The one that
36 years old, and still playing; I was delighted to speak to Manuel Fernandes about a career that has taken him all around Europe.
His time at Goodison Park promised so much, but left everyone, himself included, wondering what could have been...
It’s late on a Friday night, Manuel Fernandes is driving through the streets of Athens, on his way back to his hotel. He is in Greece to finalise his contract with his new club, Apollon Smyrnis. This will be his ninth professional club, and at 36 years of age his determination to continue playing, even for the team rooted to the foot of the Greek Super League, is admirable.
“I will play for as long as people will allow me to!” he laughs.
“I will play until somebody takes me to one side and says ‘listen, Manny, you are a nice guy, but nobody wants you in the team anymore!’ Then I will say ‘OK – thank you to football, and I will find something else to do with my time.’
I have signed here for three months, initially. My contract had expired with Kayserispor, in Turkey, after two years. Right now, I didn’t want to stop playing. So, I have signed with Smyrnis until the end of May.”
Fernandes was not an easy man to track down; he is not a big user of social media, and despite speaking to his previous clubs, I had struggled to make contact with him for quite a while. Ultimately, as is so often the case with my interviews, it was the kindness of strangers that lead to our hour-long chat on the phone.
“Let me know if you can’t hear what I say, or you can’t understand me, as I have you on loudspeaker while I drive back to my hotel.”
I can hear him fine, the only interruption we have is when the sat-nav lady takes him down a few dead-end roads! Understanding him is not a problem either, his English is exquisite. Manny is an intelligent man; he speaks five different languages…
“I speak Portuguese, English, Spanish, Russian and Turkish. Turkish not as fluent, I only started to learn it last year, but I can speak enough to get by. Russian I am fluent, I can hold an interview in Russian, no problem.
To be honest, as a footballer, when you are not playing and training, you can have a lot of spare time on your hands. I always wanted to spend my time trying to improve myself, in any way that I could. I have been playing since I was 18, I always had an open mind about going abroad, and trying to learn as much as possible. When you are living and working in a foreign country, I think learning the language benefits everyone. It allows me to have a better relationship with my teammates and colleagues, we can communicate and understand each other better.”
Evertonians of a certain age will remember Manuel Fernandes for a number of things; that thunderbolt goal against Manchester Utd at the Gwladys Street end, probably being the first. The insane skill and wizardry on show against Arsenal, the Portuguese midfielder making a number of world class players look like school children in the playground, trying to get the ball back, off one of the older kids. The other thing most will remember, is the disappointment and absolute bewilderment at why he didn’t sign for Everton permanently, when the deal looked all but confirmed. Evertonians had fell in love with Fernandes, who had brought some much-needed flair and elegance to Everton’s workmanlike midfield under David Moyes. His eye for a pass, alongside his adventurous skill and surprising tenacity, had made his initial loan spell from Benfica a big success for all concerned.
The expectation, that summer, was that Everton would complete a permanent deal for the midfield impressive young midfielder; it was common knowledge that he was at Everton’s home game against Blackburn Rovers, as a guest of Bill Kenwright, as the deal was set to be completed and announced. So, what exactly did happen?...
“Honestly, I really don’t know. I mean that, please believe me when I say this. It was certainly not because I didn’t want it, I have heard people say that a few times over the years and that is simply not true. I went against my club to make the deal happen. The club that gave me my debut, the club that made me a professional footballer. I was at Benfica since I was 8 years old, I owe them everything, but I went against them because I wanted to play for Everton.
I had spent six months on loan at Portsmouth, and then I spent six months on loan at Everton. The loan at Everton went really well, but then I had to go back to Benfica, because I was their player. I actually had the chance to go to Manchester City, Sven Goran Eriksson called me personally, but I was very clear in my mind, that there was only one place I wanted to be, and that was back at Everton. I had given my word to David Moyes.
Actually, I will be honest, people inside Everton know this, but I actually spent a week training with Everton, when I shouldn’t have been there. I was a Benfica player, I was not on loan at Everton anymore, and the club could have got in big trouble.
