Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez could not believe his good fortune as he messaged friends.
He went from being a non-performing striker for Manchester United in a 4-0 humiliation at third-tier Milton Keynes to signing for Real Madrid, the European champions.
Many footballers claim to have wanted to play for a club all their lives – usually when they sign with that team – but the Mexican really did want to play for Madrid since childhood and hoped to follow in the footsteps of renown compatriot Hugo Sanchez.
Thanks to stealthy scouting on the part of United, the Chivas striker instead moved to Old Trafford in 2010. He had a fantastic first season and was hugely popular with fans.
United's first Mexican player expected to play "a few games", but he became a regular starter and scorer of crucial goals. When fans look back at the highlights of the 2010/11 title-winning season, they number several Hernandez goals among them. There was his vital winner in Valencia, his two goals at Stoke, Blackpool away, West Brom away, Marseille at home … the list continues, as well it might, since he would score 20 goals.
The best was against Chelsea, scored after just 36 seconds and from 16 yards, the longest distance for any of his goals. It set United toward a 19th title. He scored 18 times in his third season, but the poacher's high points would come in his first year.
By last term, Hernandez looked short of confidence and sharpness. Injuries to Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in December gave him a chance he failed to seize. He was anonymous at Norwich away in December and by March was telling teammates he was ready to leave; his relationship with David Moyes was less than ideal.
“At Manchester United, you’ve got 22 to 25 internationals who’ve won titles and all think they should start,” former United star Rio Ferdinand wrote in his new book. “Chicharito was happy for three years. Moyes starts treating him differently and his confidence goes.”
The Mexican was not the only United player in that position, and several would depart, but new manager Louis van Gaal also gave Hernandez chances before telling him that he could leave if the right offer arrived.
One of those opportunities was against Real Madrid in Ann Arbor, Michigan, last month, a game watched by a record American crowd of 109,318.
Among the throng was Madrid’s president Florentino Perez. He heard the huge roar when Hernandez and Shinji Kagawa were introduced as substitutes.
Hernandez’s potential will have registered: he is a Mexican striker and Real Madrid are huge in Mexico. Hernandez, 26, has the handsome, clean-cut image preferred by Madrid. He also played well and scored.
Less than a month later, he was at the Bernabeu after agreeing to a one-season loan, with Madrid having an option to make it a permanent deal. While Angel Di Maria's record sale to United caused continuing consternation among Madrid fans, Hernandez's exit was greeted with indifference by United fans who considered him peripheral. The departure of Danny Welbeck caused more angst, but Hernandez had little choice but to depart if he wanted to play football.
Despite the glamour, Hernandez joined a club who have tumbled into crisis, with two defeats in their first three games. Perez and manager Carlo Ancelotti were jeered on Saturday as Hernandez made his debut as a substitute for Karim Benzema in the Madrid derby, which they lost at home to Atletico. He made little impact in 27 minutes, apart from picking up a yellow card.
On Tuesday, he will hope to feature as Madrid seek to become the first team to retain the European Cup since AC Milan in 1989. Ancelotti’s side open their campaign against FC Basel, and the coach thinks he has the solution to their problems.
“The problem is clear,” he said. “It is not so difficult. We need to play for the full 90 minutes.”
Hernandez has seldom been a 90-minute player, but his goals are needed to lift a club reeling just months after winning the European Cup.
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