UTD Unscripted: My unlikely friendship
When I first arrived in Manchester, I had a few language barriers to deal with.
I had just spent two-and-a-half years in Holland playing for PSV Eindhoven, and while I was there I decided to study both Dutch and English, which was so hard. It was a good job that I did though because before that I knew nothing – I mean NOTHING – about any language other than Korean and Japanese. Having the basics of English helped me when I joined United in 2005, because I needed to have conversations with the other players and that was a big thing for me to adapt to the culture of the club.
At first, two players particularly helped me to settle the most, and they were both Dutch: Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Sar.
Edwin arrived at almost the same time as me, in the same transfer window, and he had experience of the Premier League with Fulham. Ruud had been at the club for a few years by then and he was great at explaining the history of the club to me. It helped that I had the connection of having spent time in Holland, particularly with Ruud because he had been at PSV previously as well. I wouldn’t say my English was anything like decent at that stage, but it was better than my Dutch, so we spoke in English and they both really helped me to adapt.
The language was really the main difference between England and Holland, so that was my only big problem to adapt to, and I slowly improved with that all the time, learning the language, learning what it was like to play in English football and learning what it meant to play for United.
A few months after I arrived, this little Frenchman appeared.
It wasn’t the first time I’d come into contact with Patrice Evra. When I was at PSV, we’d played against AS Monaco in the Champions League, I think the round of 16, so I knew of him from those games.
At first we weren’t that close. He’d only just joined, I’d only been there six months, and there were French players as well who were able to help him settle in. So Louis Saha and Mikael Silvestre, they both really helped him a lot.
At first we didn’t get together at all. After that, I don’t really know how it happened, but we just slowly started to grow closer. He moved to Alderley Edge and later suggested that I did too, so we lived near each other, plus also we bonded over video games. At that time I think we were both playing Pro Evolution Soccer. Once we started playing that, we would often get together at each other’s house to have dinner, play games and we just grew closer like that. I didn’t speak French, he didn’t speak Korean and neither of us spoke great English, so I guess the language of football helped!
For those first few months he was quite quiet around the club. That didn’t last too long! He needed to know everything and everyone before he showed his full character. When he knew the club, knew the players, he was more comfortable then and everybody got to see that he had a huge personality and he became a big influence in the dressing room.
Patrice is loud. Everyone knows this now. Probably in the top three in that group. Rio, Gary, Patrice. I think everyone would guess that those three were the loudest in that dressing room!
So I don’t really know how Patrice and I became close friends, but it happened over time. Then, when Carlos Tevez arrived in 2007, the three of us became close. Again, I just don’t know why!
He spoke Spanish, Patrice can speak Spanish as well, and suddenly we were friends. After training we would play some two-touch on the pitch together and then it started to be every single time we did anything on or off the pitch. Even though I can’t communicate with Carlos because I can’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak English at that time, Patrice just translated all of our conversations!
We would pick up a few words of each other’s languages – Korean, French, Spanish – but really only a few words. Sometimes the bad words! But we mainly spoke English and Patrice would translate when he needed to, because I think Carlos can speak English but he doesn’t want to!
Every time we would get together for dinner, at the hotel and even during the warm-up before the match, we three would always warm up together. We were just always together. On the plane to Champions League games, on the train to an away game in England, we would always sit together. It just happened smoothly and even though we don’t speak one language, we were just happy together. We were all comfortable. Everyone should be comfortable together with someone, and even though we couldn’t communicate straight away we just felt very comfortable around each other as a three.
The environment helped because we were all happy with what was happening to the team. It was a really good time for me on the pitch and off the pitch as well. We were all good friends and sometimes we spent more time together than we did with our families. In that situation, that’s one of the most important things to have: special feelings with the other players.
We were professionals and we knew what we had to do and how to do it, so then we were winning big games, winning trophies and sharing those times with each other. The example of me, Patrice and Carlos shows what the United dressing room was like at that time. We were from not the same continents, we had come from all over the world, players from Asia, Europe, South America, but these three were close friends within that club. That shows how the dressing room was, it proves to everybody how good it was. That’s how we succeeded at that time.