Benfica had a Champions League qualifier coming up, the manager at the time, Fernando Santos, he did not want me to leave, and he wanted me to play in that game. David Moyes called me, and he told me ‘If you play in this game for Benfica, I won’t be able to register you with UEFA. You are going to be important for us in Europe’.
So, I missed the game, I didn’t go. It was a big issue, and Benfica were not happy at all. I was clear that I wanted to go back to Everton though, so I had to force the issue. I went back over to Everton, and I was training with the squad, even though I was a Benfica player. We had to keep it secret, because obviously that wasn’t allowed. They even closed off the training ground, so that nobody would find out I was there. I was there right up until the end of August, waiting for them to sort out the situation.
Then when it didn’t happen, I had no choice but to go back. Then Valencia came in…
When it was announced that Fernandes had signed for Valencia, completely out of the blue, Everton reacted with the same shock and amazement as the fans, even going so far as to release a statement expressing their surprise. Fernandes says he knew nothing of the Valencia interest until he was back at Benfica. The obvious elephant in the room, throughout the whole saga, was the issue of third-party ownership. Benfica only owned a 50% of Fernandes playing rights, with the other 50% belonging to ‘Global Sports’ agency.
Third-party ownership is not something that is allowed by the Premier League, and it was widely reported at the time that Everton’s £12 million pound purchase of Fernandes, was to be paid in full to Benfica, leaving them to make the payment to ‘Global Sports’ for their share in the player, to get around the issue. Third-party ownership is allowed in La Liga though, so was Valencia’s last-minute offer more appealing to his agents, allowing them to keep their share in the player? It seems the obvious reason, but with most things, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
What is clear though, is that it was a strange set up from the off, even before he arrived at Goodison Park, with the bizarre terms of his loan arrangement that halted his progress at Fratton Park.
“Yeah, it’s a funny story really, because if I started five games, then Portsmouth had to buy me for 18 million Euros. So, after I had started four games, I only ever appeared as a substitute for Portsmouth after that.
I remember the sporting director, at the time, was Peter Storrie, and I remember when I came to meet David Moyes for the first time, in Liverpool, he said to me ‘look, I have spoken to Peter Storrie, and he told me I should definitely take you to Everton’. Moyes was suspicious though, if Peter Storrie was telling Moyes to take me, why didn’t Storey take me himself? He said that Storrie said ‘that’s a complicated story, but if I was able to take him believe me, I would take him, but I can’t – so that’s why I am recommending him to you’. It was a strange deal, that Portsmouth had taken, but as far as I was concerned, I was there, and I had done well, but I think there were some board members there who wanted me, and some that didn’t want me, at that price. In the end, it worked out good for me, because I was able to go to Everton.
Obviously, I didn’t have a very long stay at the club, but it was a very good experience for me, an experience that stayed with me for the rest of my career.
As it happened, his spell at Valencia did not get off to a good start. Not long after his arrival, manager Quique Sanchez Flores was sacked, and replaced by a certain Ronald Koeman. The two clashed from the off, and Fernandes soon found himself back at Everton for a second loan spell, just months after his original transfer to Goodison Park had collapsed, much to the delight of both the Evertonians and Fernandes himself.
“I genuinely think that one of the reasons it didn’t work out for me in Valencia, and I never showed my true potential, is because I never really got over the fact that I didn’t sign for Everton. I was young, and I don’t think my mental health was in the right place, and much of that was because I wasn’t at the place I felt I wanted to be. Everything at Everton just ‘made sense’, the club, the players, the fans. I just identified so well with the club.
I am not going to say I have regrets about going to Spain, because I learnt a lot there too, I don’t have any regrets about my career, but as far as I was concerned, at that time, there was only one place I wanted to be, that was Everton.”
As we discuss his time in Spain, Fernandes tells me a remarkable anecdote of how he suffered a broken leg during the first half of a game, and astonishingly returned for the second half to finish the game.
“We played against Getafe, I went in for a tackle, and I remember hurting my left leg. For a moment I just had a dead leg, and I thought no more about it, but at half time, I got cold, and my leg started to hurt really bad. But I didn’t want to make too much fuss about it, it was important that I played, I didn’t want to give up my place in the team to somebody else, so I went back out for the second half. The first five minutes were really hard, but then as I got warm again the pain started to ease a bit, so I played on and finished the game. The next day, in the morning, I went to the medical team and told them about the pain in my leg, they sent me for an x-ray, and I found out that I had a fractured fibula!”
