UTD Unscripted: Making the right choice
Your life is all about the choices you make.
When I look back on growing up in Les Ulis, all the kids in our neighbourhood didn’t have many options. Nobody had much money, so the boys and girls had a choice of getting into sport, enrolling at beauty school or getting into the wrong things and finishing up in a bad place. That was pretty much it.
I was very lucky that I had supportive parents who stood squarely behind me. (Literally, actually.)
Right opposite my place we had ‘the pitch’, as it was known in our area. It wasn’t great quality, but at least it was grassy.
Sometimes, when the older kids came along and cleared us off, we played on white shale in another area, and when you fall on that stuff… ouch. Scabbed hands, scabbed knees… so the pitch wasn’t great, but we were all happy with it and went to play there all the time.
My class would all go there every day straight away after the end of school and play together. All kids of all ages, either in one big match or split off into smaller groups to kick around among ourselves.
It was great.
My dad didn’t have far to come to get me to take me home because it was so close, so he would stand and watch me play for a while, then I would spot him coming over.
My parents knew I just wanted to play football and keep training with my mates all the time I could, so he would give me time, but after a while I’d see him looking at me in that way dads have, that face that just says: 'Come on now.'
He could tell I wasn’t going to come straight away. So he’d have to keep watching, and he’d just stand there for ages. You could say he was my first fan.
My parents bought me some decent boots. Not expensive, they probably cost £10, but that’s all I needed. I played too much to have fancy boots, they would have been worn out. I had what I needed, I could play football all the time and I was happy with that. I just played and played and played.
Dad would always tell me, as a kid: 'Yes, you’re rapide; you’re a technical player.'
I don’t know if that was true at the time, but that’s what he would say.
Back then, I would say my favourite players were the Brazilians, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, because they were both fantastic players with beautiful movement and grace. They made their matches great to watch.
I mostly loved Ronaldinho, because he was a player who could make you dream, with his great big smile on the pitch, with his great technical skills… I think that combination of great technical skills and the terrific goals he could score, it’s that which inspires people.
(By the way, everyone says I don’t smile when I'm on the pitch, but it’s not deliberate! Those who know me, know that it’s my usual state to be always joking around. I don’t know why this isn’t the case on the field – maybe it’s through concentration – but I can assure you that I’ve always been that way, I’m always happy and off the pitch I like to think I’m a good laugh!)
Of course, Ronaldinho was famous for his skills. That’s the kind of thing I would try to copy as a kid.
When you’re starting out, you need to have a range of skills to help your combativeness. And you need to be quick. You need to be able to run at your opponent when you have the ball at your feet. I always just loved to dribble the ball and I got pretty good at it. I kept improving and I joined CO Les Ulis, my local club, and they were very good years for me.
We had some great coaches who made sure we had some good guidance, and that’s where I got to play with my friends. It was really a top experience to play there. It was all just for the joy of playing, and it was all about just having good times. They had all the kids from all the surrounding neighbourhoods, so we can’t have been easy to manage, but they somehow managed, and succeeded in producing some great players, so that management was an important part of it.
There were some really good players, and we all had different qualities, but I was so lucky to have such supportive parents behind me. They could see I had a talent and they were right behind me all the way.
Some of the guys who didn’t have that backing, they didn’t go on to achieve success. Things were difficult and they maybe made choices that, if they had the chance all over again, they wouldn’t make it. It didn’t go that badly for some of them, but they didn’t think enough about making a career, either in sport or whatever, and it’s a shame.
I still know a lot of the kids I grew up with – many of them I have known since I was five or six years old, at the very start of my life in football – and they are happy for me now. When I have a bit of free time, I sometimes go back to Les Ulis to see them, sometimes they come over here to see me.
Some of these guys were on the same pitch as me, trying to copy Ronaldinho or Ronaldo like me. If I do a bit of skill in a game, they or my brothers will send me videos clips of that, or other skills to watch, and that’s all part of the game – as long as you respect your opponent - but now it’s not just about the skills.
Now, it’s all about scoring goals for me. That’s my number one aim. It has to be.
When we’re training, we have some time for skills as well. Anyone can use additional time after the end of any training session to try out whatever he likes. You can always make time to do something you want to try, but for me it has to be about scoring goals now.
At first I always loved to dribble the ball, almost to the exclusion of other skills, perhaps too much even.
It’s all about making the right decisions, like I said earlier. If you make two or three bad decisions during a match without scoring from them – let’s say you make a decision not to pass, then fail to advance yourself - then you’re not helping the team.
You are so caught up in the desire to do the best you possibly can, sometimes your enthusiasm exceeds your own ability. You have to always remember that you are playing together as a team. Football is a collective sport.
These days I am very focused on my central striker role, getting my scoring stats up and helping the team that way.
That’s not to say that there will be no more tricks, because tricks are all part of your learning and the passion you have when you’re a football player setting out.
You’ve worked hard to get where you are if you’re playing here at Manchester United, and it’s important not to lose that joy of playing the game because if you lose that passion, things will get a lot harder for you, but if I do a piece of skill, I want to score after it.
When I was a kid, I always played upfront and through the centre, and I know I can give a lot to the role now at United.
We have one of the great finishers to learn from in training now, with Ole as our manager.
I’ve watched quite a few clips of him from when he was still playing, and what a finisher he was – he scored some fantastic goals.
During training, he sometimes gives these little flicks and moves and you can see he still has it. The skill, the touch, the finish… we can all see what he’s got!
Ole also gives us forwards a lot of advice in relation to our positioning on the pitch, and we’re glad to receive it. It’s important to keep learning new things, new elements that can widen your range of options and make you more efficient as a player when you’re out there on the pitch.
He has a lot of knowledge to share from being a top striker himself and that will help us as forwards individually, and as we move forward as a team. Frankly, playing as striker, you’re not there to make blinding passes or massive runs.
I’ve come to understand that to score, you have to be obsessed, to be fixated on just that, scoring goals. That’s how you enjoy yourself as a striker.
That’s not a choice – that’s how it has to be.