Antonio Valencia: The battle-hardened general of Old Trafford
"To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor."
I remember back when we were in school, we'd get soda in a bottle for 5 bucks. If you were gracious enough to return the bottle, they'd pay you a buck back.
On days when we were left without two pennies to rub together, after playing football, we'd cool our heels by the store waiting for someone else to buy soda. Then we'd latch on to the poor sods and beg them to leave the bottle with us.
Most people couldn't care less and would give away a buck than be nagged. But once we had an aggregate of five bottles, we could buy soda for ourselves - and that was a big enough feast for us kids.
On the other side of the world - in the oil-town of Lago Agrio, by the Amazon in Ecuador to be precise - another kid used to sell drinks outside the local football stadium. He would then go around and collect the empty bottles so his dad could sell them to a bottle-deposit in the city.
Our 'struggle' was for flavour. For the little boy and his family from Ecuador, it was how they eked out a living.
Having grown up in a lower-middle-class family, Antonio Valencia is not one to get flustered in the face of adversity. He was born into it and moulded by it. In fact, it is what his whole life has been about.
And hence, two decades and endless battles later, when that kid proudly wore the captain's armband of Manchester United and walked them out to the Europa League final to book a berth in the Champions League, the world stood up and took note.
A subsequent temporary stepping-in gave way to permanent responsibility and the little boy from Ecuador took over the duty of leading the Red Army - from none other than Wayne Rooney.
In the words of his first coach, Pedro Perlaza,
He was only 14 and the other boys were 18. And despite four years age difference, he imposed his leadership on the group.
Leaders of men start early.
The summer of 2009 was rather melancholic for the Red Devils. Cristiano Ronaldo had joined Real Madrid and the United fans jeered at Los Blancos' scavenging habits. More than anything, they couldn't cope with the fact that the club had actually put a price tag, however high it may have been, on pure magic.
How do we replace Ronaldo on the wing?
The Old Trafford faithful were torn between wanting to replace the goals and replicating the trickery. Who would it be - Karim Benzema or Arjen Robben? Surely they'd cost less than what we got for Ronaldo.
Surely Fergie has got an endgame, they thought.
Or did he?
In what was seen as a heavily underwhelming move in the given scenario, United signed an unlikely £16 million replacement from Wigan Athletic. A stone-faced straight-edge businessman. Antonio Valencia.
No nonsense, no glitzy wiles, just raw athleticism and most importantly, a lavish serving of heart.
But the only part of the developments that made fans want to give him a chance was the fact that Steve Bruce, the then Wigan manager, had earlier confirmed that Valencia had turned down an offer from none other than the mighty Los Blancos in January.
Valencia had a long road to travel. He didn't just have to deal with making a switch to the biggest club in England, but he also had to shoulder the weight of expectations that come with replacing one of the greatest footballers to have ever walked the earth.
But the load of Manchester wouldn't break the Ecuadorian. Valencia's pace down the right flank was too much to handle for most defenders. He scored five times in the Premier League and assisted three goals that season. And in the Champions League, he scored two and assisted three.
The numbers are not that captivating - especially for a player who was Ronaldo's replacement. But numbers just don't do justice to the impact Valencia had at United in his debut season.
Maybe this will - Antonio Valencia made it to the PFA Team of the Year in April 2010. A fresh new phase in his career had found the perfect launching pad.
But life, at times, can be a mean garbage truck. And unfortunately, tragedy struck for Valencia.
He fractured his ankle in a Champions League group stage match against the Rangers and missed a large chunk of the season. That was a body blow; he could only return to first-team action in March, the next year.
The one thing the fracture couldn't break was Valencia's resolve. In the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Schalke, he scored and was adjudged the man of the match for his sprightly showing.
In the tireless Ecuadorian, Manchester United had found the machine that'd get the kind of productivity a certain Three Lungs Park was capable of.
However, there was an uneasy question that often cropped up on nights of diminishing returns. When are United ever going to have a proper No. 7 again? Is Valencia really the worthy successor to the likes of Best, Robson, Cantona, Beckham and Ronaldo?
To be or not to be?
Sir Alex Ferguson wrote this in his book,
"You couldn't intimidate Valencia. He's a boy from the favelas who has scrapped all his life. Tough as anything. In a 50-50, he would be right in their arms across the opponent."
But how do you pick your fights?
Shadows are, quite literally, dark places. Valencia realized in the summer of 2013 that no matter how many mountains he was willing to cross, he could never quench the Red Devils' thirst for magic. The reason was simple: Valencia's arsenal has always been basic.
He belongs to a dying breed of wingers who were assigned the exclusive duty of providing service to the hitman upfront. He doesn't have a bag of tricks and has often been maligned as the one-trick winger who taunts the wing back before cutting the ball to his right and crossing it in. He is not a jack of all trades, but he is certainly the master of one.
Like Juan Carlos Burbano, his teammate at El Nacional who spent 20 years at the club, once remarked,
Antonio runs past you like a jaguar running past a cactus.
It's simple. Valencia's hat is not deep and full of magic. But even if he only has one rabbit in there, he makes sure he pulls it out every single time.
So to quite simply get down to work and prove his mettle with the commitment level he could offer, Valencia decided to call it quits on the No. 7 kit after one year.
He is no showman and he doesn't want much to do with the spotlight. What good was a number on the back of his shirt anyway, if it could only bring unwarranted tribulation?
Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.
New season. New challenge. Valencia's career at United has been quite a steeplechase. And as Sir Alex left his boys, albeit triumphantly, the dominant force in England rather unexpectedly plunged to mediocrity.
