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THERE ARE FOOTBALLERS THAT ARE FAN FAVOURITES for the world-class qualities that they exhibit on the world stage week in, week out. Then there are footballers who are remembered for other reasons, such as their underrated ability to keep the side ticking as a vital cog of the engine, or their personality and charisma that endeared them to the terraces. When a player comes along combining both, you know you’ve got a gem on your hands.

Ander Herrera is no Paul Pogba, his Manchester United teammate with the world-class tag, and he is no Eric Djemba-Djemba either. But as the resident cult hero of Old Trafford, he connects to the fans like very few. While he divides some, there is no doubt that he is a loyalist to the incumbent manager, following his orders with humility and passion. In that respect, he is similar to charitable and likeable club-mate Juan Mata, with whom he has a strong bond.

It is no surprise that his friendship with fellow Spaniards Mata and David de Gea has led to the trio being dubbed the “three amigos”. De Gea may own the headlines on a regular basis, but Herrera is just as important to the squad. The Basque has had a steady rise to the Premier League, and after an underwhelming start to his United stint, is now well and truly part of club make-up. The patience was worth it.

Herrera was born in Bilbao on 14 August 1989 into a family that possessed footballing pedigree. His father, Pedro Maria, played in the 1980s, also as a midfielder, for Salamanca, Real Zaragoza and Celta Vigo after graduating from Athletic Club’s famed Lezama academy. Forced to bow out of the game at 30 after a serious knee injury, he went on to work as a general manager at Zaragoza and Athletic. They shared the same blood, the same birthplace, even the same position; clearly they share the same footballing DNA. But Ander has taken the family name to greater heights.

Most Bilbao-born talents eventually find themselves in the hands of Los Leones; a saying could well read “all roads lead to Athletic Club”. And that proved to be the case for Herrera, although his path was not via a direct bus ride but rather a 10-year sojourn at Real Zaragoza, the club for whom his father had scored 18 goals in 155 appearances over six years.

Joining their academy in 2001, he made his debut for the club’s B side, known as Deportivo Aragón, in the 2008/09 season, with two goals and 10 games in the quicksand that is the Tercera División. He also found himself making his professional debut for the first team in the Segunda División in the same season. In 19 appearances he scored another two goals, helping his side to the promised land of La Liga.

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Growing up, it was Zaragoza that had the full affections of a young Herrera from childhood. Being his first team, that is no surprise, but he doesn’t mince his words when he talks about the loyalty that he still holds for the club. Having lived in the city since the age of four, and given his father’s connections to the club, if Herrera has achieved anything in his career, it is down to his footballing education at his formative side.

After his debut season, when he was given a taste of first-team football at the age of 19, it set the tone for his next two years at the club. Establishing himself as a key member of the squad, Herrera racked up 2,340 minutes in the 2009/10 season, and built on that with 2,663 minutes the following campaign. For a player on the edge of his teenage years, this was a significant achievement and a testament to his ability even at that age. To have played regularly in his first three seasons of his career was no mean feat, especially as the latter two were in La Liga, providing a platform for his rapid development.

Herrera had a number of talented players in the squad alongside him, one of whom was Gabi, who also moved in 2011 to a bigger club. The midfielder has served Atlético Madrid with distinction ever since, helping them to success in recent years, the highlight being their La Liga triumph against the odds in 2013/14. That pedigree no doubt helped Herrera grow into a hardened midfielder, given his deployment alongside Gabi. But with regular game-time lay the fear that Herrera had already outgrown Zaragoza, even though he had helped them to top-flight safety in both seasons.

As it transpired, his tryst with Zaragoza was far from finished, even after Herrera had settled down in Manchester years later. An anti-corruption public prosecutor, Alejandro Luzón, had put in a criminal complaint on 15 December 2014 regarding Zaragoza’s 2-1 win over Levante on the final day of the 2010/11 season. Herrera was one of the 41 people charged for fixing that game, the result of which helped Zaragoza to stay up, sending Deportivo down instead.

Zaragoza were accused of paying €965,000 to Levante’s players to throw the game. Herrera was a key figure in the case, having been accused of receiving two payments, of €50,000 and €40,000. The potential guilty verdict cast a shadow on his career given the likelihood of a suspension, as well as on Manchester United. But on 1 August 2017 the case was dropped due to a lack of evidence, news no doubt received with relieved sighs. Whether or not Herrera was a guilty party in the controversy, the situation soured his relationship with his hometown club, casting it into murky waters.

Herrera joined Athletic for a reported €7.5 million and quickly assimilated into the all-Basque environment. It was a step up for him, but one he was prepared for as he slotted into a midfield triumvirate alongside Óscar de Marcos and Ander Iturraspe. Herrera was lucky enough, in one sense, to work under Marcelo Bielsa, the maverick manager known for his intelligence and eccentricities.

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That period was Bielsa at his peak, which rubbed off on his players. Herrera had a great debut season, playing over 3,500 minutes across all competitions, guiding his side to the finals of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey.