Looking back at Fernandes career, I had noticed that he had not only been managed by former Everton manager Ronald Koeman (twice) but also former Everton player Slaven Billic, for a short while at Besiktas. I wondered how they compared in management style, in comparison to David Moyes at Everton?
“They were all very different. Moyes was the manager I learned the most from, he was one of the main reasons I wanted to be at Everton. I felt that he was the manager I could learn the most from. He was a strong character, very disciplined, he had high standards for everybody, but he was such a fantastic coach. I actually think that my game was more suited to the English Premier League, than anywhere else that I played.
Slavan Billic – I was with him at Besiktas, it was a complicated period, for both of us; I was coming to the end of my contract and it was not decided if I would be staying or leaving.
Koeman – Where do I start? That was not a good marriage. Not a good relationship at all. Our characters clashed. I had him at Benfica, and then I had him years later at Valencia, and let’s just say it did not work out between us. I don’t want to be another player who says bad things about him, but all I can say is that not everybody can be wrong.
If you ask 100 people is Manuel Fernandes a nice guy? If 80% of them say no, then most probably that is because I am not a nice guy. Everybody cannot be wrong. He has a certain way that he likes to behave, and that seems to work for him personally. I know that being a coach is super-hard, and it is not ideal to be great friends with your players, because that brings its own problems, and it makes it harder for you to make decisions. But you have to still have a good relationship with your players. You have to listen to them and show them the same respect that they show you.
I think the problem with Koeman, is that he never stops thinking about himself as a player, he just cannot get away from that. He has the same character as coach as he did as a player, and that is not beneficial to anybody. As a coach, you have to put your ego aside, and do what is best for the team, not create personal vendettas with people. I think that is why so many players who have played under him don’t have nice things to say.
He has had some success, don’t get me wrong, but most of the last teams he has managed it has not gone well, and he has lost the confidence of the players. When I heard that Koeman had gone to Everton, I knew straight away that was not a good match. It was just my opinion, but I told people ‘that is not a good match’. If you look at some of the teams he has managed, when he has had success, he had inherited great players; at Ajax there was already Sneijder, Ibrahimovic, and Van der Vaart, then at Southampton – that was Pochettino’s Southampton side, so much hard work had already been done. When he went to Everton, he had a much bigger job to make that side his own, and he couldn’t do it.”
Fernandes is a well-travelled man, his career may not have hit the heights many expected of him, as the golden boy of that impressive Benfica side that won the league title back in 2004-2005, but he has fond memories of a career that his seen his ply his trade in Portugal, England, Spain, Turkey, Russia and now Greece.
I was intrigued by his time in Russia. After all, he spent a total of six years out there, with over 100 appearances for Lokomotiv Moscow, and a short stint at Krasnodar.
“Russia was a good time for me, I only have good memories from my time in Russia - it was the place I played the longest in my career. I didn’t ever expect to end up living and playing my football in Russia, but I was grateful for the opportunities and experiences that Russia gave to me.
In terms of the standard of football, especially compared to the English Premier League, there is no comparison, none whatsoever. It’s a tough league, but the quality is not even close to the likes of England and Spain. It has improved though, especially after the World Cup – Russia had done well in the World Cup, so everybody over there started to follow it a bit more, and interest in the game intensified over there. Russia had beaten Spain, they almost beat Croatia, so it became a little bit more popular over there, but still – impossible to compare with England, Spain or even Turkey. These countries are football-mad countries, with full stadiums, in Russia you have lots of empty stadiums, the only time the stadium would be full was on very special games, like one time we needed to win to win the league. Even Champions League games in Russia don’t attract a full stadium."
His time at Everton, was one of the shortest stints he had at any of his clubs; just 24 appearances over two spells. It’s quite the achievement that he is still spoken about in such glowing terms, by most Evertonians who remember him.
