One day Patrice Evra will write a book. He has an inspirational story to tell offering a rare insight into life at Old Trafford under Sir Alex Ferguson. Evra is a wonderful story teller who articulates as well as anyone what it means to play for Manchester United and arguably the world’s greatest manager. Fluent in five languages and now working hard to master Korean so that he can converse with his close friend Ji-Sung Park, he tackles a large variety of subjects. This is a lengthy, exclusive interview by Matt Lawton which was published in the Daily Mail on May 1st 2010.
From his clashes with Chelsea to the long and winding road that eventually took him to the place he now considers his spiritual home, from that infamous blast at Arsenal last season, when he referred to them as ‘babies’, to why Carlos Tevez should still be a United player. Not to mention his transition from striker to one of the two best left backs in the world. ‘It was only after I arrived at United that I finally accepted that I would be a left back” he says.
His take on United is fascinating. He refers to Ferguson as ‘a culture’ and talks of ‘pulling on history’ with his United shirt. He speaks of ‘the fire’ that not only burns inside him but also the man he believes will never walk away from the club. ‘The manager will die on the bench” he declares with a broad smile “it is his destiny”.
Earlier this season, Ferguson addressed the subject of retirement with his players. “It was before a game” Evra says “He just started talking about how people had been saying he was going to retire. Then he asked us if we seriously thought he would just be sitting at home watching TV, listening to the radio and doing nothing. He said ‘No chance, I have worked all my life and I will work until I die’. For a moment he laughed and then he said “This is my victory, I cannot walk away from this”
“Before a game he always tells a little story. Sometimes he talks about when he was the Aberdeen manager, another time he went round the dressing room and talked about the different players. The fact that here we were, from Korea, France, Serbia, Bulgaria, from different parts of England and the world, and how we had all come together to be in the same place. He talked about our stories, the different obstacles we had overcome to get here. It gave the players this huge lift”.
Evra recalls the first time he incurred his manager’s wrath. It was his debut, a difficult encounter with Manchester City that United lost 3-1. “He took me off after 45 minutes” says Evra “I could tell he was angry, he just looked at me, deadly serious, and said ‘Mr Evra, now just watch and see what is English football – and learn’.
Evra did more than that, he decided to learn about United as well. “I got a load of DVDs about the Munich disaster and the Busby Babes, about Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, about Cantona, the whole story of the club. You meet these people around the club and I wanted to know who they were. What they had done for the club. Out of respect because when you shake the hand of Sir Bobby Charlton you can feel the legend.
All the young players here need to understand the history of the club. After I watched those DVDs I realised I needed to respect the shirt, I needed to respect the story. Every time I play that is in my head. What a privilege it is to play for Manchester United. When you pull on the shirt you are pulling on history and I say thanks to God that I play for this club. To be able to come in and train here, to work with legends like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.
When I arrived here people asked me what excited me most. I said it was not training with Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney but players like Giggs and Scholes. They are the history of the club. Giggs trains like a player who has never won anything in his career. His hunger, his desire to win, even on the training pitch”
The same desire remains in Ferguson, even at 68, after everything he has won. “Alex Ferguson is a culture” he says “and he is a winner. Football is like a pyramid. To reach the top is easy, it is staying there that is difficult. He does not let you rest, he is always hungry for the next game.
I remember one match when we were winning 2-0 by half time and he still gave us the hair dryer because we should have been four or five up. He reminded us that people had paid money to watch us. “Why don’t you respect them?” he screamed. He demands the highest standards. If you play a good game for United you sit on the bench. Only if you play an amazing game do you stay in the team. Those are the rules and the players accept them”
Even in this modern era of millionaire footballers they also accept that infamous hair dryer. “After the Christmas party we had a couple of years ago, when there were the stories, he called us to a meeting and just killed everyone” he says. “Both the experienced and the young players. It was our fault and he told us, and reminded us of the responsibility we have. He managed that situation with his temper, he doesn’t always have to because the players here have so much respect for him but if he thinks the team is sleeping he will still use the hair dryer”
Back in January 2006, after his move from Monaco to United for a £5.5million fee in what now has to rank among Ferguson’s finest buys, Evra was having a tough time. “Playing for Manchester United was something I was not prepared for” he says “At Monaco I was playing in front of 7,000, at United I was suddenly playing in front of 76,000. Not even a Champions League final and playing for France prepared me for it.
