How Patrice Evra succeeded Gary Neville as Man Utd’s hated hero
Patrice Evra won 15 trophies over nine seasons at Manchester United. But his reputation was built on something more important than success.
In a sense, there’s no greater honour than being hated. And for several years, Evra endured a hatred of the most intense kind, several times a season.
Those dishing out the vitriol were Liverpool fans. The reasons why are well-known.
Evra himself is probably familiar with most of the chants by now. In one, he is described as a “fucking liar” in the verse of a song about Luis Suarez.
In another, reprised as recently as 2018 during his spell at West Ham, he is assured that “there’s only one lying bastard” — and it is him. Evra is the lying bastard.
That abuse may well sting, especially knowing the root causes of the taunts.
But in being the recipient of such genuine scorn, Evra can probably claim some sort of satisfaction. Maybe even a whole lot of it.
Envy: the highest form of flattery
To become a subject of genuine hatred from rival fans means you’re doing something right.
Being hated means not only that you antagonise rival fans but also that you’re good at what you do on the pitch. It often means that you win a lot.
Gary Neville, who eventually handed his Scouse-baiting crown over to Evra, knew that all too well.
“[Neville] was Ferguson’s little rat on the pitch, wasn’t he?” explained Jamie Carragher on the Totally Football Show. “Running up to referees and antagonising people.”
In truth, Neville was worse than that: he was successful.
Evra’s effect on rival fans mirrored that of his elder defensive colleague, and it’s easy to see why. By the time of the Evra-Suarez scandal of 2011–12, Evra had already won four Premier League titles, three League Cups and the Champions League.
Success on that scale has as much of an effect on your detractors as your admirers.
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Was Evra’s unpopularity on Merseyside solely down to the Suarez incident? Almost certainly not. Had the abuse been reported by, let’s say, a linesman, that diligent official would not have remained the subject of chants years later.
On the other hand, it’s safe to assume that Man United fans didn’t have a repertoire of songs about Fabio Aurelio or Jose Enrique.
Like any truly despised player, Evra earned his villain status by being very successful and very good.
And, to be clear, he was very good. Yes, there was that embarrassing 45-minute debut against Man City, but it didn’t take long for him to put those Trevor Sinclair-induced nightmares behind him.
Learning from a master
In his second match in England, Evra played the full 90 minutes in a dramatic 1-0 win over Liverpool, setting the tone for the rest of his United career — in more ways than one.
Because on top of the clean sheet, Evra also learned something important during the game.
For this was the match when, after Rio Ferdinand won the game with a header in the 90th minute, Gary Neville ran the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of Liverpool supporters.
“To be fair, Liverpool had been singing songs about me all game,” Neville later explained. “So I thought ‘they need to have a bit back don’t they?’”
When Gary Neville ran the full length of the pitch to celebrate the winner in front of the Liverpool fans
The passion 👏 pic.twitter.com/pdPgSWXJv1
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) October 20, 2019
While Evra is only six years younger than Neville, the right-back’s now-iconic goading clearly made an impression on the left-back.
It was a lesson in making oneself a club legend — something Evra would later excel at, consciously but without cynicism.
“I got a load of DVDs,” Evra once revealed. “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.”
Evra did his homework, and fans quickly realised how much he was willing to give to the club.
But sometimes a legend is made through negativity as much as positivity. About disrespect as much as respect.
The windup protégé comes good
On February 11, 2012, Man United hosted Liverpool in the Premier League.
It was Suarez’s first start after serving an eight-match ban, and the game would become infamous for the Uruguayan refusing to shake Evra’s hand before the game.
Something else happened that day though. That day, around six years after Gary Neville ran the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of Liverpool supporters, around one year after Neville retired from football, history would repeat itself.
When the final whistle blew, United were confirmed 2-1 winners thanks to two goals from Wayne Rooney.
Evra’s party, however, was only just beginning.
The defender ran from stand to stand, joy on his face, thrusting both arms in the air, the noise of the crowd increasing with every skip and every gesture.
This was a moment to savour.
As the players made their way to the Old Trafford tunnel, Evra continued his exaggerated arm windmills — this time, right in front of Suarez.
Match officials intervened. A furious Martin Skrtel pushed the Frenchman away. Were it not for a rare moment of Suarez pacifism, a brawl may well have broken out.
The look of sheer glee on Evra’s face before he eventually disappeared into the dressing room was priceless. And it was a look shared, to nobody’s surprise, by many of the home supporters.
The making of an icon
Of course, Manchester City won the title that season, and Evra’s United won nothing at all.
Yet it’s tempting to see that match — and those few minutes after it, in which jubilation was mixed with a hint of danger, a sense that a riot could break out any moment — as the highlight of Evra’s Man United career.
This was the moment that Evra knew he would not be a player respected by rivals or neutrals.
Instead, he would soak up the hatred from Liverpool and see a corresponding increase in adoration from his own fans.
He would become United’s next “little rat on the pitch”, to borrow Carragher’s terminology, and Old Trafford would never stop loving him for it.
More important than his beautiful-but-meaningless goal against Bayern, more vengefully satisfying than any of his trophies, Evra’s mother-of-all-windups — as iconic as Neville’s, but much funnier — secured his place in Manchester United history.