The clank of the studs could be heard trudging up the sloped Stretford End tunnel towards the modest home dressing room.
Manchester United were 4-1 down at the interval to Tottenham and, in the away dressing room, Jose Mourinho was preparing his players to inflict a joint-record defeat on United. In the room he used to hold court in, a compatriot cut loose.
Whatever happened between the four walls is still uncertain, but something occurred involving Bruno Fernandes. One suggestion was he rowed with Nemanja Matic and another was Fernandes turned on Harry Maguire over his calamitous defending. Fernandes and Matic were both substituted and kept the expelled Anthony Martial company.
The simple spin for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was Fernandes was withdrawn in a damage limitation measure, although his delivery was as unconvincing as a part-time bowler. Eleven days later, Fernandes addressed the issue.
“First, it was a discussion with teammates,” he told the Portuguese media.
“As it did not stick, it was a discussion with only one teammate (Victor Lindelof), as it did not stick now, it is the discussion with Solskjaer. I believe it is a way to destabilise the group. What was said is in no way true.
“I was replaced at half-time, it is true, by technical option. The coach told me that the game was almost over and that we would have a lot of games ahead of us. Got it.”
Fernandes lashed in the winner in United’s next game up at Newcastle and, three days later, he was informed he would be captaining the club against Paris Saint-Germain, his reaction of pleasant surprise captured during the Zoom call. Got it.
Other esteemed players might have been more cryptic back in the sanctuary of their homeland, or contributed to the mischief-making through the grapevine.
Solskjaer has considered curbing Fernandes’s vocal criticism of teammates that threatened to boil over with Lindelof after Sevilla’s winner in the Europa League semi-final, yet that personality is an essential part of his makeup. He has quickly amassed a long hit-list of scolded teammates but Fernandes was told not to change his character prior to his United debut against Wolves last February.
“I knew that was what we were getting,” Solskjaer said on Tuesday.
“I watched him live as well and I think he was in every teammate’s ear that game and he was in the referee’s ear, the linesman he was into, and you know I like that. I have been part of a dressing room that was like this every single day, every training session.”
Fernandes was appalled to be substituted in added time at Anfield two weeks ago and, once he had taken his seat, only fellow Portuguese speaker Alex Telles dared to prick his bubble and offer a fist-bump.
Fernandes’s reaction was a non-issue and three days later his commitment was patent in the manner that United equalised at Fulham. Fernandes had pinged the post and, within 30 seconds, charged down the left to cross for Edinson Cavani to poach.
United have staked a lot in the character of signings since the recruitment reboot that was finalised in early 2019. Fernandes ticks all of the boxes: X-factor? Check. Humble and respectful off the pitch? Check. Arrogant on it? Check. “When a club pays €55m for a player you have confidence from the club,” Fernandes said in his first discussion with the written press in August. He earned a chant within his first 90 minutes:
Bruno, Bruno, Bruno,
Came from Sporting like Cristiano,
He goes left,
He goes right,
He makes the defences look s—e,
He’s our Portuguese magnifico
That Fernandes stayed out perfecting his free-kick technique the day before his FA Cup winner past Alisson came as no surprise to those sat in the press box for the long-awaited Europa League return leg with Linz in August. The non-starting players enjoyed a post-match session and Fernandes was the last to step off the pitch. Such dedication extends to his conditioning; Fernandes rivalled United’s quickest players in lockdown sprints.
Senior figures at United lamented early last season they get ‘screwed in the market’ and the club no longer possessed a ‘magic wand like 10 years ago’. Fernandes has played as though his boots leave a trail of stardust.
Just consider the stats: 51 appearances, 28 goals and 16 assists. Four Premier League Player of the Month awards and a Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award. Fernandes’s goals have been responsible for eight winners this season alone.
His technique has been likened to Juan Sebastian Veron by his manager but it is not blasphemous to mention Fernandes’s name in the same breath as Eric Cantona’s. Fernandes is two penalties away from equalling Cantona’s tally of 17 and, like Cantona, went on to score after a rare miss.
