Bruno Fernandes exclusive: Manchester United’s ‘ghosts of the past’ and marking the referee

Thirty-five minutes into the second assignment of the Premier League season and the scoreboard reads Brentford 4-0 Manchester United.

An optimistic pre-season tour under new manager Erik ten Hag has given way to a season-opening defeat by Brighton at Old Trafford and then comes United’s most dismal half of football in recent memory in west London.

On the field, under the scorching spotlight of life in the United midfield, how did it feel in those moments?

“You could feel it between us, between the fans, in the atmosphere, that it was like getting back to the past,” says Bruno Fernandes. “Everyone felt that the confidence was low again. Everyone was a little — not afraid — but not feeling the best to take the ball. I felt sometimes like it was the ghosts from the past.

“Then Brentford was even worse. We conceded a goal from nothing and all of a sudden you could see the energy of the team was low, the confidence was low.”

When Fernandes references the “ghosts from the past”, every United player, staff member and supporter will know what he means. This is about the torment and turbulence of last season; the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the drift under Ralf Rangnick, the six consecutive Premier League away defeats at the end of the campaign, the six times United conceded four goals or more against Premier League opponents.



Special report: Inside Ralf Rangnick’s spell as interim manager of Manchester United

He continues: “Confidence in football is not everything but almost everything. When you have the confidence of your team-mates, your coach, the fans, it is really important because sometimes on the pitch, when you miss a pass and everyone is…”

His face drops, and he makes that unmistakable kind of groaning sound football supporters produce when a pass goes astray.

“You can feel it in that moment. But when you miss a pass and react quickly, you see the fans appreciate it, so for us, it is about having the confidence that we are capable of doing something.

“When I talk about the ghosts of the past, I mean that we felt in the past that every time we miss a pass or something, we were letting someone down, so you start missing more. Instead, you must think, ‘I have to try’.

“I know that because I have had more than 400 games in my career. I have had bad games, really good games, normal games. It is about understanding what you have done well in the good ones to keep having them and to shake off doubts about your performance.”

Slowly but surely, doubts are easing at Old Trafford. United have won four consecutive Premier League games and, while nobody is getting carried away, Fernandes credits Ten Hag with instilling fresh belief.

“First of all, he has an idea,” Fernandes says. “He has a style. You have to follow his rules. He is strict on that. And I like that. He has brought discipline, which is something I think we missed in the past. Everyone must be on the same page.

“That is what Pep (Guardiola) and (Jurgen) Klopp have been doing for years, because they have stability in the club and in the way they choose the transfer market and build the team, which is really important for them to get the rewards.

“I saw the manager say in a press conference that we do not want to bring players just for the sake of it, we want to bring the right players for what we want to do. It is something the club needs.

“We still have a margin to improve and he needs time to get the most out of us with his idea of playing. I believe we will get to the point with him where we are established as a team and everyone is on the same page.”

Fernandes and Ten Hag with The Match Bangkok Century Cup after beating Liverpool in pre-season (Photos: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

To meet Fernandes is to remind yourself that United footballers are so much more than the social-media talking points to which they are often reduced.

Fernandes, according to his former United team-mate Juan Mata, is “football sick” and, during almost 90 minutes of conversation with The Athletic, his obsession is evident. It shines through in the way he talks, in the intensity and depth of his responses, in the manner he can call to mind concrete examples to back up his arguments.

Here, everything is on the table. He has nothing to promote. There is no sponsor in tow. It is just a conversation, which he hopes will enable supporters to understand him better.

Fernandes is now one of United’s most senior players. He has worn the captain’s armband when Harry Maguire has not started matches this season. He is part of a leadership group that also includes first-choice goalkeeper David de Gea and his backup Tom Heaton, the former England international Fernandes says is quietly one of the most important characters in the dressing room.

In conversation, Fernandes possesses the composure and authority to embrace every question.

What has changed under Ten Hag? How did it feel when Solskjaer was sacked? What went wrong under Rangnick?

Does he whine too much at referees? Is it fair to say he performs better when Cristiano Ronaldo does not play? How close did he come to signing for Tottenham Hotspur in the window before he joined United? And why did he sign a new contract in April during the club’s most miserable season of the Premier League era?

