If you listen to Gary Neville, football is all about moments.
They can be career defining. A second in time with which a footballing legacy could be crafted or cut short. The chance to cement yourself in Old Trafford folklore or to fade away from the spotlight.
Diego Forlan is in Manchester United folklore. As Juan Mata will soon come to realise, scoring two goals in a 2-1 victory at Anfield means you will always be offered a drink in Manchester.
That moment when Dudek dropped Jamie Carragher’s header back was a glorious piece of imagery that can keep you smiling wryly for hours. Seeing the away support surge forward as they came to realise they were about to take the lead in a smash and grab way at the home of the enemy was priceless.
The jubilation all round as the ball trickled into the far corner (and not far from the post) was a release of joy and relief shared equally amongst the scorer and the supporters. What United’s support have always loved is their strikers to do well. It is why Radamel Falcao’s name was sung in almost every half of every game last year. To see a player struggling to find the target can be a painful watch, but the two minute rendition of a forward’s anthem could be as pivotal to seeing them regain their goalscoring touch as an hour with a finishing coach on the training ground.
South American and with long hair, that is where the Falcao and Forlan similarities end. It’s an easy comparison to make, of course. Both were deemed to not have fulfilled their potential at Old Trafford but in the case of the Uruguayan, the circumstances were in complete contrast.
United were in a different transition to the one they’ve found themselves in this season to that back in the January of 2002. There had been a transformation both in attack and defence following United’s three league titles in a row. Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke, who had been stars in the treble season, were now either sold or for sale as cruising to Championships was no longer enough. Dominating domestically was good, but United and Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to dominate Europe and so they sacrificed their tried and tested style of play for a way which they believed would see them conquer Europe.
When Diego arrived off the bench at the Reebok towards the end of a 4-0 victory, he was joining a club with an identity crisis. Ferguson had been used to a four-forward rotation policy for so long that he struggled once the goal scoring monster that was Ruud Van Nistelrooy appeared in a red shirt. Suddenly he needed something different. He had a striker who wanted to play on his own up top, the initial plan for Scholes to support wasn’t working (yet) and the truth was that despite his goal ratio, which included a hat-trick in Diego’s debut, Ole was never going to be trusted in the big games from the start. Forlan was bought as a partner to the Dutchman, it made footballing sense to do so.
Two great feet, technical ability and pace, Forlan may have been an unknown to many when he signed but that was more down to our love-in with Ruud. It was an encouraging start to his career, teeing up Ruud for the fourth in the win at Bolton. Good movement, accentuated by his long locks, it all looked promising for Diego. But United were struggling. With a midfield lacking the discipline that could free Veron to do what he did best, it became a case of a game-by-game strategy to just find a way to win. Injuries didn’t help the team, but there was no consistency in shape or a starting line-up and Forlan was a victim of this. His first start came against Spurs and like when he made his first appearance, United hit four. He was excellent as United battered their visitors. He made another start in a dead-rubber game against Boavista but his next chance of a starting place came in United’s home surrender to Middlesboro, Veron gifting them the points as it became clear that United were more focused on foreign glory than chasing Arsenal.
Forlan became used in United’s “inbetween” matches when players would be rested ahead of a Champions League tie and, maybe crucially, away from the encouragement of home support. Having to fight it out on the bumpy pitches of Filbert Street and Portman Road was a tough education though Ferguson would argue that it was with the following season in mind. But Diego was needed in that season…
There can be a moment in a player’s career which you can tell is a pre-cursor to how their United career will pan out. The moment I described earlier at Anfield is not what I think about when I remember Diego Forlan, neither is his last gasp winner versus Chelsea.
It’s Bayer Leverkusen.
United were within touching distance of a Champions League final which was to be held at Hampden Park. Real Madrid were waiting, but United were well fancied. Roy Keane spoke of how he felt United would beat the Spaniards in Glasgow. I think that, despite Zidane, we would have overcome them. But United wouldn’t get the opportunity, Leverkusen saw to that.
With minutes remaining and United pushing to go 2-1 up, Diego’s moment arrived. He’d come off the bench again and it was all United but the German defence wasn’t budging. Then, a long ball saw their goalkeeper punch the ball to the edge of the area where are newest signing was waiting. He backed away as the ball came towards his left foot and hit a dipping volley that saw the ‘keeper beat. United were in the final until a flying headed clearance robbed Forlan of his first United goal.
That was his moment. And he did everything right, but score.
It was the ultimate “what if” moment in his United career. His talent was there, United had the stage and the players to help him but from there, you always felt it was going to be difficult for Diego. He would start the next game at home to Arsenal where they won the league but the United team had effectively given up by then. So much so that Forlan started the game instead of Ruud, rested, though for what still remains a mystery.
And so began the jokes. The lack of a goal stalked his every shot, not that he had been given too many chances in front of goal. He would have to wait for a penalty kick in the last minute of a Champions League game to open his account. In 02/03, the year in which he made the scousers cry, he contributed to the championship win which saw United “get their trophy back”. Despite a lack of a run in the side, his goals at Anfield and at home to Chelsea (not to mention a late winner v Southampton) were massive in United’s march to glory. Trouble was, the Scholes experiment that had failed the previous year was now flourishing. Forlan once more became the fall guy, though he wouldn’t be the first or last who would find themselves left out for simply “not being Paul Scholes”.
The following year, he did get a run where he began to show his quality. A brilliant volley against Rangers in Europe was perhaps the highlight of that spell which saw him find the net seven times in ten appearances. Scholes soon returned from a hernia operation and Forlan was once more forced to watch on from the sidelines. He barely kicked a ball in United’s final few months of the season as the FA Cup was added to United’s collection of honours. It had become apparent that Forlan would be bidding farewell to Old Trafford. Louis Saha had been signed in the January of 2004, Alan Smith would join from Leeds that summer and Wayne Rooney was ready for the big stage. Diego was allowed to leave, though not without praise from his manager for his professionalism and his attitude in training. In fact, the staff at United had reportedly been puzzled at how it hadn’t quite clicked for Diego despite his consistently impressive performances in training.
After Forlan left for Villareal in 2004, it would take United three years to win their next title. Ruud would leave during that time having, like Forlan, only won the one championship (still, one more that Gerrard). In the time it took Ronaldo to grow up, Forlan would become a star in La Liga, banging in goals in an impressive Villareal side. Athletico Madrid would be another club to enjoy his brilliance and in 2010, he was the World Cup’s best player. And all that for a player that had initially cost less than Bebe.
And so we come back to a moment. That night in Germany when it could have all been so different. It may not have worked out for Diego Forlan, but leaving scousers teary-eyed will always be a memory remembered fondly by the Old Trafford faithful. But how a player with his amount of ability didn’t make a bigger impact at United will always be a source of regret for both the player and the club. You could almost argue, United’s failure to see the best of Forlan was a crying shame.