Nani on his fear of Alex Ferguson and how advice from Ryan Giggs turned him into a winner at Manchester United
Portugal winger recalls brutal training sessions with Nemanja Vidic and giving the boss a lift home after missing a penalty at Fulham
How will history remember Nani as a Manchester United player? Well, the man who played 230 games and scored 40 goals and made 73 assists for the club between 2007-2015 had great moments, winning 12 trophies including four Premier League titles.
Nani was 20 when he joined United from Sporting Lisbon. And it was hard for him at first, especially his relationship with Alex Ferguson.
“At the beginning, I was very scared of him,” the Portugal international, who now plays for Orlando City in the MLS, told the new United podcast. “Like a father, you know? To make a mistake or do something wrong, because sometimes to interact with him, I don’t know.
“I see him talking with other players and I want to be involved but I think what am I going to say, you know? I don’t know. But I was scared of him until I learned to understand and was able to express myself.
"My English has never been perfect, or going to be, but at that time it was worse than now and when he found I could speak more with him, he started coming to me and giving me more attention. And from then, I learned more about Alex Ferguson. What he wanted to do, who he was and the relationship started to be better.”
Ferguson and Nani were neighbours.
“We [the United team] used to go to London by train. His wife or his family used to leave him in the train station so on the way back he has no driver to take him so he was looking for someone who lives close to him to give him a ride.
"So I said, ‘OK boss, I’ll take you home!’ But that day, it’s so funny believe me! The day I took him home was after a game against Fulham away, and I was on the bench.”
The relationship became a good one.
“Perfect,” said Nani. “He’s a man who knows how to manage all characters, all different ages, all different personalities. My personality in that time, I was young, and not easy. I know that and I learned a lot, I changed a lot. That is life. You must learn.”
Nani also had experienced serial winning players around him to look up to and learn from. Not that he saw it at first.
“It was so important for me to have [Ryan] Giggs, [Paul] Scholes, Rio Ferdinand because they were there every time, pushing me and saying things to me.
"I was not understanding what they were doing. I thought they didn’t like me. They would just, every time, go mad at me because things didn’t go well but they saw a lot of potential in me in training and were believing a lot in me."
After a few years, things began to sink in.
“It’s one thing to listen but you try to do what they say. I tried to do what they were saying to me.
"Giggs was teaching me because he was playing in the same position and saying to me one day, I remember, ‘Nani, I know you get the defenders very tightly, marking you strongly. They focus on you and they know you cannot turn. They will be difficult when we get the ball to you, be hard on you, so wait a little bit and you change. Sometimes, stay inside a little bit, sometimes just stay and wait. Nani, take your time and you will get the ball and you will be free. That will be your time'.”
Nani credits Giggs as especially important in his development.
“He’d teach me how to make runs behind, the timing. I was listening and something about my style of game was not matching what he was saying. I recognised that from those words, seeing Scholes play, Rio’s advice. [Nemanja] Vidic – I trained a lot with him one-on-one and he was breaking my ankles! It was just friendly training! He was hard and intense but I understand to train is to be as strong as we are, hurting us, you feel the pain, you feel it’s hard but no problem.”
Nani’s game improved and he was playing with a great deal of confidence – too much on one occasion, he recalled. “We won a penalty and it was Ryan Giggs who took the penalties. I felt confident and Giggs didn’t say anything. I took the penalty and I missed!
“The penalty should have made it 3-2. We are going back home that day and I say, ‘Boss, I can take you home’. I drove him back home and he didn’t talk to me in the car. In the dressing room he killed me! He said, ‘Nani, who do you think you are? Who gave you permission to take the penalty? Ryan?’
“And then he killed Ryan Giggs, because he said, ‘Ryan, why did you let him take the penalty!’ Ryan said, ‘He grabbed the ball and I let him.’ Oh my god, that day was incredible. I took him home and I feel very uncomfortable.”
Nani had other positive influences, including Patrice Evra.
“Evra was one of the best friends I had in Manchester because, every time when I needed it, he was there to give me some advice and would come down and think what I have to do to be positive.
"He was like a brother. It was good. All the players, there were many fantastic moments and one thing I enjoyed more, what I learned, was what happened on the field stayed on the field. Outside is another life, another thing.
"We as a team, this is private, used to fight a lot in training. Not fight like this but challenge hard – everyone and someone would say he didn’t like it. He’d say, ‘Come on, what are you doing’ and it was close to a fight.
"Others would separate them and, from there, you’d go to the gym or inside to the facility, it’s gone. That’s why we were champions, the hardest team to beat. Every time it arrived, we had to be a real team to beat anyone and we were there. That’s why I get a lot of experience from that time of life I lived in Manchester.”
Now 33, Nani has since played for Fenerbahce, Valencia, Lazio, Sporting and currently Orlando and he was also a champion of Europe with Portugal in 2016, but his greatest football memories are from those at his time in Manchester.
Updated: May 18, 2020 07:09 AM