How Marouane Fellaini, against all the odds, won the hearts of Old Trafford

How Marouane Fellaini, against all the odds, won the hearts of Old Trafford

WHEN THE ONES YOU CALL YOUR OWN want nothing to do with you, it can best be described as a haunting, hollow feeling. When Gym Class Heroes’ lead singer Travie McCoy sings the line “Half the population is waiting to see me fail” in the song The Fighter, I’m sure some can feel an innate connection, having been made the scapegoat for all that’s gone wrong. It’s a lonely place to be, and a tough one to drag yourself out of. Escaping it is easier said than done.

It would be fair to say that footballers go through this a lot. They are humans after all, so the level of pain they feel when stuck in such a situation would be monumental; it’s something most of us, thankfully, will rarely feel.

Want to know how it feels? Just ask Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian has been through it all. He has faced abuse and hatred not just from general football fans, but also from the fans of the club he plays for. The best of it lies in the fact that he’s risen above all of it, defying the odds in an almost warrior-like fashion. At times it feels like everyone has wanted to see him fail.

A weird sense of happiness seemed to be lurking around the Theatre of Dreams as the last blast of Mike Dean’s whistle was heard echoing on what was a dull, overcast afternoon in Manchester. It wasn’t the weather that made the occasion different, nor the resounding 4-0 scoreline against a lacklustre Crystal Palace. It was the appearance of a name on the scoresheet  – a name that appeared not once, but twice.

Fellaini himself had risen up to the clouds twice to grab his first ever Manchester United double, just as he has risen above the cruel atrocities that have come his way throughout his United career. They were two trademark headers, as the Belgian rose above everyone else to grab United’s second and third goals. Few would’ve expected for him to make defying the odds the new trademark of his career, especially when it seemed like his United days were over.

It would be fair to say that Fellaini has never felt too much love from the Old Trafford faithful ever since he came in from Everton as David Moyes’ trusted guard. Things were very different at Goodison Park, despite his reputation for elbowing and approaching the game in a dirty manner. At United, the urge of everyone around the club to play attractive football, and the inability of theirs to accept the fact that there are other ways of winning football matches, is a major reason why Fellaini has always been looked down upon. After all, he has rarely played ‘beautiful’ football.

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Interestingly, the Belgian could’ve become a United player six years prior to when he actually signed on deadline day in 2013. It wasn’t just United who were interested in Fellaini back then, he had also rejected advances from Tottenham, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in favour of a move to Everton, where he was more or less guaranteed first-team football by Moyes.

At Standard Liège, Fellaini was increasingly being lauded as the best box-to-box midfielder in the country and even won the Ebony Shoe accolade in 2008, a prize awarded to the best player of African origin player in the Pro League. Even during those times, Fellaini’s heading ability and tendency to be an uncanny fighter stood out. It was never in doubt that a move abroad would come knocking.

It was with a performance against Everton’s fierce rivals Liverpool that Fellaini had captured the global eye. During the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, the Belgian outfit had locked horns with the Reds, and while Rafael Benítez’s men narrowly scraped through 1-0 on aggregate, it was Fellaini’s performances that stood out over both legs. That was one of the things that convinced many of the big-game mentality Fellaini has shown throughout his career. Everton had their chequebook ready and waiting.

When Lee Carsley departed for Birmingham after six long years of service at Goodison, there was a need for someone to come in and make an immediate impact. Carsley had been a regular in the heart of the park and his box-to-box nature and ability cover almost every blade of grass on the pitch typified Moyes’ approach. He had the odd goal in him too. His six-year stay had helped him leave behind a legacy at a club where many still fondly remember him.

Andrew Johnson was sold to Fulham for £10 million, which created a swelling need for a goalscorer, as well as an anchor-man. As the frantic transfer deadline day looked nearly set to leave Everton without a marquee signing, David Moyes said: “There is still the big fella at Standard Liège.”

Everton shelled out a club-record £15 million to sign Fellaini in a capture that raised eyebrows across the country. He became Everton’s third signing of the disappointing summer of 2008, with only Louis Saha and Carlo Nash acquired prior to Fellaini’s capture.

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The fact that Fellaini’s move came after Everton had spent a club-record fee raised some fair questions about whether he would be good enough to justify that price-tag at the mere age of 19. Few knew that the man would have all the makings of a player that the so-called football aesthetes would love to abhor.

The lack of many superstars at Everton was something that helped Fellaini. His goalscoring tally throughout his stay on the blue side of Liverpool always seemed just about enough to outweigh his tendency to play dirty. The goals he provided from midfield and the manner in which he refused to allow anyone in the box a moment of peace with his bruising physique became a trademark of his. He scored eight times in his debut Premier League season, including one against United. It went the same way every season – performances riddled with goals and controversies that highlighted his unusual style.

He became famous for his afro hair and unbeatable aerial ability, but the love still never came his way, at least not outside of Goodison. It helped Fellaini carve out a unique identity for himself at a club that hasn’t had a character like him since the days of Abel Xavier. It became a habit to see Toffees fans wearing an afro and coming to watch their side play.

The dislike never only emanated from his style, but also the system he represented. While he was used as an effective second striker multiple times behind Tim Cahill by David Moyes, there was hardly rarely any need to play attractive football. Even if there was, the pressure wasn’t as much as it would be under the Scotsman at United. The results at Goodison Park never stagnated, making the need for attractive football considerably less. Fellaini’s tendency to come up with vital goals and do the dirty job in an efficacious manner made him a fan favourite, simultaneously making him a detested character among other Premier League supporters.

