Manchester United are strolling to a routine win at the Stadium of Light. Sublime strikes from Zlatan Ibrahimović and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have given José Mourinho’s side a comfortable two-goal advantage, with the ten-man Black Cats slipping ever closer to the open maw of top-flight relegation.
Basking in the glorious April sun and eagerly awaiting Craig Pawson’s final whistle, Mourinho’s seemingly relaxed expression suddenly transforms into a look of sheer perplexity. Above the deafening silence of Sunderland’s bereft 40,000 fans, the United entourage are busy singing at the top of their lungs; singing for a man named Diego.
Brow furrowing and puzzlement increasing, Mourinho soon realises that nobody in his current squad goes by that name. Eventually submitting himself to the irresistible pull of curiosity, the Portuguese manager turns to one of his substitutes, Michael Carrick, and asks: “Who’s Diego?”
Drawing towards the end of his inaugural season at Old Trafford, perhaps Mourinho’s confusion was completely understandable. Arms and voices raised to meet the strong north-eastern sun, those Manchester United fans weren’t just singing about a man who last played for the club over 13 years earlier, but paying homage to an unfortunate Uruguayan forward who managed just 17 goals in 98 appearances for the Red Devils.
Born in the capital of Montevideo, Diego Forlán came to Manchester United after impressing in his four years at Independiente, although it very nearly didn’t work out that way. The son of Pablo Forlán, a former defender who’d spent his playing days at some of the biggest clubs in South America, a young Diego initially had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps, harbouring ambitions of becoming a professional tennis player.
The youngster’s decision to swap the court for the pitch was caused by the events of 14 September 1991, when his older sister, Alejandro, hopped into her boyfriend’s car on a rainy Saturday morning and was later involved in a horrifying collision. The accident killed her boyfriend instantly, while Alejandro was left permanently paralysed.
Struggling to afford the required medical treatment, the Forlán family were plunged towards the most desperate of financial plights, until a certain Diego Maradona stepped in to assist with the fundraising efforts. At the age of just 12, Forlán was left inspired by the generosity of the mercurial Argentine and quickly resolved to become a footballer himself so that he might pay for his sister’s treatment.
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Driven by such intense motivation, Forlán’s unrelenting hard work saw him on trial with French side Nancy just four years later, where he would eventually receive his first real taste of rejection. After being told Les Chardons would not be offering him a contract, the 16-year-old returned to South America and eventually joined the youth setup of Independiente.
Now on the opposite side of the Uruguay River and fearful of forever living in his father’s shadow, his steely determination and dedication only intensified during his time in Argentina. It was here that he developed into a capable finisher, gaining promotion to the first team at the age of 18, where his ability would be assessed by 52,000 fervent supporters at the Estadio Libertadores de América every week.
Thriving, rather than buckling, under the pressure, Forlán regularly displayed the attributes of a prototypical striker and showed a ruthless ability in front of goal. Although his goalscoring record was nowhere near as good as many other young South American imports, his 40 goals in 91 appearances soon attracted attention from Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough, along with several other top European sides.
The Teeside club had already agreed a £6.9m deal for the 22-year-old, only for Manchester United to swoop in at the last minute with a more attractive offer. With the thought of helping his sister firmly in mind, the increased salary and promise of silverware lured Forlán to the Theatre of Dreams in January 2002, as he told reporters: “I was going to go to Middlesbrough but Manchester United offered more.”
Following the departure of Andy Cole to Blackburn Rovers and the expected exit of Dwight Yorke (although his January transfer to Middlesbrough eventually fell through), Forlán arrived at Old Trafford in a whirlwind of media buzz, fan expectation and wavy locks of golden hair. Time on the pitch, however, proved incredibly hard to come by, with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjær firmly ahead of him in the pecking order, and Sir Alex Ferguson often sacrificing his second striker to deploy Paul Scholes in a more advanced midfield position.
