Author’s note: The following isn’t a work of fiction. Any resemblance to a person, dead or alive, is purely intentional.
Especially you, Diego. Legend!
August 15, 2004: Chelsea v Man United – The Break-up!
It was the first game of a new league season and Diego Forlan’s United journey came to a premature end. Jose Mourinho had arrived on the British shores, as the Russian revolution at the Bridge was in its full bloom. Man United, for the first time in more than a decade, were in a bit of a limbo as Arsenal and Chelsea looked to have surpassed the Red Devils. The Uruguayan hitman was giving his all to salvage his United career, although he had once again gone months with scoring (nine games to be precise). The football gods seemed to have turned a blind eye, as the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, seemed to be losing his patience. Diego had to find his firing boots quickly. In a discussion with the striker, the Scot told him to play with high studs, so as to have a better grip on rainy English conditions.
Diego nodded in affirmative, yet continued with his preferred footwear – the lower studs. At the Bridge, with the goal gaping, Forlan slipped and missed an easy chance; United lost the game 1-0. Afterwards the striker tried to redeem himself by rushing to the dressing room to change his footwear. Ferguson had sensed what had happened, he grabbed the boots and threw them away. Forlan’s Old Trafford dream ended that fateful night in agony and despair. Ferguson’s never the man to forgive and forget, Diego should have known – alas, he didn’t.
January 29, 2002: Bolton Wanderers v Man United – Love at first sight, not quite
United had just been dumped out of the FA Cup in the fourth round, at the Riverside, and now traveled to Bolton. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned up the style as United thumped Bolton 4-0. Diego Forlan appeared in the red of United for the first time, coming on as a substitute in the 76th minute. Red Devils all around the globe caught a first glimpse of their new South American acquisition, second arrival from the region in a matter of a year, following Seba Veron. The new boy, however, didn’t have much to do as United took their foot off the gas towards the end. Forlan’s debut went almost unnoticed, and as they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression – Diego didn’t set pulses racing from the onset.
September 18, 2002: Man United v Maccabi Haifa – Diego breaks his duck, but only from the spot
As a club, Man United were in doldrums – the press had written them off yet again after a defeat against bitter foes Leeds United at Elland Road. United welcomed Maccabi Haifa for another European encounter at the Theatre of Dreams; however, it turned out be much more than that – one of the most iconic and heart warming moments of the last decade for Manchester United. United had steamrolled their Israeli opponents, racing to 4-2 lead, when Ferguson decided to take Rudd Van Nistelrooy off for a breather. David Beckham won United a penalty as he was fouled inside the box. The crowd rose in anticipation as Beckham picked up the ball to place it on the spot. Forlan’s moment had arrived. After 27 games without hitting the back of the net, the Uruguayan stepped up to take the spot kick and the Old Trafford crowd cheered him on like their lives depended on it. The manager, the staff and every United player on the pitch had waited for this moment as United’s number 21 took his run up. Forlan smashed the pen home and the crowd erupted in unison to mark the occasion. United won 5-2, but it was Diego’s penalty that every Mancunian took home as a souvenir; after all his goals were as rare as diamonds.
October 22, 2002: Man United v Aston Villa – The Love affair began
“Has Diego Forlan scored for Manchester United in the Premier League?” was the most common joke in those days. Also Diego was nicknamed ‘Forlorn’, considering the Uruguayan’s sad plight in front of the dreaded goal. Against Villa, United were running out of time as anxiety grew amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Their forlorn hero rose and headed home United’s equalizer and to quote the men behind the mike:
“He has hit the woodwork, he has hit the goal keepers, and he has hit points east and west besides but his ordeal is over as one of the cruellest joke in football, needs a new punch line as Diego Forlan has scored for Manchester United.”
Crazy celebrations followed as Forlan took off his Jersey and celebrated with his team mates. Of course now that Diego had found his way to goal, he went to discover his signature goal celebration that included taking off his t-shirt and waving it around. Well, the ladies didn’t mind it, and as far as the FA were concerned, they hadn’t seen this coming but who had?