“It makes me really happy to hear that the Everton fans still remember me, because I really loved playing for Everton. When I arrived at Everton we had a very good team, a great group of players. I was only young, obviously, but I was keen to learn from everybody at Everton – the players, the staff, the manager. The only bad memory of Everton, was when I left…
It was an amazing group of players, just being on the training pitch with these players; Tim Cahill, Steven Pienaar, Mikel Arteta, it was impossible not to learn from them. I think the season we finished 5th, we lost at Anfield 1-0, I think it was a Torres goal, if it wasn’t for that game I think we would have finished in the top four."
A quick search of social media for any footage of Manuel Fernandes in an Everton shirt will present you with clips of the two most memorable moments of his time at Goodison Park. THAT goal against Manchester Utd, which I still to this day have right up there with my favourite ever goals at Goodison Park; and that mesmerising skill he showed against Arsenal, in which he had some of the best players in the world on absolute strings, much to the joy of the Goodison faithful.
“I remember the game against Man Utd, obviously we lost 4-2, after being 2-0 up, but the atmosphere was amazing. The noise inside Goodison Park when I scored was unbelievable, I am getting goosebumps just thinking about it now! That is definitely one of my favourite goals in my career. To be honest, I didn’t play well in that game, the only thing I did good was score! But I will never forget that goal, and the noise and the celebrations from the fans. Unbelievable. Micky (Arteta) gave me the pass, I shifted the ball away from Wes Brown, and then hit it really well past Van Der Sar.
The Arsenal game - We won that game 1-0, we played very well that game. I was playing with so much confidence at that time, I always thought one of my best attributes was that I was very good on the ball. My main concentration in that clip is just about keeping the ball for my teammates, when the ball was with me it had to be safe keeping for my team. That was the rule.”
It’s clear from speaking to Manny, that his happy memories of his time at Everton, are not limited to what happened on the pitch. He still speaks of his teammates with fondness.
“I lived in the same complex as Andy Van Der Meyde. He set his house on fire one time, or at least somebody in his house did! I remember coming home, there were four towers, if I am not mistaken, and his was the tower directly facing mine. I came home and I could see all the smoke, I called him to tell him, but he didn’t even pick up. He was a funny guy, Van Der Meyde - super talented, but I don’t think he really had his mind set on football. For the talent he had, he really could have done so much more.
I spent a lot of time with Nuno Valente and Micky Arteta, they lived very close to me, I could walk there. I went for lunch a few times with Tim Cahill, he was a great guy. I used to spend a lot of time talking to Lee Carsley, too. I am not surprised to see that he is such a great coach, he used to be like a coach on the pitch. He used to boss me around, but in a good way – ‘Manny, this! Manny, that! Here, there, Manny look!’ He was great to play with, I learned a lot.
It didn’t surprise me at all to see Micky (Arteta) become a top coach. The way he understood football, it doesn’t surprise me at all to see him as a coach at such a top level. I think it is still early for him too, he has so much more to give. I would like to see him manager Everton, one day, that would be nice. I like to see these new young managers getting their chances in the Premier League, that’s not to say that their new ideas will always work, but I think fresh faces and new ideas can only be a good thing for the game, different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things.”
As we talk of the Everton from years gone by, our conversation inevitably moves on to the current Everton team, and the precarious position we now find ourselves in…
“It makes me sad, because the club is too good to be in the situation that it is in. When I was at Everton they were always around top 5/6 in the league, which is where the club belongs. I know there have been lots of managers since I left, which is not ideal. I actually really liked Roberto Martinez when he was at Everton, I think he was trying to create something authentic, a proper style of play that the fans would enjoy. It’s difficult, of course, because people want results, at the end of the day, but I still think he was the right ‘type’ of coach for Everton.
I have kept an eye on Everton since the day I left. If I am watching football and Everton are playing, I will always watch, but if not then I always check to see how the club is doing in the premier league. The new manager, Frank Lampard, was a fantastic player.
For me, as a player, I loved the atmosphere that the fans created inside Goodison Park. It is so important; it pulls you through tough times. I cannot comment for anybody else, but for me, I always felt that even when we were not playing well, the fans at Everton were always behind us. I didn’t ever feel like they made things harder. They expect the best, and at the end of the day – they only expect us to give them exactly the same as they are giving us.”