Although his first appearance came just a week later, coming on for the last 15 minutes in a 4-0 victory away to Bolton, Forlán had to wait until 6 March for his first start in a United shirt. Drafted in to replace the injured Solskjær against Tottenham, the following 90 minutes proved indicative of the Uruguayan’s time in the Premier League.
Charging around like a tornado on the pitch, he would energetically chase down every ball in a desperate attempt to show his worth, regardless of whether it left him completely out of position. But, when on the ball, every pass seemed to stray to a player in white, while his irrepressible lack of confidence was compounded just before the hour-mark, when he inexplicable skewed the ball wide while one-on-one with goalkeeper Neil Sullivan.
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This was a pattern which repeated itself relentlessly throughout the season, with Forlán continuing to leave absolutely everything out on the pitch, while a mysterious supernatural force seemed to prevent the ball from nestling in the back of the net. By the end of the 2001/02 season, he had racked up 13 Premier League appearances, five Champions League outings and exactly no goals, with United finishing the campaign in a disappointing third.
However, his unrelenting spirit and hard work had endeared him to the United supporters, and these qualities also retained the faith of his manager and teammates. He even earned a call-up to Uruguay’s World Cup squad. That summer in Far East Asia ultimately proved disappointing for the South Americans, but Forlán seized his opportunity to show the world what he was really capable of. Coming on as a half-time substitute against Senegal in the final group game, with Uruguay 3-0 down, he chested down a clearance from the edge of the area, before lashing in an unstoppable right-footed volley into the top corner and helping his country complete a remarkable comeback.
His unwavering determination continued throughout United’s pre-season, too, with Ferguson publicly voicing his support for the young forward and describing him as the best player on the tour. Despite such a glowing review, once the 2002/03 season got underway, Forlán found himself once again confined to the substitutes bench.
Cameo appearances against the likes of West Brom, Middlesbrough and Bolton yielded no goals or assists, but Forlán’s moment of relief finally arrived in September 2002, almost a full eight months since he first joined United. Coming off the bench in a Champions League game against Maccabi Haifa, the man dubbed “Diego Forlorn” by the British press got his chance when David Beckham was sent tumbling in the penalty area with just a few minutes of normal time remaining.
After the Englishman grabbed the ball and headed back towards the penalty spot, he was quickly approached by a pleading, almost desperate Forlán, eager to break his goalscoring hoodoo and finally kick-start his Old Trafford career. In front of 63,439 breathless fans and an anticipatory Sir Alex, he stepped up and effortlessly slotted the ball into the bottom left of the goal, sending goalkeeper Dudu Aouate the wrong way with a finish which belied the nervousness he surely felt.
Quickly embraced by Beckham and youngster Danny Pugh, Forlán’s relief was mirrored in the roar echoing around Old Trafford and the expression etched across his manager’s face. Regardless of the bad luck and poor quality which had plagued the start of his United career, in this moment it became clear that Forlán still had the backing of just about everyone at Old Trafford, and many around the club felt that this goal could mark the beginning of something special.
After scoring his first goal that night, Forlán promptly followed this up with goalless appearances against Spurs, Charlton, Everton and Fulham. His first Premier League goal didn’t come until a month later, flashing in a late headed equaliser at home to Aston Villa and then whipping his shirt off in celebration. In the words of commentator Clive Tyldesley: “The joke of English football now needed a new punchline.”
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Almost inexplicably, the Uruguayan then proceeded to score yet again in his next league appearance, bending in a glorious late winner from outside the area to secure a crucial three points at home to Southampton, before removing his shirt once more and then famously struggling to get it back on again as play resumed.
This marked the beginning of what was by far Forlán’s most productive spell at Old Trafford. His next league outing was a memorable 5-3 victory over Newcastle, with the Uruguayan twice feeding the insatiable appetite of Van Nistelrooy with two assists which hinted all that hard work on the training pitch was starting to pay off.
