The transfer that created a United cult hero

Saturday 29 January 2022 07:00

“Who is Diego?” During United’s comfortable 3-0 win at Sunderland in April 2017, then-manager Jose Mourinho turned to Michael Carrick, perched behind him on the bench, to enquire about the song emanating from the Stadium of Light’s away section. “He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry!” continued the terrace anthem.

When United’s then-no.16 explained that the song was in reference to former Red striker Diego Forlan, Mourinho chuckled to himself. The Portuguese’s reaction was standard for the uninitiated. The headlines of Forlan’s time at United don’t stand out as spectacular: two-and-a-half seasons, 98 appearances, 17 goals, one Premier League title and one Community Shield. On the face of it, a Reds striker mustering less goals than Chris Smalling and fewer appearances than Neil Webb would appear unremarkable, but the essence of Diego Forlan’s United tale runs far deeper. 

As the 2001/02 campaign progressed, Sir Alex Ferguson had cause to consider his attacking stable. Teddy Sheringham had rejoined Tottenham before the season, while Ruud van Nistelrooy had arrived from PSV Eindhoven and was steadily establishing himself as a masterful piece of business. The simultaneous arrival of Juan Sebastian Veron had posed more questions than answers, as Ferguson shuffled his team around in order to accommodate the Argentinian playmaker while also keeping his established quartet of Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and David Beckham in the team. This often meant a switch to a 4-4-1-1 formation, with van Nistelrooy invariably the spearhead, limiting opportunities for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. 

While Solskjaer retained the same patience that had been a feature of his previous five campaigns at the club, Cole left in December 2001 to join Blackburn Rovers, with Yorke, who was struggling to sustain his finest form, following him to Ewood Park seven months later. Mindful of the need to inject youthful vigour into his attack, Ferguson made a late move to sign a 22-year-old forward who had been tearing up the Argentinian top flight with Independiente. Forlan had been heavily scouted by Middlesbrough over the course of the previous year, and was set to sign for the Teessiders when United swooped. Having flown to London from Buenos Aires with a Boro representative, the striker was informed by his agent that Independiente had received a new proposal. United had offered to pay the transfer fee in one lump sum, rather than the instalments Middlesbrough had agreed, so Forlan had a choice to make. He cancelled his connection from Gatwick to Newcastle, flew to Manchester instead and quickly agreed a £6.9 million transfer. 

“It was a massive blow to the club,” admitted Boro chief executive Keith Lamb, while manager Steve McClaren said: “When we first initiated negotiations with Independiente for the player we did realise that there was an awful lot of competition throughout Europe for his services. Nothing is over until everybody has signed on the dotted line.”
Forlan: How I scored my first United goal Video

Forlan: How I scored my first United goal

Diego Forlan recalls the night he broke his Reds goalscoring duck, with a little help from David Beckham…

'A LOT OF POTENTIAL'

Once settled in after signing, Forlan made his United debut, becoming the Reds’ first-ever Uruguayan player in a 4-0 win at Bolton Wanderers. By the time of his 76th-minute introduction in place of Solskjaer, the Norwegian had put the Reds three goals clear with a clinical hat-trick, underlining his own response to the newfound competition for attacking spots. Van Nistelrooy duly completed the scoring to further underline what would be expected of Forlan at his new club. “With Diego we have got a very young and talented player,” stressed the Dutchman, post-match. “He only came on for the last 15 minutes, but you could see that he has a lot of potential. He’s very, very quick, has two great feet and I think at 22 years of age, he has a great future.”

With van Nistelrooy and Solskjaer in top form, however, Forlan’s early starts were confined to the Reds’ Reserves, where he scored twice in his opening games. At senior level, however, the goals didn’t flow. Nor did they trickle. After his first full start, a 4-0 home win over Tottenham, the Uruguayan played a pivotal role in the Reds’ third goal but spurned a host of chances to notch his first strike for the club. 
“Diego was fantastic,” said Sir Alex after the game. “His energy and linking of play, movement and all that was terrific. His making of the third goal was superb. He’s very bright. It was so sad for him not getting a goal. I really felt for the lad. He was just over-anxious and that’s not a great fault for a young lad of 22. You expect that.” 

Few, however, could have predicted that by the end of the 2001/02 campaign, with 18 appearances – seven starts, 11 outings from the bench – under his belt, Forlan would still be awaiting his first goal. Chances came and went, none more agonisingly than a last-minute, long-range lob against Bayer Leverkusen which was spectacularly headed off the line by Diego Placente, curtailing United’s Champions League involvement at the semi-final stage. 

Even without goals, Forlan’s form was good enough to warrant his inclusion in Uruguay’s 2002 World Cup squad. Ahead of the tournament opener, he admitted: “I’m a little bit upset with myself that I have not scored yet for Manchester United. I’ve tried hard and sometimes I’ve been unlucky and other times I could have done better. It would be great if I could score a goal in the World Cup.” 
Diego would indeed finish as the World Cup’s top scorer and player of the tournament, albeit not for another eight years at the 2010 tournament in South Africa. Having netted once during Uruguay’s campaign in Japan, however, Forlan returned to Old Trafford ahead of the 2002/03 campaign determined to hit the ground running.
Forlan loves that fans still chant his name Video

Forlan loves that fans still chant his name

In the UTD Podcast, Diego Forlan explained how it feels to hear fans chanting about his famous brace at Anfield...

