On Emirates FA Cup final day on 19 May, it will be exactly a year since Ander Herrera woke up as the newly-crowned Manchester United Player of the Year.
The prestigious Sir Matt Busby statuette was alongside the Basque midfielder as proof that he'd been voted as the Reds' best performer in the 2016/17 season, during the awards ceremony at Old Trafford the night before.
It was the tightest three-horse contest in the award's history but he beat off the challenge of captain Antonio Valencia and striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
He joined the likes of Bryan Robson, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and David De Gea as recipients of the esteemed prize.
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It was reward for a typically all-action campaign that had seen Herrera warm to the job new boss Jose Mourinho wanted from his midfielder.
In the nicest possible way, Herrera was an irritant to opponents, an in-your-face pain, a Duracell bunny with craft and some goals in his locker too. He was the dynamo in United’s engine room and the fans recognised it in their annual vote. It was to get even better for Herrera.
United had already booked a place in the Europa League final against Ajax when Ander picked up his personal honour.
A measure of his value to Mourinho’s plans was that, once that ticket to Stockholm was rubber-stamped against Celta Vigo in the semi-final second leg, Herrera was placed in cotton wool ready for the final in the Friends Arena.
He didn’t play in United’s final three Premier League matches as the domestic campaign was played out. Fresh from his mini May break, Herrera was pivotal in United’s 2-0 Europa League win against the Dutch side.
Most notably was the fact that Herrera, who Mourinho rates as one of the
“smartest” players he’s worked with, actually went against his manager’s orders to help the Reds secure the win in Sweden.
Former Reds player Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the nominated man to guard against Ajax counter-attacks at United corners. Herrera was the midfielder given the job of being in the mix in the penalty area.
But the Basque player had noted that the Armenian had picked up a yellow card and could be at risk of a sending-off if Ajax burst out of defence and he was forced into a rash tackle.
Herrera told Mkhitaryan to swap jobs, to Mourinho’s shock and dismay on the touchline. But it was clever, quick thinking on his feet and Mkhitaryan ended up acrobatically turning in a knockdown to seal the win.
Mourinho recognised the smart switch and was delighted that individuals were able to think on their feet during matches. Herrera picked up the Man of the Match award later, to add to his Sir Matt Busby trophy. The world was his oyster.
Barcelona were also heavily reported to be courting the midfielder during the summer. Herrera made it known he wasn’t interested. Old Trafford was his home and he wanted to kick on and progress from his first season successful under Mourinho.
But the arrival of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea last summer threw a spanner in the works for Herrera. The Serbian became the defensive midfield cog and Herrera had to be content with more of a bit part.
He had one five-match consecutive run in September but generally he was in and out of the starting XI. Instead of kicking on, injuries kicked in in 2018.
A hamstring problem soon into his return in February against Sevilla in Spain in the Champions League, as he attempted a back heel, put him back on the sidelines. The campaign was turning into a personal disappointment after the highs of last season.
But Herrera has forced his ways into Mourinho’s first-choice plans. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but a three-man engine room with Herrera, Matic and Paul Pogba has given United, for the main part in April, stability, safety and danger.
It worked against City in the Manchester derby as United sensationally overturned a 2-0 half-time deficit and it was again key in the FA Cup semi final 2-1 win against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
How we reached the FA Cup finalVideo
Tottenham’s much-lauded midfield were outplayed by the Reds' engine room and Herrera capped his part in the scheme with the match-winner as he drilled in United’s second to kill off Mauricio Pochettino’s side on their own temporary patch. Herrera had turned his season around in the best possible fashion.
We are in the final, big character from the whole team 🔴 pic.twitter.com/PrLWorluIE— Ander Herrera (@AnderHerrera) April 21, 2018
He’ll almost certainly have to hand back the Sir Matt Busby statuette next month but Ander Herrera is likely to have a place in the Wembley starting line-up and could have an FA Cup winner’s medal as a consolation prize. Not bad!
The opinions expressed in this article are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United.
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