But his true moment of vindication was to come a week later. On 1 December 2002, he etched his name into Manchester United folklore in the most hostile arena of all. After months of unbelievably ill-fortune, he reacted quickest to an unforgivable error by Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, capitalising on the Pole’s failure to gather the ball and promptly squeezing it into the open goal.
Just three minutes later, with Anfield hushed into an ominous silence, Ryan Giggs came dancing through the Reds’ midfield and found Forlán in acres of space. Hardly believing his luck, he picked his spot and slammed the ball home at Dudek’s near post, before running over to the delirious away supporters with a grin that spread from ear to ear. Despite his frustratingly slow start in a red shirt, Forlán was finally a Manchester United player.
His new status was reaffirmed two days later, slotting in the opener against Burnley in the Worthington Cup and showing the calm assuredness of a striker absolutely brimming with confidence. That fourth-round win set up a tie against Chelsea, a game in which Forlán’s contribution would prove decisive once again, as he slid the ball between the legs of Carlo Cudicini for an 80th-minute winner.
He’d actually repeat this feat just a few weeks later, latching onto a ball from another South American struggling at United, Juan Sebastián Verón, and lashing the ball past Cudicini to secure a 2-1 victory in the final minute of the match. Somewhat inevitably, off came Forlán’s shirt again in a celebration that was fast-becoming synonymous with the Uruguayan – a remarkable feat considering his previous profligacy in front of goal.
Sadly, this turned out to be the epitome of Forlán’s United career. Although his hands were grasping the Premier League trophy a few months later, he failed to find the back of the net again that season. After coming off injured against Juventus – and allowing Giggs to come on to inspire a memorable 3-0 victory in Turin – he once again found his first-team opportunities limited, and the resulting loss of confidence ironically manifested itself in another game against the Italian champions just a few months later.
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Playing in a pre-season friendly, with United 4-1 up, Forlán bore down on an open goal with all the time in the world, only for him to skew the ball into the side netting from just a few yards out. It’s a worthy entry into YouTube’s many compilations of football’s worst misses.
This poor form continued well into the 2003/04 season, with another prolonged goalscoring drought finally ending in a 3-1 defeat to Fulham in late October. Despite scoring again a week later against Portsmouth and picking up an FA Cup winners medal at the end of the season, Forlán ended the campaign with a total of just seven goals in all competitions, with only three of those coming in the Premier League.
After reaching his zenith in late 2002 and looking every bit a Manchester United player, he was once again looking unmistakably forlorn. The hard graft and intense determination never wavered, though, and neither did the voices of the fans chanting his name. But the arrival of Wayne Rooney in the summer of 2004 inevitably spelt the end of Forlán’s time in Manchester.
His final appearance came in a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea, when the Uruguayan reportedly failed to follow Ferguson’s advice to change his studs and naturally slipped in front of goal to waste a glorious opportunity. Meeting the same fate as Beckham and Jaap Stam – and later Roy Keane and Van Nistelrooy – Forlán found that upsetting the manager could result in an incredibly swift exit.
Fortunately, he also soon realised that switching to LaLiga was the greatest decision of his career, finishing his debut season at Villarreal with 25 league goals and claiming the highly-coveted Pichichi Trophy. Throughout his seven years in Spain, Forlán became one of the most dangerous forwards in Europe, scoring a total of 154 goals as he claimed a second Pichichi after moving to Atlético Madrid.
The hard graft of his Manchester United days was still clear for all to see, but now it was backed up by quality, ruthlessness and an unwavering desire to prove a point. If not for that distinguishing work ethic, the young, unfortunate Red Devil would perhaps have been completely unrecognisable from the man who claimed the World Cup 2010 Golden Ball and became his country’s all-time leading goalscorer.
Diego Forlán was a player who left absolutely everything out on the pitch, but was ultimately hampered by a combination of bad luck, limited opportunities and low confidence at Old Trafford. He is proof that when a player wears his heart on his sleeve and refuses to admit defeat, the fans will continue to sing their name for years to come. Those away fans in the north-east can certainly attest to that.
By Ben Hyde @henbyde