How Diego Forlan fought to become a Manchester United cult hero

Nostalgia

Even those who watched Diego Forlan closest disagree over whether he was any good at Manchester United.

Sir Alex Ferguson remembers the striker as a “tough, grand player”. But Gary Neville, in his autobiography, lumped Forlan in with Kleberson, David Bellion and Liam Miller as the epitome of the ‘Djemba-Djemba years’.

Regardless of whether he was rated, 15 years on since he joined the club, Forlan remains revered by those on the Stretford End.

Forlan’s song is still sung with gusto around Old Trafford and by travelling Reds, especially around meetings with Liverpool. It was at Anfield where the forward scored the two goals that cemented his place in United fans’ hearts and their place in his.

“I heard the 3,000 fans in the away end loud and clear,” he wrote in his column for The National last month. “‘Diego’, they sang, ‘Wooahh, Diego, wooaah. He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry.’

“I allowed myself a second to enjoy the moment. These fans sang with their Manchester accents louder than anything the Liverpool fans could come up with.

“As they sang their beautiful song that they still sing to this day, I thought: ‘I am a lucky man. This is the type of moment that you dream of as a boy, the type of thing I’ve worked so hard for.'”

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Forlan’s Anfield heroics came in the middle of a three-month period that was by far his most productive spell in a United shirt – a time that ensured he will always be remembered fondly at Old Trafford.

Those goals against Liverpool and splendid late winners against Southampton and Chelsea were just reward for Forlan’s graft. Like so many cult heroes, what the forward lacked in abiity and luck, he compensated for with spirit, determination and hard graft.

That’s enough for some people. “Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, my former Manchester United team-mate, once told me that I train harder than any player he’s played with,” Forlan has since said.

Even football’s harshest critic, Roy Keane, was willing to cut Forlan some slack on the basis of his application and hunger: “If a player tried – and Diego did – we’d drag him with us; we’d try and help him… Diego was honest, so in training you’d go, ‘Unlucky; it’ll come good tomorrow,’ not, ‘You can f***** do better than that.'”

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Forlan may well be the only player to make Keane feel empathy. But the skipper could see there was a player in Forlan, and though he was rarely able to show it at United, it wasn’t for the lack of trying.

Of course, that talent did eventually shine through – almost blindingly so. And almost as soon as he was sold by United at close to a £5million loss.

In the seven seasons that followed his United stint, Forlan took Spain by storm, first with Villarreal, then during four seasons at Atletico Madrid. The Uruguayan won the Pichichi Trophy and the European Golden Shoe twice each before peaking at age 31, when he scored twice in the Europa League final before winning the Golden Ball for the best player at the 2010 World Cup.

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And they say the only way after United is down. Forlan is certainly one of the few to disprove that theory, and no-one else has disproven it quite so emphatically. So why did it not work out for Forlan at Old Trafford?

The stick most often taken to Forlan’s United spell is his goalscoring record – 17 in 98 appearances.

It’s hardly unfair to judge a forward on his goals return, but in Forlan’s case, context is required. Only a little over a third of those appearances came from the start. Of the 98 times he earned an appearance bonus, 61 were as sub, with 43 of those cameos involving less than 20 minutes’ work. Forlan had less than 10 minutes to impress on 16 of those occasions.

Some players, forwards especially, simply do not thrive coming off the bench. Others do. Solskjaer in an obvious example. Jermain Defoe, Kanu and Javier Hernandez also forged reputations as goalscoring substitutes, regardless of whether or not they relished the super-sub tag.

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Only five of Forlan’s goals came from his 61 substitute appearances. Conversely, played from the off, the striker’s ratio was a goal every three starts. Hardly prolific, but certainly more creditable.

But Forlan found starting opportunities hard to come by during his two and a half years at Old Trafford. Ferguson signed the then-22-year-old to replace Andy Cole, who a few weeks previously had been shuffled out of the door in the direction of Blackburn, with Dwight Yorke thrown down the same path during the following summer.

But in Forlan’s way still stood Solskjaer and Ruud van Nistelrooy, and the pair were flying while Forlan attempted to find his feet. Solskjaer was halfway through his sixth season, which also happened to be his most prolific thanks to a return of 25 goals. Van Nistelrooy was only months into his United career, but the Dutchman already had his feet well and truly under the table, with 24 goals to his name before Forlan signed his United contract on January 23, 2002.