We won the Premier League many times and reached many finals, and it was in Moscow that I had one of my saddest moments when I found out I wasn’t in the squad for the Champions League final against Chelsea. Everyone was great, but I still remember Patrice and Carlos in particular, they definitely gave me comfort. I was sad, obviously, but they just hugged me, then I could read their faces how they felt disappointed for me and how sad they felt. They wanted to share the occasion with me, with their friend, so I felt really appreciated by their behaviour and their expressions on their faces. But what can we do? I was disappointed before, then once the game started I was just praying for us to win. That’s our situation. The atmosphere in our dressing room was like that. After everything, we won the Champions League so nobody can blame anybody!
The party afterwards, I half enjoyed it, half didn’t enjoy it, it was a strange feeling. I could understand it in my head that we were champions of Europe but I couldn’t really feel it in my heart, so it was mixed feelings. I was really happy that we succeeded and won the Champions League, which is what we wanted to do, and I know it wasn’t only me, there were other players in the squad who hadn’t played. We had 25 or more who wanted to be in the squad and only 18 who could make it, so I knew it wasn’t just me. That’s the team, you know.
For me, I appreciate that I contributed some things to the squad to help reach that achievement, but every player knows that they have to do their job. If I couldn’t get in the manager’s squad in Moscow, that means there was something I had to improve in myself. If you lose something, you have to find the way to achieve it the next time. I did, because the next year we got to the Champions League final again and I started that time, but unfortunately we didn’t win!
After that, Carlos left and it became very strange. We had always been together, then when he left there was a space where he had been. Me and Patrice were always talking about it, always wondering why he left to join City, because we missed him, but that’s football; you never have all the same players with you through all the way to retirement. We know that one day we’re going to split, but with us it happened quite early, after just two years. We wished that he had stayed longer, but that’s the football life and we have to accept it.
It wasn’t long before Carlos was back at Old Trafford with City, and that was a very, very unusual day for us. Even the warm-up was strange. We’d always been together, the three of us warming up, then before this game we were warming up separately on the pitch, just me and Patrice together and we could see Carlos over there with his new team. That first moment we saw him was this strange feeling, but then it had gone because we’re professionals, so we knew we had to focus on the match, we had to win. After that we could hug our friend and talk to him, but during the match the main job is the derby and we have to win the game. Football, it just moves on.
So we were back to two friends in the dressing room.
The rest of the players always wondered, always asked us: “How are you guys friends?!” They asked us, but we never had an answer for them! It just naturally happened, it was a feeling we had. This is something special. We enjoyed it and I think everyone enjoyed watching us and wondering how we could get close. They always involved us, always laughed along with us and I think they liked having our little friendship within the squad.
They would always joke around with us, and at one point we got a nickname.
At that time, the film was quite famous around the world. Someone on the internet made some pictures: the movie poster of Rush Hour with our heads on it. My head on Jackie Chan’s body and Patrice was Chris Tucker. I saw it first and showed it to Patrice. We loved it, we both found it funny and we just kept laughing about it all the time. Everyone in the dressing room loved it and it stuck. One time we took a picture of us in the same pose as the poster.
We had some great times, but like I said, you never spend all your football life with the same players and in 2012 I had to leave United. That was very strange, very sad, very difficult for me. Seven years is the longest time I spent at any of my clubs, but that’s the time I had to leave so I could play.
It was hard, but telling Patrice… wow. That was really hard! I felt really sorry for him. We have the same agent and he knows everything that goes on, he knew what might happen, but it didn’t make it any easier.
He said: “Who am I going to warm up with?”
Every time he played it had been me. I had been there with him the whole of his United career. So we talked about everything and both felt sad, but in the end he wished me good luck and then I left.
We stayed friends of course, and he came to my wedding a couple of years later. At that time he had been in America, so it was a case of coming over for the wedding in Korea and then heading almost straight back to France. He stayed one day, and that is a long way for a day trip! He also came over to Korea a few times for private events I had, so I really appreciated that.
Sometimes these days we meet up for lunch or dinner in London or whenever we are in the same place. We speak on the phone or text each other and we carry on our strong relationship wherever we are. Finding him has been one of the great pleasures of my life. Patrice was a great team-mate, but honestly it’s more than that; I think he is my best friend in my whole life.