When I got to Manchester I discovered a new job because it’s not just football. In that first game against City I don’t think I made too many big mistakes but I remember standing by the post for a corner thinking ‘Wow, football is so quick here’ I realised if you want to play in England first you need to be strong, after that you can enjoy the football”
“I was down afterwards but not to the point where I didn’t think I could succeed here. I still had confidence in my ability but joining in January did not make it easy and it was not easy for my family neither. My son was three months old, we were living in a hotel in central Manchester for five months and the weather was not the same as Monaco! It was like a big slap in the face”
He remembers being dropped against Liverpool. “The manager told me I would not be playing but because my English was not so good, I didn’t fully understand. I got changed and did the warm up on the pitch. Then Carlos Queiroz called me over ‘Patrice, what are you doing? You are not on the bench today’ It killed me, it was so embarrassing”
A difficult six months cost him a place in the France squad for the 2006 World Cup. “I was so angry with myself, seeing my team there without me” he says “I thought that’s it, I need to do something about this, I needed to get stronger for English football. So over the summer I worked hard in the gym to make myself stronger. I was so hungry that by the time I arrived back for pre season I was ready, I didn’t need a pre season. When we went to South Africa for a tournament I played very well. Mike Phelan pulled me to one side and said ‘Now you are a United player’.
He soon became a regular, securing a place ahead of Gabriel Heinze and Mikael Silvestre. Until that is, it came to the 2007 FA Cup final against Chelsea. “It was the only bad memory of the season” he says “A few days before the game a story appeared in the papers – an interview with someone from my Parisian neighbourhood, and it was all about how I had escaped a life of drugs and crime by becoming a footballer. It was not true but I remember the boss and Carlos that morning ‘You won’t be able to play in the final now’ they said laughing ‘We have to protect the reputation of the club’
‘They were joking but when it came to the morning of the final the manager told me he was playing Heinze for tactical reasons. I have no doubt it was for that but I was gutted. He told me not to worry, that I would get to go on and win the game for us. After 10 minutes he told me to warm up and for 80 minutes I stayed on the touchline. I was on fire but I never got on. I had played every game that season, been voted the best left back by the PFA. Suddenly I was ready to quit the club”
“But then I calmed down and I thought that maybe this is a test, this is life at United. You cannot expect to always be in the team. It is something I tell the younger players. I tell them that story” He never had to tell Carlos Tevez, a player who remains among his closest friends and someone he believes should still be at United.
“When he was playing for us he was so professional” he says “He played with his heart, I know him. I still go to his house and I know he still loves United. I don’t want to make a problem for him with City, but it suited his identity here. Even when he wasn’t playing he would come on and change the game, he would always fight. I tell him he should still be with us. If one day he wins the championship and the Champions League with City I will say ‘Fine, you made a good move Carlito but until then… I just speak the truth.’
Born in Senegal but brought up in the same Parisian suburb as Thierry Henry – his father worked for the Senegalese Embassy, Evra is the product of a huge family where you clearly had to be heard to be seen. “I am one of 25 brothers and sisters” he says “I think it is fair to say that my father who was married and divorced three times, did not watch a lot of TV!” For Evra it was only ever football. “It was all I wanted to do” he says “I would be out there in the street, in the rain and snow, on my own. I never wore a favourite clubs shirt, never really had a team. I liked Romario but I never had an idol, I just loved to play, I had this passion for the game”
“It was not easy, I had to fight to get where I am today. I never went to Clarefontaine or anything like that. Never went anywhere where they gave you everything. Your boots, your kit, I was from a tough area, Les Ulis. Not a bad area and as I said, it is not true that I had to escape a life with gangsters. I am proud of where I am from and my parents provided for all of us”
‘But people thought I was crazy to pursue this dream. At school I remember completing a paper about what I wanted to do for a job. I put footballer and the teacher told me that being a footballer is not a job. She told me only one in 300 kids make it. And she would say ‘Do you think you will be the one?’ and I said “Yes, I do” and my classmates would sit there and laugh at me but I simply ignored them”
Although there was a flirtation with the youth system at Paris St Germain it was not until he was 17 that he really got noticed. “I was a striker playing in a tournament organised by my local sports centre” he says ‘There was this Italian there and he asked me if I would go to Torino for a trial. They were in Serie B so I gave him my phone number and three days later he called and spoke to my mum. She said, “No way, we have no idea who this guy is”. But then my brother said “Look, Patrice is doing nothing, let him go”.
