UTD Unscripted: I will keep United close to my heart
If somebody had told me, when I was just a kid in Ecuador, that I would spend nearly 10 years as a Manchester United player, I would have told them it was impossible.
My family and my town are full of hard-working people with fighting spirit. Because of the oil industry there, there was work, so my Dad always worked, so did my brothers and sisters when they were old enough. In order to help out financially at home, I joined my other siblings picking up bottles and collecting them over a period of months so we could then sell them. I was a fighter too.
That’s what it’s like when you live in a little town where people are needy: it can be a little sad at times and everyone has to struggle hard to scrape a living. We fought hard so we could struggle through every day, it wasn’t easy. That’s how it is.
Don’t get me wrong - there were also happy and joyful moments spent playing and sharing with my brothers and sisters. It was like a kind of fifty-fifty childhood, if you like: half the time happy and half the time sad. But that’s life! Not everyone is born with the same luck.
Not everyone, for example, was lucky enough to have a huge football pitch right in front of their house, like I did.
Lago Agrio, the local team, played their games there and not only would we always go and watch them play, we would also play on the pitch whenever we could. Virtually every afternoon and evening we’d be there, dividing the huge pitch up into small-sided games. We’d play seven-a-side until 10pm or 11pm, and most of the time either they would turn the lights off to make us finish playing, or my Mum would come over cracking the whip, telling us to pack it in and come home.
So we played a lot of football and, thanks to God, I was given the chance to make a career in the game.
When I was 14, I told Cabeza that I wanted to go and try out at Nacional, one of the biggest clubs in Ecuador. Nacional is a team based in the capital city, Quito, which is over 250 kilometres from Lago Agrio. Cabeza said it was fine, he would take me, so he very kindly took me all the way to Quito. My first trial was with the Under 16s, and after three sessions the coach decided to take me on. He gave me all my kit and my board in a building where all the other young players were sleeping too. So that’s where my career really started out.
That’s also when I started to become more aware of Manchester United. I started to watch them because of the Latin American presence at that time with players like Verón and Forlan. So I used to follow United’s progress more and more and saw that they were winning trophies with increasing regularity. I was beginning to see what the club was all about.
When I started out in football, I wanted to play professionally for a team in my country, then try to make the Ecuador national team. After I managed to achieve those two goals, it became my dream to come and play in Europe.
Then, after I ended up at Wigan via Spain, my aim was just to work hard and then maybe a big club like United might come knocking.
When that happened, as soon as I arrived at Manchester United, I said to myself:
This is my club.
This is my home.
I want to continue here for many years to come.
Then, when I started training, I was full of nerves. When I saw all the top players around me, I couldn’t see myself lasting two years in that company!
Then our coach, Rene Meulensteen, told me: “This is United and you have to work hard and you have to win. This is a club that wins trophies.”
I said to myself: “I like the look of this. I have to train hard and fight hard.”
Like I said, I’ve been a fighter all my life.
My family had to fight to get by in Lago Agrio. I had to fight to get by at Nacional, hitchhiking to the training ground. I had to fight to earn enough money to feed myself as a teenager.
Fighting is no problem.
So I did that. Kept working, kept training hard, and I could see that every day, every game I was improving all the time. I was gradually settling into life at this club with the winning mentality.
I thought to myself: “I’m going to stay here for a while more yet and let them give another contract!”
It might be strange to some, but one game that really stands out in my memory is a Champions League game against Bayern Munich. It was at Old Trafford in my first season and we’d lost 2-1 in the first leg, so we knew we had to go out there and win, but it’s the mood in the dressing room which sticks with me as much as the game itself.
I remember Rio and Patrice were encouraging us all, saying: “We’ve got to win this game for our fans, for our families.” Then we spent about 40 minutes before the game, warming up, preparing ourselves, putting on our strapping and stuff, and then walking out onto the pitch and you could see around the place that everyone was up for this one and fully focused.
So we went out there and we were 2-0 up within 10 minutes, then 3-0 up just before half-time. I made two assists, had one of my best games for United and the whole team was just incredible, with an amazing atmosphere. Somehow we didn’t end up going through the tie because Bayern scored twice and went through on away goals, but still that game is always going to be in my heart.
Of course, we haven’t always won and things haven’t always gone smoothly. I’ve had some tough and difficult moments as well, but even they gave me positives.
In my second season, I suffered a broken leg against Rangers in the Champions League. Badly broken.
I had my operation and then just two days later I’d been discharged from hospital and was at home resting.
My partner answered the door and there was Sir Alex Ferguson and a team official offering me all their support, telling me to not worry.
Stay calm and concentrate on recovering fully.
We’ll be waiting for you.
For me this was a really important show of support. An incredible reaction.
I was back six months later and I played in the Champions League final.
That was down to hard work, but I have to really thank John Davin, the physio who did an amazing job. We put in place a recovery and training plan. We worked through that together and I think the physical side of things was very important before we moved on to working outside on the pitch.
Those six months were crazy for me, but I made great and lasting friendships in that time. Not just with John, either. I got to know many different people within the club. I used to eat here every day with the team, but I also got to know everyone else and I knew all about the lives of the chefs and kitchen staff as well the guys who cleaned the toilets.
A lot of the time I wouldn’t leave training until around five or six in the evening, having come in at nine in the morning. I was just like any one of the workers myself, so we built up good friendships. That part makes me a bit sad now that I’m about to leave, but in my heart I will always remember all these people.
It’s hard to forget the players I played with, too. Greats like Giggs, Rooney, Scholes, Rio, Vidic, Patrice… it’s hard to believe I’m even sat here listing these names and it’s impossible to name them all or pick out just one as the best, so I’ll just say that I’m so happy to have played with some very intelligent footballers.
I have so many memories of my time here, but also so many other items. Honestly, I’ve got an entire Manchester United Museum in my house! I’ve got things in there that are very valuable to me. They represent my life here and all the effort I’ve put in. There isn’t any amount of money that could pay for the things in there and the memories I have in my head.
There are two things that are my favourite items: the first shirt I wore for Manchester United and the armband from when Jose Mourinho gave me the captaincy for the first time.
These things, these memories, they’re absolutely priceless to me.
My heart, my affections will always lie with Manchester United. I will always be a fan of the club, but I’ll always have my affection for the people here at the club and in the city. My daughter has enjoyed ten happy years here in Manchester. This has been a wonderful home.
I will keep the team and the fans close to my heart. To the United fans, you have always been great with me, so I’d just like to say thank you for all your support during this fantastic time I’ve had with the club. I hope you keep enjoying supporting United and they continue to win many more trophies in the future.