The move to United in 2013 came off the back of United being rejected by high-profile superstars like Cesc Fàbregas, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale. Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and the success he had enjoyed with an unremarkable side in 2013 put a creative midfielder at the top of many fans’ wishlists. Fellaini was deemed to be the last resort in case Moyes failed to lay his hands a more dynamic star. A bid for Ander Herrera was rejected and Thiago Alcântara’s move was hijacked by Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. United still hadn’t signed a single first-team player when deadline day came knocking, let alone a star midfielder.

Confusion over the role of lawyers meant a deadline day attempt to sign Herrera went down the drain. The last resort stared David Moyes right in the face – it was Marouane Fellaini or nobody, as even a last-ditch loan deal for Fábio Coentrão had fallen through.

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The Belgian’s lack of creativity and inability to come close to being as good as the likes of Kroos or Fàbregas meant the frustration among United fans was sky high. It was felt as if their new boss had signed a mismatch who didn’t deserve to play for a club like United when the need was for something else. His approach to playing was well-known too – too regressive for a club like United, which takes pride in playing football the fans want to see.

The attractive football never came that season. United looked like a mere shadow of themselves, with Moyes seemingly swallowed by Sir Alex’s oversized boots at the helm of affairs. The approach to the game was too defensive, and the weak summer transfer window was having the effect that many expected. While nothing seemed to be going right for the club, the same was the case for Fellaini.

He was made the scapegoat for much that was going wrong. Or rather, the fact that he was Moyes’ signing made fans associate him with the Scotsman and his ill-fated reign. The hate multiplied because Moyes himself had failed to win over the love of the fans. The manner in which he used his summer signing was questionable too – deep in midfield, a position that requires the player to be technically sound and a good passer.

What was lost on many fans was that the very fact he wasn’t being played according to his strengths wasn’t his fault. That’s just what Louis van Gaal came close to doing from the 2014/15 season onwards. Before the Dutchman came in, there were loud calls for Fellaini to be sold.

In an interview with the Daily Mail during Van Gaal’s reign, Fellaini used the word “bullshit”, which is rare for someone like him. Off the pitch, he isn’t someone who speaks much, enjoying the quiet and family-oriented life. In essence, he’s the exact opposite of the six foot four inch beast that he is on the pitch.

That interview itself is rare. He’s not the kind of person to open up easily. When asked about his return to form under Van Gaal, Fellaini sighed: “I had played five years in England and every season I played very well for Everton. Then, for one year, I lost my football, I lost my quality, I lost everything. Bullshit. That’s my opinion. And now my quality has come back. But that’s not right, that’s not right.”

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While many fans still loathed him for not being United quality and being the poster boy of the torturous Moyes era, Fellaini’s performances in March 2015 against Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City started to win the fans over. It wasn’t because he’d become an exceptional footballer all of a sudden, or because the tag of being a Moyes player had become detached, but because of the system that had come into place. His heading ability was being used to perfection. The style was direct, and Fellaini was closer to goal and more of a threat than he had ever been before at United.

Despite that, his technical deficiencies were still exposed, and the criticism came back again to haunt him. The system did bring to the fore his strengths but hardly covered up his weaknesses. He scored all-important goals under Van Gaal, especially on the march to FA Cup glory in 2016.

When José Mourinho took over the reins from the man who had helped Fellaini rise from the ashes, there was a feeling among many that, much to their relief, Fellaini’s time at Old Trafford was over. They presumed that the Belgian would be one of the first to be guillotined by the former Chelsea and Real Madrid boss.

But a performance against Hull in the League Cup semi-final during Mourinho’s first season typifies everything that has changed since he started off under Moyes as the villain. Having doubled United’s lead, Fellaini ran to Mourinho, who had shown signs of euphoria, and hugged him in what was a memorable gesture of affection and gratitude. Mourinho had given him trust that he had been yearning for to get his career back on track.

Fellaini is a perfect fit for the Portuguese’s direct approach to the game. Mourinho has managed to dissolve all of his player’s technical weaknesses into his strengths by playing him closer to goal and playing him regularly at times when there is a need to take the sting out of games. It’s become a trend for Mourinho’s United to leave Fellaini forward and pick him out with direct passes up front. The former Evertonian came in very handy in Mourinho’s first season, conjuring up vital performances Europe and at home.

While United fans are never used to missing Fellaini when he isn’t on the pitch, the fact that they missed him just as much as Paul Pogba recently is suggestive of how hard Fellaini has worked to get the love of the fans back. So much so that apart from becoming accustomed to watching him often pull off neat flicks, United fans love to get treated to his new name-showing goal celebration. 

‘FELLAINI’ is written in those white words. It wasn’t a word they ever wanted or a word they ever imagined would be on a United jersey, but the fans must be proud of how he has returned to the top after their widespread doubts. No-one, however, is prouder than the man himself. He never gave up when all seemed lost. He kept working hard behind the scenes – a trait that is always likely to endear you to the fans – playing to his strengths and moving away from his weaknesses. After all, it doesn’t matter what people think when you arrive, just what they do when you leave 

By Kaustabh Pandey  

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