Diego Forlan signed for Manchester United from his boyhood Argentine club Independiente midway through the 2001-02 season. He replaced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the final 15 minutes of our 4-0 away win over Bolton Wanderers, with the current United manager telling the new striker he was the only player at the club who worked harder in training than him.
Speaking to the club’s official podcast, Forlan recognised that after making a huge move in his career, he had to do more to improve his game.
When I arrived there, and I still tell this now sometimes, I always had a good technique with the ball. But my control with the ball wasn’t as good as it would become later on in Manchester. It was really quick and I was having a tough time. In that moment, I said, ‘If I want to survive here, with these team-mates, I need to train hard and do things!’ I remember the pitch with the walls at the side and I would get a big bag of balls, hitting the ball at the wall, trying to control it and hit it on target. I was trying to survive in that moment, which was really difficult for me. One day, Ole came to me and said ‘I train really hard, but I never saw someone that can train more than me!’ I was really happy because of that!
Six months in to his time at United, no betting app would have odds for him going on to be a bit of a cult hero at the club, and enjoy the career he did after leaving United. He made 18 appearances in all competitions in his first season but didn’t score a single goal.
During my career, my average was two games, one goal. And that counts the time I was at Manchester United. But journalists like all the headlines and the bad things more than the good ones. The thing that was difficult for me at the beginning was that the team was really good, with great players. So I didn’t have the opportunity to arrive to a team and get the full 90 minutes. To adapt to that kind of level, speed and the kind of team there was at that moment, was more difficult for me. Not just because I was coming from South America, which was a different level of competition, but also because I was coming to one of the biggest leagues – at the moment, I think the strongest one.
The team was the best one, so when I arrived there, the opportunity I had to play at the beginning was five or 10 minutes for I don’t remember how many games. It was more or less like that, maybe sometimes 20 minutes. It’s difficult to adapt well and quickly at a level higher than the one you were before when you don’t have those minutes to play and prove to yourself, to see how good you are. I didn’t have the opportunity to have those errors because I didn’t have those minutes that every player needs. It was not, like they said, six months, it was a couple of games. I scored goals in pre-season and then the league started again and I scored goals and had the opportunity to play 90 minutes and then maybe the next game. If you count all the minutes I was on the pitch, you could maybe say six, seven, eight games without a goal.
A few weeks in to the next season, Forlan scored his first goal for the club from the penalty spot against Maccabi Haifa after replacing Ryan Giggs in the 76th minute. A few weeks later he scored a later equaliser against Aston Villa, before scoring an 85th minute winner against Southampton in our next league game.
However, it was his two goals at Anfield that put him in United’s history books as we won 2-1, with his chant still sung at Old Trafford as a result. He then scored an 80th minute winner to knock Chelsea out of the League Cup, as well as an injury time winner against them the following month in the league.
The following season he went on a run of scoring five goals in seven appearances but was dropped after Ruud van Nistelrooy told Sir Alex Ferguson he preferred to play up front alone. Forlan was subbed on against Villa in the second half and scored his first in the 89th minute before scoring again in injury time. The Argentinian has reflected on what was going through his mind ahead of that game.
I was scoring a lot of goals and Sir Alex came to me and said, ‘Ruud prefers to play on his own.’ I was going to be on the bench. I said, ‘No problem’, but I was not happy. I was angry, I was scoring goals. And I went on the pitch, I remember Keano came to me, he knew I was angry. The gaffer put me on in the last 15 minutes. I went on the pitch, I think we were 2-0 up. I was so angry when I tried to hit the ball, I remember Cristiano Ronaldo was on the side, I fell over and I got up. I remember seeing how I could hit the ball. I hit it with the left and it was a great strike, into the top corner. Then a second one, Kleberson gave to me with a backheel. I controlled it. I don’t remember the movement now well, I turned around and the guy didn’t know what to do. He fell down and I hit it to the other side.