and subverted it. At times, it is almost as if Fellaini has deserted his position among Manchester United’s forwards. He hasn’t. He is exactly where Van Gaal wants him to be.

Other coaches have used big men wide, but Van Gaal is probably the first to start one deep and then have him come on to the diagonal ball with momentum.

Fellaini sees himself as one of three No 10s, but he certainly doesn’t start in the position of a second striker. Some have described United’s football as primitive, as long ball even, but it is a sophisticated twist on an old idea. Fellaini is far from the first of his type in the English game — but he’s probably the first to play this way.

‘Football is about the brain, too, no?’ Fellaini asks.

‘Van Gaal has brought that here. He tells us how important it is to read the game. When we have a meeting, he will ask why we did certain things, and then we get his opinion.

‘He has that presence, when he talks, when he shouts. He shouts when he has to, but not much. The training field is most important to him. Whoever we are playing, all week he will say, “like that, like that, like that” and we have to do it — we play 11 against 11 to prepare.

‘He didn’t know me. I had to show him. I trained very hard. When the manager asked me to do something I did it — and his way, you know. I did what he wanted on the pitch. I showed I could be effective — that I could make an impact given a role.

‘It started off in training, 11 against 11, five against five — I did what he wanted and he knew he could trust me. I knew he was noticing me because he sees everything and he says everything in public. Nothing is said in private. When he talks to you, he is talking to all the players. You know when you are good, you know when you are bad — and so does everyone else.

‘He has been around big teams, so he knows how to talk to us, how to deal with players, how to be strict in his organisation. That is why we have improved a lot, this mix.

‘There are a lot of meetings, a lot of videos — he shows us mistakes. The game is played with the brain as well. He has made everyone think more about the game.’

Despite a natural reticence it is plain Fellaini feels at home at United now. Not every footballer conforms to the stereotype of a large Lamborghini with a nitrous oxide chaser. Fellaini drove a Vauxhall Corsa during his days at Everton. It is considered quite charming that, at Manchester United, he still uses his club car, a Chevrolet.

Smart motors, expensive, too. Yet most of the players have something a little livelier on the side. Not Fellaini.

‘I don’t care about cars,’ he says. ‘They’re nice to see, but I’m not interested.’

The footage of the press conference to mark his arrival makes interesting viewing now. He looks on edge, uncomfortable, as if he almost senses how the signing will be perceived on the outside and the difficulties ahead. He is a different person now.

‘It is better for me,’ he adds. ‘I know my team-mates, I know my manager, I know the club. It was new to me, when I joined. It is a big club, I knew that, and I knew we had to win every game, but it was still different. Massive.

‘Everyone says it — when you are inside, it is completely strange at first — and I felt that. It didn’t work well for me. But you learn to adjust day by day, coming in, training, seeing the same people walking about. It is nearly two years now. And then it’s just your club.’

He falls silent. Picks at his knee again. There is nothing more to add. It is time to jump in the old Chevrolet and go home.Marouane Fellaini was speaking at one of the Manchester United Foundation’s Dream Days, where children and adults with serious and life-limiting illnesses meet the first-team squad. – Daily Mail

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