UTD Unscripted: We drove each other on
Never heard of him. I’ll be totally honest, that was my reaction when I heard that we were signing Nemanja Vidic.
At the time we had Mikael Silvestre and Wes Brown as our other centre-halves, and Mikael was probably playing a little bit more than Wes. I think the manager wanted competition for places, Wes had had a few injuries and Vida was a punt to bring that extra competition. Liverpool were interested as well, Aston Villa and a few others, and then he signed for us.
I had no idea what to expect from him, no preconceptions. When someone joins the club, you’re quickly sussing them out and forming opinions and, from what I was seeing in his early training sessions, Vida was struggling, especially physically. That wasn’t just strength-wise, but breathing, too. The pace of the training sessions, which were such high intensity every day, were just such a shift in what he’d been used to. It wasn’t easy for him.
I had a conversation with Wayne Rooney – a couple of times, actually – about both Vidic and Patrice Evra, who had joined at the same time. We were both basically saying: “Wow, how have we signed these two?” Wayne was playing against Vida in training and he was quite clear on Vida’s issues: he wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t aggressive enough, just didn’t seem like a Man United player.
In fairness, it wasn’t the easiest time to be joining us either. You’ve got to remember the turmoil we had with Roy Keane leaving a couple of months before Vida arrived. That’s a big personality who’s left the training ground and in that period there was a little sense among the players of: right, where are we going now?
What’s the direction? Who leads the changing room? Who’s the manager building the team around? The team had been built around Roy for many years, he was one of the main cogs in the machine that ran the place, so who was going to fill those shoes? Michael Carrick came in a few months later, but in the immediate aftermath of Roy’s departure you had to consider: are we looking for a like-for-like replacement? Do we need a personality like Roy to be successful? A lot of questions needed answering during that period when Vida joined, so it wasn’t a great time to come in.
As players, you don’t necessarily give people time. You see them once or twice in training and you make a quick judgement. That’s what the culture was like. It’s very easy to quickly get a bad or a good reputation. People’s judgement comes fast and it can be quite brutal at times. In Vida’s case it was very brutal.
I remember thinking: He won’t be here long. No chance he’s gonna be here long.
What’s good about Vida, which is what I came to understand over time, is that he’s a really, really deep thinker. He really analyses everything. Speaking to him since, I know now that back when he first signed, he was nervous. He was wondering: have I made the right move? It was so difficult for him. He was playing against Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Louis Saha every day. Louis is one of the hardest players to play against in training because he’s got everything. Vida was up against these players in training every day, so the standards expected of him had shot up massively overnight.
We were judging him harshly, but he was judging himself harshly too. I know now that there were definitely times when he thought: I don’t think I’m going to make it here.
He went away and worked very diligently on a lot of things. He spent a lot more time in the gym, getting himself physically ready, preparing himself, conditioning himself for the right level so he could actually compete.
Then there just came a point – I can’t think of a specific day or date – when he was just competing. He just got accustomed to it over a period of time. Physically, it’s like doing 5k runs, for instance. When you start doing 5k runs, they’re really difficult. You do them for a period of time, do different training working towards it and then you come back to 5k again in two months’ time and you wonder what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t as hard as you thought it was. Football can be the same if you apply yourself right and he did that.
Listen, Man United bought him, Sir Alex Ferguson saw something, so there was obviously something there. He was playing to a good enough standard at Spartak Moscow, so it was just about transferring that to here. He just needed the time.
Vida arrived in January 2006 and a couple of months later we won the League Cup. He came on in the final and I think that gave him some real confidence in terms of how he felt the manager viewed him. The manager decided to give him a chance to come on and feel what it’s like to win something with us, play a little role in that, in the hope it’d motivate him to start producing the goods on a consistent basis. I think that was a masterstroke from the manager, not only with Vida but with Patrice as well. He left out Ruud from that game too, so it was a big vote of confidence for those boys. They were both able to think: wow, you’re going to leave out someone like Ruud and you’re going to bring me on. That paid off in the long run with their development.
Sometimes in careers, you need an element of luck here or there as well. When I went to Leeds, the manager played three at the back because he had Lucas Radebe, Jonathan Woodgate and me. He didn’t want to make a decision between us, but Radebe had lots of injuries, Woodgate had his court case and then me and Dominic Matteo played all the games as a two. Sometimes it’s just fate, sometimes things just fall into place for you and that happened with Vida in his first full season at United. With a few injuries around the defence, all the pieces just fell into place and then the manager, by hook or by crook, falls onto a partnership that becomes what it became.
For us, it was a gradual thing. Me and Vida were getting partnered up here and there in training and I think a really big part of our partnership is that we became good buddies off the pitch as well. We might get a coffee or a meal, especially in the early days after he’d moved over. I helped him settle in by taking him out a couple of times, but more importantly, we just spent time together around the training ground after training. We’d go and have a sauna together, we’d talk in the gym, we’d sit in the recovery pool just chatting. He’d be picking my brains, I’d be picking his brains and what comes out of conversations like that is how I see defending, how he sees defending, and then through training I started seeing what he was good at.
