While having talented players in your squad is obviously key to a team enjoying success, it doesn’t harm your cause if you have lots of players who are passionate about the club either. It’s probably no coincidence that the only English side to have ever won the Treble was made up of several first team regulars who had grown up supporting the club as they came up through the ranks.
United are blessed in that sense, as we’ve valued the importance of having players in the first team that we have developed ourselves. It’s well documented that there hasn’t been a United matchday squad since 1937 that hasn’t contained at least one academy player. Having brilliant managers and quality signings are also obviously important factors, but United’s emphasis on youth shouldn’t be ignored.
Harry Redknapp, when manager of Tottenham Hotspur, reflected on a moment when United travelled to White Hart Lane.
“When we played United at White Hart Lane the week before, my coaches were in the stands along with the United boys who weren’t subs,” he said. “They were jumping up and down at every decision and again when they scored their goals. That winning mentality goes right through the club. Gibson and all the other boys wanted to play but they also have those feelings that they showed. There are not many clubs where you get that. That’s what makes winning teams.”
It stands to reason that players who have been at the club for a long period of time, particularly since they were young, are usually going to feel more strongly about that club, and care more about how well that club does. Rafael Da Silva, who has been sold to Lyon this week, after being connected to United for a decade, fits nicely in to this bracket.
Rafael and his twin brother, Fabio, joined United when they were just 15-years-old, having been spotted in a competition organised by Nike in Hong Kong. United got in touch with Fluminese, the club the brothers had played for since they were 11, and organised a trip to Manchester.
Once they returned, scouts from Arsenal asked them to come to England, but to do so behind the back of their club. “We were not too happy with the way he approached us,” said Rafael. “The scout said he was from Arsenal and invited us to come and train. At that time we had already been to see Manchester United and train once with our club’s permission. But this man wanted to take us to England and say nothing to Fluminense. We disagreed with that principle.”
Fluminese and United agreed a deal of £5.2 million which saw both Rafael and Fabio join the club. Over the next three years they travelled to England every three months, staying for a fortnight at a time, before returning to Brazil. Then, in 2008, the brothers made the move to Manchester permanent, bringing the whole family with them.
They joined the club with big dreams, hardly believing that they were at United, and looked to other Brazilian role models. “The greatest example for us is Alexandre Pato,” said Rafael. “Who knows; perhaps we can follow the same path as The Duck?” Pato had joined AC Milan the year before and had the world at his feet.
Sir Alex Ferguson was a huge fan of the brothers, repeatedly talking about their bravery and their energy. While Fabio had been seen as the brighter star in Brazil, captaining the U-17 side at the 2007 World Cup, it was Rafael who made the biggest impression early on.
“He is one of the players that excites us,” Ferguson said of Rafael a few months in to his first season. “He gives us renewed faith that young players, no matter what age they are, can come into the Manchester United first team and excel. In every game he has played in this season, there has been evidence of great improvement in the boy. Even in training, the older players marvel at his enthusiasm and ability to play.”
That season finished with Rafael making 28 appearances and scoring one goal, a fantastic effort against Arsenal at the Emirates.
Wes Brown and Gary Neville, his competition for right-back at the time, repeatedly spoke about him as the future of the club. Rio Ferdinand claimed the position could be his for the next decade.
While rash defensively on plenty of occasions, he loved getting stuck in to a challenge, had the pace to keep up with the fastest wingers and never gave up. In those early seasons, his greatest strength was his ability to attack though, and was regularly seen bombing down the right wing in support of Cristiano Ronaldo or Antonio Valencia.
“There isn’t a single day that I don’t pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming about playing for Manchester United,” he said at the start of his third season in the first team, with just short of 50 games for the club under his belt.
Our fans loved him. He was forgiven for sliding in recklessly and giving away freekicks in dangerous positions more easily than most players in the team. Rafael received a standing ovation from the crowd in 2010, after his red card cost United their place in the European Cup semi-finals, when other players would have been crucified. He had a bit of fight and passion about him, and there was the understanding that there would sometimes be negative consequences for that being a part of his nature.