The Europa League included one iconic tie, with hindsight providing a touch of irony and destiny as Herrera faced off against his future employees, Manchester United. Most United fans remember the Athletic tie as the games in which they were outclassed by Bielsa’s powerful and intelligent side. For the Argentine, it was a tactical masterclass in getting one over on Sir Alex Ferguson, while for Herrera, it was an exhibition of his talent, and demonstrated his abilities on the big stage. His starring role, with one assist, helped Athletic to a 3-2 win at Old Trafford, which they followed up with a 2-1 win at home. United’s interest was piqued.

The following season, however, was frustrating, in part due to a hernia injury, but he was still able to play over 2,000 minutes. His presence was crucial in keeping his club afloat in the top tier amidst a trail of big departures and the knock-on effects of a busy previous season. It was enough for United to make a move for Herrera in the 2013 off-season, but not enough for them to go for Herrera at an earlier stage. The chaos caused by the arrival of David Moyes aided a disaster in player recruitment that summer, and helped to add to one of the more bemusing transfer sagas in recent history.

United’s new management were not willing to pay Herrera’s release clause of €36 million, and instead chose to dally with a steadfast Athletic until deadline day. They were unsure on the workings of Spain’s buyout clauses, where the player deposits the requisite money rather than the buying club. The collapse of the deal pushed United to label the lawyers ‘imposters’ who weren’t working under their jurisdiction. With evidence pointing to the contrary, it was a sign of desperation.

Hindsight suggests that Herrera was fortunate to avoid that season under David Moyes, where a combination of poor tactics and dressing room instability would have failed to help the Basque settle in. His move was not dead in the water, however. It was an unsaid eventuality, and after Herrera’s most productive season in his career rendered five goals and six assists, he moved to Manchester in June 2014.

Herrera moved from one eccentric boss to another at United. The opposite of Marcelo Bielsa in a dictionary could be Louis van Gaal, the stern Dutchman with a penchant for rigidity and a defensive mindset. The midfielder found himself on the periphery for much of Van Gaal’s two years, especially after a promising 2014/15, when he scored eight goals and bagged five assists in just over 2,000 minutes. The next season was an even greater setback given the Dutchman’s curtailing philosophy, and fans often questioned the wisdom of not playing Herrera more. He was often benched, then given a chance when unfit, which relegated him to the bench again. It was unfair treatment, but Herrera never complained.

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After José Mourinho’s arrival in 2016, Herrera finally began to play a starring role. His season could be summarised by one game: the 2-0 win over Chelsea in April, when he put on an exhibition of world-class man-marking to reduce Eden Hazard to the fringes, unable to break free. Herrera had been sent off in the previous FA Cup game against the same opponents, but was now wise to his man, shackling him and tracking him down. He also found time to create a goal for Marcus Rashford and score one himself.

It was a microcosm of his game; that ability to fulfil any role. That game was won by Herrera and Herrera alone, and when he does leave the club, it is likely it will remain the finest performance of his time in red.

Once a free-wheeler, Herrera was transitioned into a workhorse at United, especially under Mourinho. He is now playing in a more defensive role, and his containing style is a symbolism of Mourinho’s as a manager, especially in big games. As such, he is a vital member of the squad, if not always the team. He has the ability to play more freely, but is curtailed. It is to his credit that he does his job quietly in the shadows.

Cult heroes always divide a fan base. If you follow Twitter during and after United games, the lack of general consensus regarding Herrera’s performances would leave you confused and probably in need of an aspirin. The views of anonymous accounts can hardly be used as a medium of judgement, but Herrera can either put in a strong, hard-working performance, or he could just infuriate at times. His case will never be helped by his low-key personality and style of play, rendering him the fall guy if there is a battle between him and Paul Pogba for one midfield spot, as may be the case this season. Tactical details aside, you could do a lot worse than have Ander Herrera in your squad.

He’s passionate about the club, knows what it means to be a United player, and has a no-nonsense attitude that sets him apart. On the pitch, his intensity and dedication to the team drives United forward; off it, he remains an affable and likeable man, like his compatriot Juan Mata. There are few foreigners, or even locals, that get United the way Herrera does, and it is why he is a true red.

United fans voted for Herrera to receive the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award last season, and it led to suggestions of his suitability for the captaincy. After the arrival of one Nemanja Matić, however, his performances have taken a dip, and fans seem to have forgotten his contributions last year. Short-termism runs rampant in football circles, and a long summer erases both good and bad memories. There are simple reasons why the ‘Three Amigos’ are loved at Old Trafford: their energetic personas, their endearing smiles, and their humility.

Like the song goes, Ander Herrera is not Spanish, but Basque. He is not English either, nor a native of Manchester. But in an era when football clubs lack local identity, even if United have proudly had an academy graduate in every matchday squad for the last 80 years, Herrera understands the club as well as Rashford. If there is someone to watch a game from the stands, it’s Ander Herrera. The adage ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ applies to Herrera. It is why he will remain a cult hero, retaining the goodwill of fans à la Park Ji-sung. There are worse fates than that 

By Rahul Warrier