It comes down to intelligence, with partnerships. You need to have some level of intelligence to appreciate your partner’s best movements, his go-to movements, what he prefers. Being able to smell, see and feel what’s good for your partner is going to make things easier for you. If I can make people around me feel better, feel more comfortable, then we’re all going to perform better. I talked enough to ensure that they felt better, which made them perform better, which gave us a better chance of winning and gave me a better chance of performing better as well.
In training, we would do really good drills for defenders and really good drills for attackers, and we would be learning. In those sessions, me and Vida weren’t necessarily together, but when I’m out on the side waiting, I’m watching. Let’s say, for instance, there are two centre-backs in the goal area and they’re doing crossing drills for three, four or five strikers coming in. I might be having a breather and Vida’s partnering someone else, but I’m watching Vida, looking at what positions he takes up, looking at where he looks best, where I can go off of him if I’m in there with him. I’m sure that was the case vice-versa too. That’s why I always say to kids: when you’re outside the exercise waiting to come in, that’s when sometimes you need to be doing your most work. Looking, watching, learning. For us, that game intelligence and understanding of each other came from the training pitch.
People always ask: “Did you work hard at the partnership?”
I don’t ever remember anybody once sitting me and Vida down and saying: “Right, you two are going to be a partnership, but you’re going to have work on X, Y and Z.” It wasn’t like that. Again, I think the intelligence of the players is an important factor, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your partner, but there was also a desire between us to form a partnership.
We wanted to become something.
The foundations of previous great United teams had been based on solid partnerships in that area of the team, and with the competitive energy that was forming between us… we never spoke about it, but I know we wanted to obliterate whatever partnerships people held up in high esteem.
Vida wouldn’t admit that because that’s his nature, his personality, but I’ll bear all. I don’t mind.
There were always targets. I always set targets as an individual and as a partnership. After a season or two of playing with Vida, I knew that when I left United, I wanted to walk out of Old Trafford knowing that we were considered the best. I wanted to go down as the best partnership the club had ever had. That was something that drove me.
Before every game, I didn’t want to look across the pitch at the opposition and think to myself: people are thinking that partnership is better than ours. Those are things that were drivers for me. You set individual targets, of course, but I was looking as much, if not more, at the partnership between us. We wanted to be known as the best. That was massive for me.
You can’t mention us, really, without mentioning Edwin too. That communication between us, I don’t know what it was but you feel that special something that’s there that will probably last forever. Whenever I see Edwin now, I don’t even mean to do it, but I’ll just ask him if he’s spoken to Vida recently. It’s not premeditated to say that, it just happens.
Me and Vida were different players and different characters, as everyone knows. I think people know that Vida was very serious. He liked a laugh every now and again, but in the main he was a very serious guy. Very family orientated. I was very vocal in the backline. Vida played and led by example. Other than our playing styles, that’s a big difference between us: I was very vocal around the training ground, the hotel, the coach journey to the game, the pitch in the 90 minutes. Vida trained hard, worked hard, was serious about what he did, went into games very focused and everyone saw by the end, he led by example with the way he performed and the level that he performed at.
The best word to describe the player Vida became is… formidable. You could see strikers going up with him, thinking: Oh god, he’s gonna smash me. You could see fear in strikers. You could see strikers play away from him sometimes, wouldn’t go near him sometimes and that’s through reputation for what he’s done. He was someone who was horrible to play against for a striker. These days I’m doing punditry so I see a lot of the old guys who played against us, and when they speak about us and specifically talk about Vida, they say he was horrible to play against.
He’d go to head the ball and head you. Vida had the most bloody noses I’ve seen out of anybody I’ve ever played with – even in his last game for United he walked off the pitch with a bloody nose and that just epitomised him! He was just fearless. He saw the ball, nothing else. If you compare him to me, I never broke my nose in football, ever. I might have a big nose but I never broke it because I made sure I protected myself. Going up for the ball, I’d protect myself in such a way that I might hurt someone, but I’d protect myself. Vida, on the other hand, would see the ball and BANG, if he hurt someone, he hurt someone. If I get hurt, I get hurt.
And you need that in your team. You need players who are prepared to hurt themselves at any given time to get yourselves over that white line.
Vida had a determination and drive to be the best. He wouldn’t tell you this or probably admit it to anyone, but he was definitely competitive in that he wanted to be the best defender at the club. There would have been a competitive edge between me and him because I wanted to be considered the best and so did he. He wanted to be better than me and I wanted to be better than him, but I think the great thing about us as a pair was that we would probably both rather that our partnership would be considered the best.