Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of lowly and dead-certs-to-be-relegated Crystal Palace was an enjoyable day for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it continued Manchester United’s strong start to this season, and after a goal-shy few years at the Theatre of Dreams, fans at Old Trafford were treated to their 4th four-goal offering of the season. It also saw Romelu Lukaku continue his deadly form in front of goal, with the Belgian notching his 11th of a hugely prolific season, and his compatriot Marouane Fellaini score his first brace for the club, too. But from my seat towards the back of the Stretford End’s 2nd tier, one goal felt a little bit more special, almost entirely down to the fact that it was scored by one of the most charming human beings to have ever graced this planet, let alone this club.
Juan Mata has a special place in the hearts of United fans. His move from Chelsea in January of 2014 during David Moyes’ tumultuous reign was seen as something of a PR stunt; a big-money move to distract the masses from the developing car crash of the Scot’s management. But almost four years later, his skill, craft and consistency have seen him battle his way into the affections of both Louis van Gaal and Mourinho. That’s no mean feat considering that the Dutchman kept him sidelined for several months in his first season, and the Portuguese was the man who sold him to United in the first place.
But it’s not just about his goals, neat passes or the clever touches. Simply put, they don’t often make footballers like Juan Mata; charming, kind, debonair and a genuinely interesting character, the Spaniard is remarkably easy to like, and his time at United has seen the club’s fanbase fall in love with the former Valencia man. Here are five reasons why:
- His charity work
Footballers have gained a reputation for being raging egomaniacs over the years, and whilst the exorbitant wages they’re often paid don’t necessarily help that image, the charity work that many are involved in often gets easily overlooked. Mata’s Common Goal initiative has earned itself a fair bit of media attention since its announcement at the start of the season with the aim being to get footballers to donate 1% of their wages to football charities all around the world. His statement, which you can and should definitely read here, sums up the man quite nicely; genuine, caring and with sentiments to make any United fan swoon. In an age where Mata’s colleagues are often disregarded as superficial and financially obsessed, this sort of charitable act and the drive to bring in more footballers to do the same shouldn’t go unnoticed.
- He loves the club
It’s a simple thing to state, but it’s true. Mata hasn’t made any secret of his love for United, and given that he won a Champions League, Europa League and FA Cup during his time in the capital, the way in which he’s seemingly fallen for the club is particularly endearing. Try reading this and denouncing it as mere pandering:
“When I left Chelsea for Manchester United, I still cared about the club. I wanted to make sure they got an appropriate fee and that I could maintain my connection with the people in London. And I hope I did that.
But I’m a Red Devil now. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are great clubs in the world, and then there is Manchester United.”
We often want players to “get” what it means to play for our club, to understand its history and the significance of playing for the club. I don’t think that there’s any doubt after almost four years in the North West that Mata “gets it”, and watching him schmaltz around the Northern Quarter or taking in the city’s coffee, culture and art via this Instagram account is delightful.
- He pops up with big goals
We’ll get to his most beloved strike whilst wearing a United shirt in a little while, but Mata has popped up with some big moments for the club over the last few years. Goals against City and Liverpool in derbies, breaking deadlocks against Crystal Palace, then Norwich and Watford the following year with a sumptuous free kick, a priceless equaliser in the 2016 FA Cup final…United’s number 8 has contributed more than his share of important strikes over the last few years. He also consistently contributes a healthy amount of goals in the process, having hit 10 in each of the last three seasons during a period in which United struggled to hit the back of the net. That’s not a contribution to be sniffed at.
- His blog
It’s just not Monday if you aren’t popping over to Mata’s website to read his weekly blog, is it? Its content as a whole has certainly taken on a more chipper tone since United have returned to a version of their old selves, whilst he typically casts a glance at happenings in La Liga and beyond aswell as his assessment of United’s progress. It’s pretty fluffy stuff, no doubt, but it’s earnest, eloquent and well written. It’s also a welcome window into the life of a Premier League footballer at a time when fans normally have to make do with Instagram accounts as a means of connecting to their heroes.
- THAT goal at Anfield
When United visited Anfield in March of 2015, expectations of a swashbuckling performance weren’t particularly high. Sure, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had come away from Merseyside with three points two seasons previously, and a 3-0 win at Old Trafford before Christmas had suggested that the arrival of Van Gaal had allowed United to regain their footing in this fixture, but no one could have realistically predicted that United would turn in this strong a performance in Liverpool’s back yard. At the heart of it was Juan Mata.
His first goal was a beauty, having been unleashed by Ander Herrera and slipping a fine finish beyond Simon Mignolet in front of the Kop. His second, however, was the stuff of legends. Angel Di Maria chipped in a delivery for the diminutive Spaniard that could only bet met one way; with that remarkable scissor kick. Herrera’s reaction, hands on his head in utter disbelief as he wheels away towards the away end still raises a smile, and even though the game would end in a far tighter fashion than it needed to, it was a 1-2 win that United owe to Mata’s brilliance, earning himself a spot in United’s rich history and folklore for the rest of time.