Such trivialities, however, are briefly set aside because the Fernandes household has been celebrating birthdays recently.

He turned 28 on September 8 and his son Goncalo, the younger of two children, enjoyed his second birthday a couple of days earlier. And so the conversation jovially turns to decorations with characters from kids’ TV show Paw Patrol and Spider-Man costumes.

At home, Fernandes is a mortal once more: husband to childhood sweetheart Ana and daddy to Goncalo and Matilde. Ana first moved with him to Udinese in Italy, where Fernandes taught himself the language by sticking post-it notes on household items. Unless they are on school nights, the family attend United home games.

When the schedule affords it, Fernandes reads his children bedtime stories and then, he says, will sometimes watch the news from Portugal when sitting down to eat at 8pm. But the news is often about sadness and tragedy, so the channel swiftly changes to football.

“I will watch any match at any time,” he says.

Fernandes says his mother jokes she knew he would be a footballer because he was “kicking all the time” during her pregnancy.

His five-year-old daughter, he says, had a brief flirtation with football aged three but is now more into singing and dancing. “But the little one, ever since January, started to kick the ball and now he is doing it all day long. He has a mini goal at home and is always calling me to say, ‘Come and play’. Even Paw Patrol has fallen behind the football now…”

On the way to school, the demand is the soundtrack from the Disney animated movie Encanto.

Its headline song, We Don’t Talk About Bruno, may be wearily familiar to any parents of young children.

Fernandes smiles: “I am used to hearing it a lot in the car.”

Now, however, it’s time to flip the track on its head.

So, let’s talk about Bruno.

On January 30, 2020, Bruno Fernandes joined Manchester United from Sporting Lisbon in a deal worth an initial £47million (now $54m) but, including add-ons, the value of the transfer could eventually rise to £67.7million. A week earlier, they had lost 2-0 to Burnley at home.

After his debut in a goalless draw against Wolves at Old Trafford two days later, United were sixth, below promoted Sheffield United and 14 points behind third-placed Leicester City. Fernandes, however, had an immediate and devastating impact.

Through personality and skill, he picked United up from the canvas and Solskjaer’s team did not lose another Premier League fixture all that pandemic-extended season. Fernandes scored eight goals in his 14 Premier League appearances and United overtook clubs including Leicester and Chelsea to finish third and secure Champions League football.

In his first full season, 2020-21, Fernandes scored 28 goals in all competitions as United finished second in the Premier League and got to the Europa League final.

Fernandes notes British pundits usually speak about players from abroad needing “one or two years” to adapt to the Premier League, and cites the early comparisons between him and Arsenal’s £72million record signing Nicolas Pepe, who arrived from Lille in summer 2019.

“He (Pepe) had some bad games and everyone was saying, ‘He still has to adapt’,” says Fernandes, “but when Bruno was having a bad game, it was just because he was moaning or not focused on the game. For me, that was good, because it meant that I was ready and that’s why they were demanding so much from me.”

Fernandes credits his robustness with his childhood in Portugal, where he played football against friends of his father and elder brother — men in their thirties and forties — when he was only 12 or 13.

“My father did not always let me play because when you are young, you want to do all the tricks and when you play against older people, they start kicking you,” he says. “My dad was also kicking me and he was pretty strong! In football, there will always be someone older than you or with greater experience. It is about becoming smarter than them and working out your weapons to beat them.”

As a No 10, which is how Fernandes views himself, the challenge is to find space. “It is about finding the non-occupied areas, or sometimes the dead zones where nobody can see you or mark you. Or, if they do mark you, they will create more space in the middle of the pitch for other people.”

So, these “dead zones”. How do you find them?

“Normally, I call these the ‘referee zone’,” he says. “Because nobody marks the referee. Sometimes, this is what the coaches say to players who play between the lines, or the wingers who want to come inside, or the striker when he wants to drop. Of course, sometimes the positions are different because it can be a counter-attack, for example.

