No matter how talented they might be, the number of footballers able to establish a meaningful relationship with those supporting them keeps shrinking. It is not a surprise, for after all there is little in common between twenty or thirty-something millionaires often hailing from a different culture and those who spend a fortune on following their clubs.
And yet, occasionally, the mould is broken and a real connection is made between players and fans, even in the cynical world that is football in the 21st century.
Ander Herrera is the perfect example of such a player. The Spaniard, as every United fan will tell you, simply “gets United” and has done so since joining the club under Louis Van Gaal in the summer of 2014.
In an era when players seldom venture outside the path set by their omni-present PRs, the former Athetic Bilbao midfielder is a breath of fresh air. While some of his teammates’ attempt to wax lyrical about United come across as forced and awkward, with Herrera one gets the feeling he is genuinely thrilled by the prospect of speaking about the club he represents.
United might have only lifted the FA Cup during his two and a half seasons at the club, but the Spaniard speaks of the club with the pride of a seasoned fan lecturing a stranger about the 20-time champions of England. He loves the club and he loves talking about it. His comments about United away fans could have sounded like the usual cliche had they come from a different source, but coming from him they were as rousing as Sir Alex Ferguson’s trademark fist-pump celebration.
One gets the impression the Spaniard would be as comfortable cheering on his teammates from the away end as he is at spraying the ball around in midfield.
Herrera’s love for the club has never been a mystery but his opportunities have increased enormously since Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford. So often a forgotten man under Van Gaal – Herrera has started 12 of his 14 league appearances this season, compared with 13 starts in 27 games last season – the Basque has become a mainstay of the former Chelsea manager’s starting XI this season.
His technique might not be as exquisite as Paul Scholes’ and he doesn’t assert himself on games as Roy Keane did, but Herrera’s commitment to the cause is unquestionable. The Spaniard wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s a constant nuisance for his opponents and he’s developed into the perfect foil for Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba.
In an era where there appears to be no middle ground between geniuses and frauds, Herrera is not a player whose clips will become a YouTube hit, as he is probably developing into a different player from the one that helped Bilbao run United ragged in the Europa League four seasons ago.
However, the Basque succeeds in the arduous task of improving the teammates around him and his influence on his teammates has grown exponentially since he was given the chance to shine in the first team on a regular basis by Mourinho.
In many ways, Herrera epitomises his manager. Determined, willing to succeed at all costs and unfazed by the prospect of getting a difficult job done, he is the kind of player United have been missing for years, the man capable of keeping a side together simply through his sheer work ethic.
At his former clubs, the Portuguese relied on a few selected players to represent him on the pitch, rather than simply carrying out his instructions. John Terry and Frank Lampard at Chelsea were among Mourinho’s on-field generals, as were Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso at Inter Milan.
Given Herrera’s recent rise to prominence, it is no surprise some have touted him as a firm favourite to become club captain once Wayne Rooney departs, as he’s quickly developing into the sort of on-field leader his team has been short of for a number of seasons. Vocal and leading by example, everything a United captain should be.
Under Mourinho, United are slowly beginning to move in the right direction, as they finally look to leave three seasons of struggles behind them. If the recent revival is to prove long-lasting, Herrera will have a major role to play. After all, he more than anybody else would love to see United succeed.