“The supporters have helped me since I came here and I’m very happy with that,” he said. “Since I arrived here, the fans have been amazing, singing songs for me or stopping me and telling me I’m a true Red! I’ve been coming here to training since I was 15 years old, a long time, so I feel like I am a true Red.”
As well liked as he was though, injuries started to take a toll, and questions were raised over his long-term suitability to the role if he was unable to stay fit. The lengthy periods he spent out on the sidelines certainly had an impact on his progress too.
It wasn’t until 2012-13 that people from outside of the club started to pay attention to him. Once seen as a bit of a liability, Rafael made a good case for being the best right-back in the league, with his injuries seemingly behind him. He played in 40 games in all competitions as United cruised to the title.
At the Bernabeu, facing Real Madrid in the Champions League, Rafael showed he had come of age. In the first half, he looked like a red card waiting to happen, and there was the presumption he would be the first player substituted. Like Pablo Zabeleta a few months earlier with Manchester City, he just couldn’t cope with the Real Madrid attack.
In the second half though, he was like a man possessed, winning challenges all over the place, keeping to his feet, and shielding the goal. After the game, he revealed that Ferguson took him to one side at half-time and told him where he was going wrong.
“In the second half, he was back to the form he has shown all season and he did really well,” Ferguson said. “For a young boy to recover like that says a lot for him so that was pleasing to get that second-half performance out of him.”
While we welcomed the fantastic performances we saw during this season, our love for Rafael is about so much more than his ability. For example, when Jamie Carragher carved open Nani’s leg a few years ago, it was Rafael who was charging at the considerably bigger Liverpool players, up for the scrap. When Carlos Tevez left for hated rivals Manchester City, it was Rafael who happily squared up to the Argentinian when the clubs met the following season, before being dragged away. Two years later, Rafael was the first to celebrate in Tevez’s face when Robin van Persie scored a later winner, before running to the United away end, proudly holding up his badge. When he scored at Anfield, he went bonkers in front of our fans, looking as possessed with joy as any United supporter that day.
One of my favourite Rafael moments came in the 2008-09 season though, with United battling against Liverpool for the title. United played Tottenham Hotspur with six games to go, on level points with our rivals. After half an hour, United were 2-0 down and it wasn’t looking good.
With an hour played, the comeback began, with United scoring three goals in 10 minutes. Wanting to sure things up at the back and hold on to the three points, Ferguson immediately replaced Rafael with John O’Shea. Another player might have been put out at this sacrifice, having played his part in creating the equalising goal for Wayne Rooney moments earlier. However, almost immediately after sitting on the bench, United went 4-2 up, and when the camera pointed to Ferguson, Rafael was going potty, just like we were in the stands. He was certainly a player who put the club before himself and that is why the fans adore him.
Sadly, Rafael didn’t continue the great form of Ferguson’s last season, with injuries yet again hampering him in the two seasons that followed. Reports suggest that Louis van Gaal was not a fan of the Brazilian, but it would be hard for the manager to form an opinion either way, given how regularly Rafael is injured.
Last season, Rafael was in the match day squad just 18 times from a possible 39 in all competitions. He played the full 90 minutes on just five occasions, the last of those in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford in October. He started a further two games, and has been subbed on once, for the last five minutes for our win over Spurs in March, which was his last appearance. The last time he played before that was in the FA Cup game against Yeovil on January 4th.
In the past three seasons, Rafael has suffered from 15 injures. To give that context, Seamus Coleman has suffered from seven injuries during this time, Zabaleta from six, and Branislav Ivanovic has had four.
However good Rafael proved himself to be, any manager is going to be reluctant to rely on a player who so often is not available.
So in the end, Rafael outperformed Pato, going on to have his best season at United at a time when Milan had given up on their man and sent him back to Brazil. But Rafael didn’t develop in to the player he could have been at United which will always be a huge regret. He’s still only 25 though, so it’s understandable that we are frustrated that Van Gaal wasn’t prepared to give him more time, but sadly, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll suddenly fight off being injury-prone.
Rafael leaves United as a favourite, a true Red, with all the best wishes from the fanbase.