Marouane Fellaini comment: Unfashionable and inelegant but first prize for persistence
Manchester United star back to his best
The meeting in a Brussels hotel last July was probably the lowest point: the moment when Marouane Fellaini was beginning to believe that even he could not overcome the kind of adversity that being a Manchester United player had come to entail.
He was there to meet Napoli and their manager Rafael Benitez, who told him he would rebuild his reputation and self-esteem, which had drained away so much at Old Trafford that David Moyes had been reduced to keeping Fellaini on the bench, just as a form of protection.
But the player could not bring himself to make that break. “His heart wasn’t in it,” says one who was privy to those discussions.
Napoli’s people tell of how, as they talked to the Belgian, the significance of belonging to United, and of leaving it, was the elephant in the room. They kept hearing how important the player’s transfer there from Everton had been to his family, though Fellaini evidently kept from them the fact that his father, Abdellatif, was close to tears when he knew that the move from Goodison Park had materialised in August 2013.
It is a weekend to reflect on the significance of the road not taken. United return to Everton on Sunday, precisely 371 days after their desperate and desultory performance against the team finally put paid to Moyes’ brief United fling and seemed to have signalled the end for Fellani too. But there will be no need to hide him on the bench, as Moyes did yet again that day last spring.
The 27-year-old is one of the reasons why United finally found a model for success, providing the physical threat and danger at the top of the team and danger in the left-hand channel, on which Louis van Gaal’s drive into the Champions League berths has been based.
Much of that is attributable to Van Gaal. “The slate is clean,” he told Fellaini, in his office, on the afternoon of 12 August last year. Hours later, Fellaini scored the winner in the home friendly against Valencia, a game in which his every touch in 15 minutes as a late substitute met with ironic cheers.
Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao had not even arrived by then but Van Gaal would be as good as his word because big names actually mean little to him compared to a big work ethic and multi-functionality.
But Fellaini has been the agent of his own renaissance, too. His mindset is very hard to figure, by dint of a relative shyness off the field, but all who know him best say, to a man, that Fellaini is just not one to give up. The characteristic resides deep in some nomadic formative football years in which his father, always influential, was always disinclined to settle and let things rest.
First came the immigrant Moroccan family’s move away from Brussels, because his father thought there was too much criminality. Then a fruitless attempt to make it at Anderlecht, which seemed to sum up the way, at that time, that players of foreign descent had to prove they were better than young Belgians.
Anderlecht refused to pay the young player’s travelling expenses for a 200km round trip, so he tried Mons, where his father – a former goalkeeper – thought the youth coaches were not good enough. Then, after Charleroi discovered him at the smaller Francs Borains club, came the sense that they didn’t fancy the tall midfielder so much, either.
His family talk of the same struggle to get the costs of travel paid, so there was another move, to Standard Liège, where Christophe Dessy, head of youth development, saw something in young Fellaini and worked with him on technical skills: passing, first touch, headers.
Those who know Fellaini say he can’t be still for a minute and there is certainly something of his father’s influence in the Spartan regime which has always been a way of life. When he would go running as a child, his father would follow him on his bike, and the two would train together on the fields close to the iconic Atomium in Brussels, near the Belgian national stadium.
This was the level of personal investment involved when the United career became a reality – and why Fellaini’s decision to sacrifice £4m in Everton loyalty bonuses to secure the move was not really a surprise.
There were problems from the beginning. He struggled with complex ligament damage in his left wrist in the early months, could not manoeuvre his body as he wanted because of that, and missed the pre-season. The bad moments seemed fated – like the night Roberto Martinez’s young side gave him such a turnaround in Everton’s win at old Trafford in December 2013.
Only at the World Cup, where he helped Belgium to the quarter-finals, did a little of the confidence begin to return. His team-mates declared with a passion that United had made poor use of Fellaini by deploying him as a No 8, not a No 10.
He has not been the most dazzling player of this season, and certainly not the most consistent game-changer, but perhaps amid the galaxy of awards for those whose brilliance is so comfortably expressed, there might be one for the unfashionable, inelegant individual who goes again and who most disproves the ones who have clouded his mind with doubt. That prize would be Fellaini’s.