“It also depends on the way an official referees the game. Mike Dean, for example, ran very centrally, which was probably for him better to see the game, but for us as a No 10, that cannot be our position, so you have to find out where you can go.”

That seems an unusual tactic, but assessing Fernandes’ last Premier League performance, against Arsenal, there are a couple of moments when he seems to follow Paul Tierney’s movement to escape markers…

…and for United’s first two goals of the 3-1 win, he seems to receive possession in areas otherwise occupied only by the referee.

United’s move for Fernandes was not his first flirtation with English football.

At Sporting, he scored 63 goals in 137 matches and was named the Primeira Liga’s player of the year for both his full seasons in Lisbon.

In August 2019, Tottenham made an offer that fell short of Sporting’s valuation.

Fernandes recalls: “Obviously I wanted to go to the Premier League. The manager, Mauricio Pochettino, was the one who wanted me there. It was a good offer but Sporting tried their best to keep me.”

How did Fernandes react? “The president (Frederico Varandas) spoke with me but he spoke with me on the wrong day. It was the day after they decided to refuse the offer from Tottenham and I was really angry. Luckily for me, the manager (Marcel Keizer) was the right one at the right time.”

Keizer, Fernandes says, understood his frustration and knew he “would like to go, that it is a bigger offer, that it is my dream to play in the Premier League and it didn’t happen”. And Fernandes responded by “just deciding to do my best” for Sporting.

Unfortunately, Sporting then sacked Keizer in the first week of September.

Fernandes was frustrated at Sporting but resolved to do his best for the club before getting a move away (Photos: Paulo Nascimento / DPI / NurPhoto via Getty Images & (right) Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

In the first week of 2020, Solskjaer and his assistant Mike Phelan flew out to watch Fernandes play at home to Porto. Sporting lost, 2-1, but Solskjaer would later tell Fernandes he had been impressed by the personality he had shown on the pitch.

Fernandes says: “At the beginning of January, my agent said, ‘You don’t need to worry, because any time I bring you a club, it will be a dream club for you’. He knew that the dream club was Man United. Ole was a big part of that because he actually went to see my games. He saw me moaning a lot in that game against Porto — I moaned a lot against their players, against the referees.”

He laughs: “I moan against everyone who is against me, not those who are with me. Ole saw someone that was passionate and it helped him sign me for the club. On my first day, he said to me, ‘Just be yourself’. He said, ‘I know what you are capable of with the ball but I also want you to be the leader you have been at Sporting’.”

In the good times, Fernandes’ force of personality elevated not just his team-mates but the whole Solskjaer project. Yet when United’s world caved in early last season, critics began to question whether his on-pitch gesticulation was more of a hindrance than a help. After United beat Liverpool last month, one newspaper declared he was “out of control”, citing his eight bookings for dissent since arriving in England.

So does he need to enter a certain mode to be his true self on the pitch or are there times — as is human — when he is not fully in control?

Fernandes explains: “It’s who I am. What you see on the pitch is the Bruno who is passionate for the game, who will not give anything away. I can even fight with somebody who is my friend away from the pitch. I play against Wolves and there are many Portuguese players (in the Molineux squad) but if I have to kick them, I will kick them. If I have to moan at them, I will.

“I need that. I played many games where I was quiet, and nobody said anything about that. But I did not feel myself. I need it to feel alive. As for the part about moaning at referees. Honestly…”

He looks a little exasperated.

Mike Dean would often run centrally, which didn’t help Fernandes find the ‘dead zones’ (Photo: Andrew Kearns – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“I play for Man United, so I know all the cameras are on our players, but everyone in the Premier League does that. At Crystal Palace, (Wilfried) Zaha is always moaning at the referee. It is because he gets fouled, so it is normal he moans at the referee. That’s normal! He wants his fouls and for the referee to give yellows (to opponents).

“Fernandinho, who was at Manchester City, was always moaning at the referee, and only kicking me! Bernardo (Silva), for example, who people see as a quiet person… he is one of the guys who is always talking to the referees. He probably does not do it in the intense way I do but I saw it in the national team, so I know.”

Do you think the referees enjoy it?