“I spent 10 days there, they asked me to stay as a member of the youth team. But then I was approached by a scout from Marsala, a team from Sicily in the third division and he offered me the chance to become a professional. He said I would get a house and I said OK. I remember arriving at their training camp and putting on the tracksuit and the flip flops and looking at myself in the mirror, it was like paradise”
“To this day it is the best feeling I have had in football. Not winning the championship or the Champions League but that moment, when I was 17 years old and I had finally become a professional footballer. I had made it, I had proved people wrong. It was an amazing club, like a big family. I was the only black guy in the club and there were people asking to have their picture taken with me because they had never seen a black person. I could be walking down the street and I would be invited into people’s houses to join them for a meal”
From Marsala he went briefly to Monza and then to Nice, where he was deployed at left back for the first time. “It was my first game there and I was on the left wing when the left back got injured” he says ‘The manager, Sandro Salvioni, asked me to play there and then told me I’d be there again for the next game against Strasbourg. I said no way, that I was a forward. “If you want to be in the team you play there he said so I agreed” Nice were promoted that season, with Evra named the best left back in Ligue 2.
“We won the championship and then I was signed by Monaco, by Didier Deschamps” he remembers “I still wanted to play left wing but Deschamps said, ‘No, you are a good left back’ and I was voted best left back in that division too. We did well, reaching the Champions League final in 2004 the same year I made it into the France team”
At Monaco his sparky personality caught the attention of Prince Albert, Evra forming what his team mates considered an unlikely friendship. ‘They could not believe he would send me text messages” he says “but we got on well and before the Champions League final he said he hoped we could win it for his father. Sadly we lost and Prince Rainier died the next year but I then dedicated our Champions League win in 2008 to him”
Not that Evra has ever lost touch with his roots, with his identity. In his mind he will always be the fighter from the streets, someone in whom the fire still rages “I still have the fire inside” he says “and I’ll admit that sometimes I can’t always control it. You can talk about the altercation with the groundsmen at Chelsea for example although that day I think I managed to control my fire a bit. It seems every time I play against Chelsea there is something wrong. But really it is just coincidence. I love to play against Chelsea and I love to win against them because they are a massive rival for the trophies but I also respect the club”
“I remember Eric Cantona saying that while he sometimes could not control his fire he would not have been the same player without it. I am the same, I need that fire but I am not a bad boy. When I go into a challenge I go to win the ball, never to hurt someone. It’s why I was so upset when Fabregas did it to me at the end of last season. It was probably why I said afterwards that Arsenal were like babies. I was upset because of the challenge. If you want to hurt someone you invite them outside, away from the pitch, away from people and the referee. Just me and you. You don’t try to hurt people on the pitch.’
For Evra it is simply a matter of respect. He respects Ashley Cole as another brilliant left back even if he does point out that he has again been voted the best in his position in the Premier League by fellow professionals. But most of all he respects United. The club, the players, past and present, and the manager. Never has he been prouder in his four years at the club than when Ferguson first asked him to be captain “What pleased me most was not being captain but that my team mates were so happy for me” he says.
“From the moment I arrived here it felt like it was my destiny because it was only when I became a United player that I found my true identity. This place suited my character, the people here were on my wavelength and I was able to be me” That was the interview, now bring on the book.
If this interview is a foretaste of what’s to come from Evra whenever his book is published, it will be one hell of a read. An absolute must for all football and not just Manchester United fans.
Do you regard Patrice Evra as the best left full back in the world?