Post Fergie's retirement, the Manchester United of 2013/14 season became as clueless as the Chosen One - David Moyes. Uninspiring displays poured in one after the other and the lions of Europe soon started to look like domesticated cats. Valencia constantly battled for a starting spot and eventually spurred the departure of Nani from the club.
But among the many woes at the club, United's lack of creativity on the wings got much coverage. They had to sign a creative winger because Valencia wasn't going to cut it.
Owing to all the work Valencia puts in, Fergie and even Moyes had occasionally asked him to fill in at the right back position. Louis van Gaal studied the tapes right, I'm guessing, because he told Valencia, who was 29 at the time: Boy, you are a right back.
New lease of life
Valencia used to go to school every day with his football. He couldn't care less about the textbooks and as soon as the bell rang for recess, he'd run to the ground to stroke the ball around.
His teachers and his parents wished he'd show the same passion for science but Valencia was not too bothered. And he couldn't even be found to be given a lecture.
That's how much he loves the game and having the ball at his feet. In modern day football, when most players throw a tantrum for not being deployed in their favoured positions, Valencia took up the challenge and started working on the defensive aspects of his game.
At first he didn't seem too out of place. He provided an assist in his first game of the season where he played as a fullback.
But at the age of 29, it's difficult to undergo a fresh process of learning and unlearning all the things that made you the player that you are. It didn't come easy for Manchester United's new wingback.
A shocking performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup led to a defeat. Valencia apologized for his lacklustre showing and promised the fans that he'll make it better.
But it is safe to say that under Louis van Gaal, Valencia was looked at as a stopgap solution. And the initial form of Matteo Darmian greatly diminished his significance at Manchester United. In the subsequent season, Valencia suffered a foot injury and only featured 22 times for the Red Devils. A sense of resignation was finally becoming evident on his face.
The young kid from the shadows of the Amazon, who was living his dream at one of the biggest clubs in the world, was finally letting in the one thing that he had always stonewalled with vigour - doubt.
Jose Mourinho and the game of faith
When Jose Mourinho took charge of Manchester United, more than just a few eyebrows were raised. After all, United fans had got used to hating him when he was at Chelsea. But the man's resume speaks for itself and given their plight, United would latch on to the end of any rope that was thrown to them.
Mourinho wants nothing to do with deadweights, and that has always been the case with him. Either you shape up or you ship out. So when the Portuguese tactician called Valencia for a chat in the training ground, Valencia thought a professional decision had been made.
Well, a professional decision had indeed been made but it was not of the sort that he had expected. To Valencia's bewilderment, Mourinho clutched him by the shoulders and told him in great detail about how much he had wanted him at Real Madrid.
While Valencia was lost in an overwhelming sense of relief, Mourinho added that he wanted him at right-back, with defensive duties being his primary responsibility. While this was a bit of a bummer as far as our man was concerned, Mourinho assured him that he would have the freedom to venture forward.
Valencia must have produced his rare smile at that moment. If he doesn't reserve it for a grand reinstatement of faith, the man's face might as well be made of wood.
What has been one characteristic feature of Mourinho's stint at United so far is how he has managed to oust the monsters out of his players' heads and get the battering best out of them. Take Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Anthony Martial or the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini.
Players who were wallowing in self-doubt and playing victim have now become the wolfpack whose very presence sends shivers down the spine of defenders.
Mourinho, who has come to herald the warm romanticism of the Stretford end, sets great store by his senior players and treats them with the respect they deserve. It's not quite the macho thing to announce, but the power of love is boundless.
Under Mourinho, Valencia became a consistent machine, delivering torment after torment, and turned into the first name on the team sheet. The scrap-collecting young kid groomed by the unforgiving Amazon and the heat of the favelas had gradually risen through the ranks to become the battle-hardened general of Old Trafford.
And a week before Cristiano Ronaldo led Los Blancos out to the Cardiff Stadium to power them to a second consecutive Champions League triumph, his replacement from almost a decade ago at Manchester United - Antonio Valencia - led the Red Devils of Manchester to the Friends Arena in Sweden and marched away with the Europa Cup.
A warning was issued to the stalwarts of Europe: the red half of Manchester was well on its way back.
The circle of life
There has been no looking back ever since, and Manchester United have gone on to become a juggernaut of sorts in Mourinho's second season. While the young lads have all come to life and are relishing their time in the limelight, the soft-spoken leader of the crew is putting in shifts that make most managers in Europe wish he belonged to their team.
Valencia has become so convincing in his new role that he was voted Players' Player of the Year for the last season at United.
In fact, his teammate Ander Herrera hails him as the best right back in the world.
“I know he’s not a normal right-back because he used to play as a winger, but I think that, right now, he is the best right-back in the world, maybe with Dani Alves, because I like Dani Alves a lot. I think Antonio is one of the best right-backs in the world."
Valencia's recent 30-yard-screamer against Everton and the subtle celebratory punch triggered a profusion of praises.
The underdog story is a cliche, and for good reason. We're all intermittently tasked with defying the odds of whatever scale they may be at, and we're all unified in our struggles to part the sea. But there are few things more reassuring than knowing that we're not alone in our predicament.
Valencia and his family have left their tattered and old minuscule wooden hut back in Ecuador untouched. It serves as a sort of reminder of what it used to be. Like a tattoo would simmer in the mirror and whisper to the bearer the truths of his life, that old hut will kill any shadow of doubt that dares to pop up in his mind with regard to his ability.
And Valencia will take one deep breath, and though it'll come in characteristically hushed tones, he will tell himself that even if God wants to rain on his dreams, at best, he can only dampen the ground.