“Some of them like the way I am. They kind of joke about it sometimes. One of the referees said to me, ‘Bruno, all the time you are winning, you are such a good guy. But when you are losing or drawing, oh my god, you are a pain in my ass’. I want to be like that. I want the referee to feel that I am pressing him and always there talking to him.”

There is, however, something Fernandes wants to challenge.

“The thing people say about how I wave my arms (negatively) at my team-mates. That has never happened. That is completely a lie.

“I can be using my arms to ask for the ball and to tell them something about where to move the ball. But never do I talk to them in a bad way. Yes, I can shout at someone if they do not pass the ball when he has to do it, or if he does not take the decision in the best way, or if he goes two-v-one and does not pass the ball to his team-mate. Then it is normal to be angry at him.”

This is quite normal in a demanding environment where teams are seeking to win, though, isn’t it? It is here that Fernandes’ paternal instincts for his team-mates come to the fore.

“I do not demand more from anyone than myself,” he explains. “I always say to everyone, ‘If at any time you do not want me to talk to you, or shout at you, or help you, then you can tell me and I will be quiet with you in the game’. But afterwards, do not tell me that I did not call you for ‘Man on’ or encourage you to pass the ball.”

He cites a conversation with Tyrell Malacia after the 1-0 win at Leicester City on September 1. The left-back was “trying to keep the ball in a good way” but Fernandes was “completely free on the other side of the pitch”.

“I said, ‘Ty, just put your head up and look to the other side’,” explains Fernandes. “He was quite angry with me because I was talking to him. But he didn’t understand what I was saying. At the end of the game, I went up to him and put my hands on his head calmly and said, ‘When I talk to you, I am not shouting at you in a bad way, I am just asking you to switch the play’. He said, ‘Yeah, sorry, I was just tired’.

“In some games, it will be him shouting at me and I am OK with that. I remember with ‘H’ (Maguire) in the Europa League against Copenhagen (in the 2019-20 quarter-finals). We were defending and I tried to control the ball and take on a defender. I lost the ball and he shouted at me, ‘Bruno, hold the ball!’. I was tired and said, ‘Don’t shout!’. In the first half of extra time, I went up to him and said sorry for talking back.

“Sometimes, during games, it is tension, it is passion, you miss the ball, or he (a team-mate) doesn’t run. It gets a little bit fervent. But nobody is doing it in a bad way. I never do it in a bad way — only if I see someone does not pass the ball when it is a two-v-one with the keeper. For example, Jadon Sancho scored a goal last season against Chelsea where he was two against the keeper with Marcus Rashford. Jadon did skill and put it past the Chelsea keeper (Edouard) Mendy.”

Would you have passed in that situation, Bruno? As always, he has an answer.

“Yes! I did it for Mason (Greenwood) away against Brentford last season. Sometimes, the keeper is coming out, you don’t get the time to look to the side and have to shoot quickly. But when you run with the ball for so long from the halfway line and have your team-mate to your side, don’t tell me you did not see him.

“With Jadon, that one was the case. I said, ‘Jadon, you scored, I am happy for that. But next time, pass to Marcus.’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you are right’.”

On November 20 last year, United were beaten 4-1 at Watford.

Coming less than a month after they had lost 5-0 at home against Liverpool, the departure of Solskjaer felt inevitable.

At full-time, Fernandes was part of a group of United players who headed over to applaud the away fans at Vicarage Road.

Solskjaer soon followed and Fernandes saw some United supporters appear to show dissent towards the Norwegian. His response was instant, appearing to gesture that the fans should direct their ire at the players rather than the manager.

The following day, Solskjaer’s exit was confirmed.

As conversation turns to the former United manager, Fernandes’ voice and demeanour soften. Solskjaer, after all, was the man who recruited Fernandes and immediately put him at ease with those two words, “be yourself”. Fernandes describes him as “an amazing person, the kind of guy who cares about everyone, who tries to make everyone happy”.

He says his motion to divert criticism away from Solskjaer was instinctive, explaining: “If you lose a game, I don’t like it when someone, or some managers, go to the media and say, ‘They didn’t do what I want’. In that case, something is going wrong because we are always in the same pack.

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