On New Year's Day, it will be eight years since Gary Neville sat in a dressing-room toilet at The Hawthorns and realised he was playing the last of his 602 first-team matches for Manchester United.
By his own admission, the long-serving right-back had been
“really poor” in the first half against West Bromwich Albion and he was eventually substituted by Sir Alex Ferguson.
As he recalls with raw honesty in his autobiography, Red, reality hit home for Neville in that away-team lavatory. A medal-laden Old Trafford career was over. A month after that heartbreaking moment of realisation at the very beginning of 2011, the Class of '92 graduate announced his retirement.
In the years since then, United have had a number of fine players operating at right-back, including the current club captain Antonio Valencia, yet nobody has really nailed down the role as Neville's long-term successor. Yet.
While it's still very early days for Diogo Dalot at Old Trafford, there are suggestions that he could be the young man to do it. Time is certainly on the Portuguese's side, given he was born in Braga as recently as 1999, just 24 hours in fact after Neville and co had booked their place in the Champions League semi-final by drawing 1-1 with Inter Milan in Italy.
Now Dalot is being tipped to be the first player since Neville to dominate the 'no.2 position' for a decade or more. Speaking after the 19 year-old made his delayed first Premier League start in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal, Jose Mourinho said,
“I think Manchester United has a right-back for the next 10 years.
“The kid Diogo was fantastic. Gary Neville must be thinking now Manchester United has a right-back for 10 years, a very good right-back for 10 years.”
And after a hugely promising full league bow, Dalot unsurprisingly wants more.
“I would be more happy if we had won the game but I’m very happy to have played my first 90 minutes in Premier League football and am looking forward to more,” Diogo told reporters after the match.
“For me it was a big achievement [to play against Arsenal]. I needed to adapt, considering the team I’m now playing in, the coach I am playing for and the league I am playing in, but I think my game can adapt. I can get my game together here and settle down.
“With the help of my team-mates, the coach and the fans, I think I will be improving a lot here. Jose Mourinho brings all his experience and knowledge of the game to us all, not just me. He is one of the best coaches ever and for me it is a dream come true to be alongside him and to learn from him. For me it is very good.
“I feel ready now for a run in the side and as long as the coach needs me, I will be ready for him.”
Dalot was signed from Porto in the summer but was carrying a knee injury when he arrived at Old Trafford. He finally made his debut in the Champions League in September, in United’s 3-0 win in Switzerland against Young Boys, and he followed that up with his home debut in the Carabao Cup against Derby County.
However, more injury woe followed when the defender was on international duty for Portugal’s Under-21s in October.
After another unwanted pause in his maiden campaign, Dalot returned to action last Saturday, when he sampled the Premier League for the first time as a substitute at Southampton. He admits that his spell on the sidelines wasn’t all bad and helped him with his football education in England.
“I have been following the Premier League since I can remember, since I first watched football and to be able to see it from the stands for a while this season and then get onto the pitch, it has all been good experience for me,
“ said Dalot. ”It has been very good for me.
“It is the best league in the world. The intensity of the game and the pace is different to anywhere. It is the best football to play in and I need to enjoy this kind of game [United v Arsenal].
“There were no nerves. I needed to be prepared for these kind of games and to play these kind of games and the Premier League and I was very confident. My team-mates have helped me to be like that.”
Dalot’s impressive command of the English has also helped him bed down in his new environment.
“I needed to be ready to come here and to settle here. So for me it was good to learn the language well and quickly,” he said.
“I am still learning, so it is not perfect. For a couple of years, I learnt and consumed English in school and I watched TV and movies to give myself an idea.”
United’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal did little to help the club climb into the coveted top four places in the Premier League. But Dalot still believes the Reds will make it into one of those Champions League qualification spots.
“We go to sleep thinking about getting into the top four and we wake thinking about getting into the top four,
“ admitted Diogo.For sure we will get there. It is our main goal for now to get into the top four and I think we will get there. We are improving and we are fighting to get results and I think we are getting and better.
“As a team we need to develop every single game. The spirit and fight is there and we will get there.
“Fulham on Saturday is a big game now. One of the things I have noticed in England is that there are no weak games in the Premier League. There is no game in which you can relax. We need the points to climb the table.”