There are times at which Old Trafford feels akin to Ellis Island in New York. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” reads the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty in reference to the millions of immigrants who headed to the United States in search of a land of opportunity. While Manchester United has rarely proven a haven for the poor (Bebe aside), there have been countless players who have sought solace in the club while the rest of the world remained immune to their charm. David Beckham might well be considered a national treasure these days but he was roundly despised in the year that followed his red card at the 1998 World Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson ensured the club closed ranks around Eric Cantona when the press were baying for blood in the aftermath of the infamous incident at Selhurst Park in 1995. Perhaps no player highlights this dichotomy between popularity with the United faithful and a general feeling of ill will from outside the club quite like Patrice Evra.
During a talk to promote his autobiography in London not so long ago, Ferguson revealed that Denis Irwin would be the first name on his team sheet if he were selecting a best XI from his 26 years in charge of United. He explained that, while he had an abundance of great forwards and no shortage of options in the centre of midfield, Irwin was the only player who was “so superior” to anyone else in his position during the manager’s time at Old Trafford. In terms of sheer consistency, Irwin almost certainly deserves the left-back berth but Fergie was wrong to suggest there was little competition for the place. Indeed, if character and personality are taking into account, few fans would argue against the inclusion of Evra.
Love for the Frenchman was a slow burning thing. His debut, away at Manchester City, was a horror show of Prunierian proportions. He was substituted at half-time and there were genuine concerns about his ability to adapt to the pace of the Premier League, particularly as this was the City of Darius Vassell and Stephen Ireland, not Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure.
Evra came out fighting and educated himself, not only on the intricacies of the English game but also on the history of the club. In his first major interview after joining United, he explained:
“I got a load of DVDs. About the Munich disaster and the Busby Babes, about Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, about Cantona. The whole story of the club. You meet these people around the club and I wanted to know who they were. What they had done for the club. Out of respect. Because when you shake the hand of Sir Bobby Charlton you can feel the legend.
“All the young players here need to understand the history of the club. After I watched those DVDs I realised I needed to respect the shirt. I needed to respect the story. Every time I play that is in my head. What a privilege it is to play for Manchester United. When you pull on the shirt you are pulling on history, and I say thanks to God that I play for this club.”
In The Class of ’92, the magnificent documentary about United’s fabled youth team, Gary Neville explains that meeting Beckham was the first time he realised someone from outside Manchester could love the club like he did. Evra’s passion goes one step further. Here is a man from France who just gets it. He understands what it means to play for the club and as fans we cannot ask for much more than that.
He is a player of true grit and utter determination. He has played in four Champions League finals but one senses he would give just as much if it was a kickabout in the park with some mates. He gives everything each and every time he goes on the pitch and, despite rarely being granted a rest, has hardly ever missed a game through injury.
At times Evra’s single-minded commitment and devotion to the cause has got him into trouble. In 2008 he was handed a ban after clashing with a groundsman at Stamford Bridge following a defeat at the hands of Chelsea. While his behaviour was not to be applauded, it only served to reinforce the idea that this was the fan’s representative on the pitch. United had lost and he was clearly in a foul mood, a far cry from the modern mercenary footballer interested in little more than his next pay cheque. When United lose, you can be sure it hits Evra harder than most. One need only watch his interview after the draw with Cardiff earlier in the season to see his disappointment. Unlike most players, he fronted up to the press and spoke about the team’s shortcomings with a frankness and integrity virtually unheard of in a world of anodyne sound bites chocked full of little more than “yeah, no, as I say, we’re hoping to bounce back.”
Integrity also springs to mind in any discussion about the Luis Suarez incident. Without wishing to open a can of worms that’s never entirely been shut, Evra should be praised for refusing to react to the provocation on the pitch and simply reporting what he heard after the game. Racist language should not be tolerated and if just one person is inspired to act the same way after receiving similar abuse on a football field or at their place of work then he made the right decision. Some things go beyond sport
Evra has intimated that this might be his last season at Old Trafford and, with David Moyes’ public courting of Leighton Baines, there is every reason to believe we might only have the pleasure of his company for a few more months. Football fans from around the country will be glad to see the back of him but, as with any great player, a large part of the animosity is down to jealousy. Who wouldn’t want a player who puts their club above all else? Evra is only supposed to be popular with his own fans and he’s certainly that. This is a man who understands the importance of United’s history and can now be considered part of it. As he knows only too well, there is no greater honour.