Fernandes touched down in Manchester on the night of the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg at the Etihad last January. He had barely been at United for 24 hours but figures at the club felt a palpable fillip from his presence after one training session at Carrington. After completing his medical, Fernandes stayed in his training kit and embarked on a short session on the grass.
Staff have also noticed Fernandes is as studious as his manager was on the bench. During the FA Cup tie with Watford, onlookers spotted a constant stream of dialogue from Fernandes and he was ‘fully engaged’, hollering instructions at his playing teammates from a seat usually occupied by a season ticket holder.
How peculiar Fernandes was almost as much of a scourge for the United suits as Nico Gaitan. United sources confirmed in the 2019 summer window the club ‘liked’ Fernandes but the incessant speculation from portions of the Portuguese media forced United to outright deny they would be signing Fernandes. One source compared knocking down Fernandes stories to the Whac-A-Mole arcade game.
The executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward lamented the Fernandes coverage in Portugal so, when Solskjaer was asked about Fernandes at a press conferences last January, there was immediate scepticism from the written press present. The transcript heading for the aforementioned question was ‘Bruno f—–g Fernandes’. United had been so vehement in knocking down the Fernandes fairy tales he seemed the last player on Earth they would buy.
Yet, somehow, Solskjaer flew to Portugal the day after United’s stultifying FA Cup third round draw with Wolves, and watched Fernandes start in Sporting’s 2-1 defeat to Porto without anyone photographing him at the Jose Alvalade Stadium. Five days later, Fernandes’s agent, Rui Guimaraes, deleted his Twitter account amid frenzied speculation.
After some bartering that included Sporting suddenly hiking their valuation of Fernandes to €80million from €60m, United agreed a compromise of €55m up front, with up to €25m in add-ons. United sources casually remarked at the time it was unlikely Fernandes would achieve the individual milestones to trigger the additional payments. Nobody could have foreseen the impact Fernandes would have on the club and, finally, Woodward has recruited a genuine Ballon d’Or contender.
Not that Fernandes is fussed.
“I think the most important moment in Manchester, in the club, will come when I get a trophy. I will believe it until it’s not more possible, you know? Like when I see someone get the trophy before me then I will (have) lost my belief.
“I always was like this. I don’t like to lose, so I think maybe the mentality is more like I don’t like to lose.”
Manchester City balked at Sporting’s valuation of Fernandes and Tottenham sent two intermediaries to Lisbon in August of 2019 to submit a take-it-or-leave-it €45m.
The intermediaries were struck by how ‘amateurish’ Fernandes’s principal representative was and eventually contacted the player directly to ascertain Sporting’s asking price. Jorge Mendes soon touched base with Fernandes, promising a transfer in 2020. Mendes’s intervention was key in bringing United to the table.
In the last match with supporters present, Fernandes cemented his bond with United supporters when, after Pep Guardiola gave him some lip, Fernandes put his finger to his lips. “You need character at this club,” Solskjaer remarked. Of all the players City have courted only to end up at United in recent years, Fernandes is the one to rue, maybe more so than Harry Maguire.
Fernandes has already overtaken Denis Irwin in United’s list of penalty goals and is one shy of Cristiano Ronaldo on 16. His conversions have intensified the brewing Anyone But United mentality that was rife in United’s heyday. “Guinness record of penalties,” a Premier League manager privately remarked.
Fernandes, his wife, Ana Pinho, and their two children – Matilde, and four-month-old Goncalo – initially resided in Hale but have moved to a city centre flat. Even prior to the UK lockdown in March, Fernandes was seldom seen outside United’s training complex and is a conspicuous presence whenever he drives into Carrington. Amid the Bentleys, Range Rovers and occasional Aston, Fernandes drives a family-friendly BMW X5, having previously owned a Mini.
United knew what they were getting.