We recently spoke to Under-23s defender Luca Ercolani about his life growing up in Manchester United's Academy, as Ricky Sbragia's side look ahead to Friday night's Old Trafford clash with Stoke City (live on MUTV, 19:00 BST kick-off).
You’ve been at United for a while now and progressed to the Under-23s. Can you talk us through how you came to sign for the club in the first place?
“The United scout from Italy saw me and then he brought me to Manchester to trial a couple of times. I was doing a week in Manchester and then back in Italy. At 16, I moved here in January 2016 and I was really happy.”
It was a big move for you to come to United at that age from your own country. Did you struggle with the language at first?
“Yeah, you pick up the words that you really need – football words – in like two weeks, but I think I had a good education because I’ve been studying English since I was at school in Italy at the age of eight. I had the basics but you have to improve every time because it really helps you to communicate with team-mates on the pitch especially, so that was important for me.”
Did you ever think when you were a little boy learning English that you would come to live in England?
“No! It was a dream, especially to play for Manchester United. I remember when I was about 12 or 13, I was joking with my parents, because obviously my dream was to play professional football. I always watched United when I was younger, the United when [Cristiano] Ronaldo was playing, and I remember joking with my parents: ‘Can you imagine me playing for United?’ and a couple of years later I was called up to Manchester for a trial, so it was an amazing time.”
What were your first impressions of United when you arrived?
“It’s a massive club with massive facilities and good people. I found that the special thing for me was that everyone is like part of a family. You really feel at home when you are at Carrington and I really felt welcome when I arrived, and I still feel it now, so it progresses. It doesn’t stop – it’s not just at the start but every day you feel that passion coming from everyone that is around you at United.”
Is that important for you when you first arrive – particularly as a young player?
“To settle in, yes. It’s amazing because, at the start you obviously struggle, but there are a lot of people that try to help you in any way.”
Do your team-mates help you as well when you arrive?
“Yes. It’s quite hard at the start because you obviously try to stay with the foreign guys because they understand you a little bit more as they are in the same situation as you. But then you get to know the English guys who are very nice as well, so it just takes a bit of time but it comes together in the end.”
In terms of your time here, you are now a fully-fledged Under-23s player but you moved up early from the Under-18s, didn’t you?
“Yes, at the start, in my first year with the Under-18s I had to settle in because obviously it was a different kind of football and a different type of defending for me. Then, the second year last season, it started quite well and then there was a period where I was up and down too much. I was lucky but I worked really hard and then I was lucky that Ricky [Sbragia], the Reserves coach, called me up to play for them in an away game at Sunderland. The team wasn’t really doing well, so it was a big game. I started the game and, luckily, we won with a clean sheet. Since then, I was involved with the Reserves, so for me it was a big step up and I think it helped me a lot to settle in with the team.”
Do you think the call-up was perhaps a recognition of your maturity?
“Yes, especially to train every day with the older boys and to act like them, interact with them and marking big no.9s who are three or four years older than you. I think it is very important for me for my progress.”
You certainly don’t shirk away from the challenges with the big guys…
“I don’t mind, I always love to play older opponents, also in Italy where almost every year I played against opponents one year above me. It’s something that encourages you even more on the pitch, so I don’t mind that, to be fair.”
Have you been working hard in the gym to become that defensive strong-man?
“Yes, it’s becoming a big part of the game – the physical and athletic part – so it’s one of those things that I look more to it. I spend a lot of hours in the gym, even at home there is no training to do but I try to do as much as possible so I can be the best I can.”
We know the Italians are great defenders! There’s something about you guys that you have it in your stock. Do you have that in your mentality to defend at all costs?
“Yeah, they really teach you. I remember we had a specific coach for the defenders and they really teach you that raw passion and spirit that we have on the pitch. I think it’s in my blood and I love to share it with the other guys and try to learn from them also, but also give my point of view from what an Italian defender is like from what I learnt in the previous years in Italy.”
We missed Italy at the World Cup. Hopefully it’s a one-off but it’s a shame for football fans…
“Yeah, it is. There’s a new generation hopefully coming through and we need to start from the academies, like England have done I think, work more on technical aspects and we need some talent obviously because it’s missing at the moment – we used to have big names. It will take time because it will take time, but hopefully we’ll be back!”
I know you supported Juventus and they have now signed Cristiano Ronaldo. What do you think of that?
“I can say I was a Juventus fan and I think, apart from the big name, hopefully it’s a first step to being recognised around the world. I know in England they don’t really watch Serie A as they think the level has gone down – it used to be a highly-rated league but now it’s gone back – so hopefully this is the first step that Italy and Juventus is making to make it a more spectacular league.”
Finally, what are your plans for the new season?
“Obviously, I would love to be an important player, I would like to be one of the leaders of the team, maybe with a little bit more experience than last season. My plan is to do well obviously and the team needs to come back up to the Premier League division so, as a team, we need to win the title. I know it’s a big thing to say, but we need to because we are Man United and, for me, I want to improve myself in a little area where I struggle a bit, keep focused on the season, try not to have many ups and downs and be consistent, and try as hard as I can to get close to the first-team level.”