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In Ferguson’s words, new boy Forlan “ran up against the problem of Ruud’s singularity”. The manager elaborated in his autobiography: “Ruud wanted to be the number one finisher, that was his nature. Diego Forlan didn’t register on his radar at all, so when you put the two of them out there, there was zero chemistry.

“Diego was better with a partner. But he scored some priceless goals. He was a good player and a terrific pro.”

Not only was Forlan facing the task of dislodging two of United’s most popular strikers in recent memory while both were in top form, the Uruguayan arrived at a time when Ferguson was looking to adapt his system. United were moving away from their traditional 4-4-2 in preference for a lone striker – Van Nistelrooy.

Solskjaer at least could play wide, but United’s evolution left Forlan firmly in role as Van Nistelrooy’s back-up. As many South Americans tend to, Forlan needed patience to adapt to the English game and he was having to do so on scraps of playing time.

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QUIZ: Can you remember which of these players scored more Premier League goals?

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Forlan’s first half-season at the club saw him make seven starts and 11 substitute appearances, but the striker finished the campaign goalless, with United trophyless. His dry start looked even worse in comparison to Van Nistelrooy and Solskjaer’s goalscoring exploits, and by the time the barren run had reached 26 appearances, his critics were merciless.

Any new striker who fails to get off to a flying start at Old Trafford is very quickly confronted by the daunting shadow of Garry Birtles. United signed Birtles in 1980 for £1.25million – close to the British record – from Nottingham Forest, where he had notched 51 goals in 131 appearances while winning two European Cups under Brian Clough.

Yet it took Birtles 11 appearances to score his first goal in an FA Cup 3rd-round replay, and 11 months in total before he netted in the league.

Even Birtles, though, recognised the difference between Forlan’s struggles and his own. He told The Sun in 2002: “I don’t think it’s really fair to make a comparison between me and Diego Forlan. I was starting every game and he has mainly been a substitute since United signed him.”

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That didn’t stop the pointing and laughing at Forlan. The United fans remained supportive, but more in sympathy rather than expectation as 26 goalless appearances passed – 19 of those off the bench – before the misfiring striker’s moment arrived.

United were already 4-1 up in their Champions League group opener at home to Maccabi Haifa when Forlan was dispatched from the bench. With the contest effectively over, Forlan had 35 minutes against the Israelis to scavenge for his first goal.

Thirty-four of them had passed before United were awarded a penalty and David Beckham presented the ball to his desperate team-mate, who placed it on the spot facing the Stretford End.

“Please. please. Anyone with an ounce of humanity says please on his behalf,” begged ITV commentator Peter Drury as Old Trafford watched an otherwise inconsequential penalty through its fingers.

Forlan took a five-step run-up and rammed the ball into the bottom corner, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way in a manner that belied whatever nervousness he must surely have been feeling.

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Forlan’s own celebration was far more muted than those of his team-mates.

That could not be said, however, when he broke his Premier League duck one start and six substitute appearances later, with United searching for an equaliser at home to Aston Villa. After directing home a powerful header from Mikaël Silvestre’s floated pass, Forlan’s shirt was off, with the equaliser enjoyed with far more gusto than the usual ‘grab the ball and get back to the halfway line’ routine usually seen from Ferguson’s sides.

Forlan’s chest was bare three times in a little under three months during the period that saw him write his name into United folklore. He endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful further still a week after his first Premier League goal, when he came off the bench to smash in a brilliant, dipping 25-yard winner with five minutes remaining against Southampton.

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Just as memorable as that strike to those present on that November day was the sight of a half-naked Forlan tracking back to make a tackle with his shirt still in his hand after the Saints had restarted. United’s new Nike jerseys that season had integrated base layers, which the players hated and took scissors to. But not Forlan, apparently, who more than once struggled to solve the puzzle of turning the garment the right way around in a timely fashion having just whipped it off in a frenzy.

The white shirt remained on his back, however, at Anfield on the day that United fans remember so gleefully – and that Jerzy Dudek still has nightmares about.

The Liverpool keeper dropped the kind of bollock you simply never expect to see from a professional goalkeeper, let alone an international. Dudek bent a knee to scoop up Jamie Carragher’s back header, but his elbows and legs opened like the Mersey Tunnel as the ball passed through him as if he was a hologram.

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Forlan accepted his gift, but the forward still had to roll the ball into the empty goal only four yards away. The angle was hardly acute, but the traveling Reds still held their breath while their No.22 took a touch, took aim and very precisely sidefoted into the far side netting.