MAIDEN GOAL

Two goals in two pre-season outings against Shelbourne and Chesterfield promised progress, but a spate of misses, including a skewed close-range effort against Parma, suggested neurosis. “He is only 23 and has a long time to improve,” stressed Ferguson. “It is fair to say that he needs a goal to settle himself down and he has to trust himself more when he shoots. At the moment he is leaning back all the time, which is why those shots went over the bar. There is nothing wrong in terms of him taking chances, but he just needs the confidence of a goal.” 

That maiden goal finally arrived in the Uruguayan’s 27th Reds outing. Three weeks earlier, Forlan had been set to take a penalty in the Reds’ Champions League qualifier against Zalaegerszeg, only for Roy Keane to insist that van Nistelrooy remain on spot-kick duty. In the Irishman’s absence, with United 4-2 up against Maccabi Haifa at Old Trafford, stand-in skipper David Beckham ushered Diego forward when the Reds were given a late penalty at the Stretford End. When the no.21 thrashed his shot in, the stadium erupted with genuine delight in recognition of his ceaseless endeavour. 

“If you put that amount of effort in you should get something. Hopefully he will settle down now and get lots more,” said Ferguson, while Diego simply told reporters post-match: “I am happy to score my first goal. We had to win at home, so we did.” 

Years later, Roy Keane confirmed that Forlan’s team-mates remained supportive throughout his ordeal. “I remember when Diego came in and it wasn’t quite happening for him,” reflected the then-club captain. “If a player tried – and Diego did – we’d drag him with us; we’d try to help him. Plenty of praise in training, or during games; not getting on his back. Diego was honest, so in training you’d go, ‘Unlucky; it’ll come good tomorrow’, not ‘You can do ******* better than that’.” 
Forlan: The goal I tell my friends about Video

Forlan: The goal I tell my friends about

Diego Forlan recalls the incredible moment he scored at Old Trafford – and couldn’t get his shirt back on…

The floodgates hardly opened thereafter, but there was a clear upturn in Diego’s contributions and he would go on to have a huge say in United’s successful 2002/03 Premier League title campaign. His first goal in open play was a superb guided header to rescue a point at home to Aston Villa; a week later, he thundered in a 25-yard rasper to pick up a 2-1 win over Southampton; having opened the scoring at Burnley in the League Cup, he rifled in late winners at home to Chelsea in the next round, then repeated the feat in the dying seconds of the sides’ Premier League encounter; he hooked in the opener against Birmingham in a tight 2-0 home league win. Amidst that sequence, he also enjoyed a particularly memorable afternoon at Anfield.

Entrusted from the start against a Liverpool team unbeaten at home in a year, Forlan struck twice in four minutes to secure a victory quickly rendered unforgettable by the circumstances of its achievement. A spectacular howler from home goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, who let a tame back-header from Jamie Carragher spill between his legs, gave Forlan a simple tap-in from unmissable range. As Anfield rocked, the Uruguayan strode in on goal soon afterwards and lashed a powerful effort inside the Pole’s near post. 

Despite a late rally from the hosts, United won 2-1 and Forlan was the hero. “Today his perseverance has been rewarded in a big way because the fans will never forget it,” reckoned Ferguson, knowing full-well the magnitude of his words. Five of the youngster’s nine goals in 2002/03 were crucial to the Reds’ title triumph, but the double at Anfield was instantly enshrined in exceptionality. A vital contribution, by an underdog, in comedic circumstances, against bitter rivals. It’s little wonder that the energetic, perma-grinned Uruguayan has retained a special place in supporters’ hearts.
All The Goals: Diego Forlan Video

All The Goals: Diego Forlan

A memorable brace at Anfield features among our look back at all of Diego Forlan's United goals...

SPANISH GAIN

In 2003/04, Forlan netted another eight goals in 32 outings across all competitions but, with Wayne Rooney joining from Everton, the then-25-year-old was allowed to join Villarreal in order to reignite his career in La Liga. He hit the ground running, ending 2004/05 with 25 La Liga goals and a share of European football’s golden shoe with Arsenal’s Thierry Henry. Having fired the Yellow Submarine to a first-ever Champions League campaign, Diego then starred as they reached the semi-finals, and his star continued to shine with another 21-goal haul in 2006/07, which provoked Atletico Madrid into signing him as Fernando Torres’s replacement. 

In four seasons at Atleti, he continued to devastate the Spanish top flight, picking up another Golden Shoe in 2008/09 and topping 20 goals in three of his four seasons at the Estadio Vicente Calderon. Amidst that run he enjoyed his finest contribution in a Uruguay shirt, top-scoring at the 2010 World Cup, and the following year Forlan briefly became his country’s leading appearance-maker and goalscorer. By the time of his international retirement in 2015, Diego had amassed 36 goals in 112 outings for Uruguay. 

His club career wound on until 2019, taking in brief stints in Italy, Brazil, Japan, Uruguay, India and Hong Kong, but through it all – and to this day – he remains a cult figure at Old Trafford. Shortly after his name was sung at the Stadium of Light, to Mourinho’s bemusement, Forlan neatly summarised his place in Old Trafford folklore. “Soon after the match ended, I received messages which showed television footage of Jose Mourinho turning to Michael Carrick to ask who Diego was,” he admitted. 

“United fans were singing about me in the away end, something which I cannot believe still happens. I loved my time at United and had a good relationship with supporters. I am sure there are many others who say exactly the same, some of them who had more successful careers at the club than I had. And they do not get their names sung.”

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