December 1, 2002: Liverpool v Man United – Diego’s cult status guaranteed
Travelling to Anfield in need of a win is never really an ideal situation; however, it’s certainly an opportunity to make your mark in the United folklore. Diego did just that, as he scored a brace on enemy territory, in his most legendary moment in a United shirt. Nobody can ever take it away from him, as Forlan sealed his place amongst United heroes.
When Forlan was asked how well he remembered the two goals he scored at Anfield in 2002, he responsed:
“Very clearly. They came at a difficult time for me. I was not playing so much and hardly playing in the big games. I didn’t feel like a footballer. I was training, but not playing. At the start of my time at United I was OK about sitting on the bench or even in the stands, but then I wanted to be playing 90 minutes. That game against Liverpool was one time I played a full game. It was not an easy game to start in and the first half was difficult, I didn’t see much of the ball. Part of me was thinking that I was going to be substituted, but it all changed in the second half. Gary Neville was the first to come up to me after the game as we celebrated. He looked me in the eyes and said, “They’ll never forget you here after that.” I always remember that. I knew there was a big rivalry, but I didn’t fully understand it. I was a guy from Montevideo, how would I? But I began to understand the importance after that, by the reaction of the players and the travelling fans behind the goal. And Gary was right.”
He was then asked how it felt to still have his name sung by United fans, as it was yesterday that he played at Old Trafford.
“It’s unbelievable, the first time it happened was just after I left. I wasn’t sure how the fans would be with me because my time at United was not perfect. By 2005, I needed to play every week and feel like a footballer. The gaffer understood that. A few months later, I was watching United against Liverpool with my brother at home near Villarreal. And we heard the song [sings]: “He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry.” We just looked at each other as if to say, ‘Are we hearing the same thing?’ He was as happy as me and we smiled for the rest of the game. I try and watch United and I’ll often see games in a hotel somewhere in Spain, waiting to play. Sometimes I hear them sing and the team-mate I am rooming with will say, “What are you smiling for?” Then I’ll explain. They can’t believe United fans still sing my name so long after I left.”
November 2, 2002: Man United v Southampton – Diego ran naked as Old Trafford cheered him on
Fernandez had equalized for the Saints as rain poured down on Old Trafford, making conditions difficult. United’s game play seemed to fizzle out as nerves started jangling. United won a free kick, Giggs took it quickly but nothing materialized. Veron caressed the ball towards the Southampton penalty box and Diego Forlan arrived from nowhere to smash home the winner. Ear-piercing noise erupted from the terraces, as the Uruguayan took off his jersey and waved it away in unparalleled joy and elation. The game resumed but Diego couldn’t get it back on as he started chasing the Southampton players bare-chested holding the jersey in his hand. Nobody inside the stadium had ever seen such a scene before and everyone including the manager and the players had a chuckle about it – well, who wouldn’t?
January 18, 2003: Manchester United v Chelsea – Head over heels in love with the Uruguayan
Chelsea lead at Old Trafford as Eidur Gudjohnson scored from a swift passing move. United huffed and puffed, but Carlo Cudicini was having one of those days when he just refused to be beaten. Ironically, Scholes equalized after Cuducini’s clearance didn’t quite go in the desired direction. Stoppage time commenced and the game was still tied; the manager had made all his moves, but Chelsea held firm. United needed the three points to close the gap with high-flying Gunners. Was there a hero within their ranks? Veron dropped a speculative ball into the Chelsea box, and Forlan rose to the occasion, quite literally. Cudicini was beaten, as Forlan’s shot flew past him in a matter of a second. Diego Forlan had defeated Chelsea again, days after beating them in the Worthington Cup, but this one meant a lot more. Arsenal crumpled under United’s constant pressure and United regained their crown. Diego Forlan was now a Premier League winner, and one of the most loved winners at that.
Forlan’s 98-game Old Trafford career was eventful to say the least; his affair with Manchester United will always be remembered fondly by the fans. The Diego Forlan saga was an unorthodox love story, one that had more lows than highs, yet the two parties involved would still confess their undying love for the other. Forlan wasn’t the hero Old Trafford had chosen, but he was their hero anyway.
Spring came along; United found new heroes, Forlan found his match in sunny Spain, and they lived happily ever after.