Forlan’s surge in confidence was evident almost immediately, when Dudek was put on his back for the second time in three minutes. This time, after gathering Ryan Giggs’ toe-poked pass, the forward smashed the ball inside the Liverpool keeper’s near post.

Forland described in his column for The National in 2015 how that moment felt: “This time, I ran to the away end and the fans went crazy. Faces looked like they going to explode. My team-mates were delighted, for the team and for me as they knew I’d had a tough time. Stewards rushed forward to push us away from the fans.

“Ryan Giggs, who set me up for the goal, told the stewards in bright orange jackets where they should go.

“I repeated what Giggs said. Nobody was stopping us enjoying this moment. Nobody.

“I wanted to jump over that fence and get in with the fans, which is not responsible, but I was so happy and my adrenaline was pumping.”

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Forlan, who has stated his desire to watch the Red Devils play at Liverpool from that Anfield Road end, had perhaps only more more major adrenaline rush in a United shirt. That came after he lashed Juan Sebastian Veron’s exquisite split pass into the roof of Carlo Cudicini’s net in added time to give the Red Devils a precious 2-1 win over Chelsea. Cue more chest baring and shirt faffing…

Seven goals in his first full campaign at Old Trafford helped United reclaim the Premier League title back from Arsenal, but despite matching that haul the following season, it was clear Forlan was fading further out of the picture as Ferguson put his faith in a lone-striker system.

A goalless run of nine appearances was broken with four goals in four games in a 10-day period taking in three different competitions. Only two more Premier League goals followed – an injury-time brace in a 4-0 win over Aston Villa – before Ferguson signed Louis Saha from Fulham.

The Frenchman may have been made of glass, but his more positive attributes led Ferguson to see him as more suitable competition for Van Nistelrooy. After Saha’s arrival, Forlan played only seven more times in the Premier League, finishing on the losing side on three occasions and failing to score a goal. United finished third and saved their season only by winning the FA Cup. Forlan was not included in the squad for the final.

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Forlan was flogged to Spain that summer, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to be lumped in the Djemba-Djemba group. United have had some much less successful strikers since Forlan – Manucho, Dong Fangzhou, Bebe, Mame Biram Diouf and David Bellion to name five – and the Uruguayan warrants being held in far greater esteem.

Forlan doesn’t look upon his time at Old Trafford as a failure, though nor would he claim it went as well as he might have realistically hoped. Van Nistelrooy’s selfish brilliance and Ferguson’s preference for a lone striker meant the ex-Independiente man was never going to have the opportunities he craved.

But it should not be forgotten that Forlan was still a developing talent when he landed in Britain, initially bound for Teesside. Only 22 years old with fewer than 100 senior games behind him, Forlan was a late bloomer, as his subsequent achievements demonstrate.

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READ: Dion Dublin and the rare phenomenon of strikers turned defenders

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Only 10 years before his United move did Forlan switch primary focus from tennis to football. Before a 1991 car accident left his older sister Alejandra paralysed, young Diego was showing great promise with a racket, but his sister’s mounting medical bills saw Forlan changed course.

“The first thing he told me when I was lying in the hospital bed was that he would become a famous football player and make money to get me the best doctors in the world,” Alejandra said of her brother. Forlan says he was still combining the two sports at age 15, around the time he packed his bags for a lengthy trial stint with AS Nancy in France, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

He returned to mainland Europe a decade later where he eventually peaked in his thirties – at least a couple of years later than many professional footballers.

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In 2008-09, Forlan won the Pichichi Trophy after scoring 32 goals in 33 La Liga matches, as well as the European Golden Boot. After his 31st birthday, the Uruguay hitman won the Golden Ball, the Golden Boot and Goal of the Tournament at the 2010 World Cup.

Forlan’s personal career highlight did not come until he had turned 32, when he helped Uruguay become Copa America champions, meaning his family had become the first to have three winners of the competition from three generations.

That was 10 years after United brought Forlan to Europe. The striker did not get the opportunities he wanted at Old Trafford, but even if he had, he wasn’t far enough down his development path to be able to seize them.

Despite his subsequent triumphs, Forlan neither over-achieved nor under-performed at United and his overall record is entirely forgettable.

But supporters remember moments more readily than numbers which is why, a decade and a half on, they still serenade the man who came from Uruguay and made the Scousers cry.

Words By Ian Watson. Main illustration by Paul Clay

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