Mata desperate to leave a lasting legacy on and off pitch as he eyes more silverware at beloved United
There was a point last season when Juan Mata feared he might be leaving Manchester United, that his career there was over. It was not a comfortable thought. "To be honest, I didn't know. I was not 100 per cent sure. I know what I felt, which was to stay, but I didn't know what would happen," he admits. "I wanted to stay here because I would not forgive myself to leave with a feeling of, 'Yeah, but... what?' I didn't want that.
"You know it has been a challenging time. But I am quite proud of my mentality. It's been difficult in some moments not playing, out of the team, the team not doing great, of critics, for everyone. It would have been easier for me to give up and say, 'It's true that I came to this club in a difficult moment and it's not meant to be. Bye'. No, I'm proud of saying, 'I want to make it happen, I want to fight for big trophies, I want to be here when we win.' And I want to be here when we bring this club back to where it belongs."
It was in January 2014 that Mata joined United for a club-record £37 million in an extraordinary move from Chelsea, arriving by helicopter at the club's training ground and being a desperately needed marquee transfer for Alex Ferguson's ill-fated successor, David Moyes. It means the Spanish midfielder is the longest-serving signing since Ferguson retired and, having agreed a two-year extension at the end of the last campaign, with the option for a further 12 months, could end his career at Old Trafford.
Mata has already been at United longer than at any of his previous clubs: Real Madrid, Valencia and Chelsea, but it is something that happened just a few months after arriving that stays with him. It was the final day of a miserable season, at home to Southampton. United were seventh, their worst Premier League finish, failing to qualify for Europe for the first time in 25 years. At the end of the game was the traditional lap of appreciation, and Mata was dreading it, fearing the reaction of frustrated fans.
Instead, they clapped. "That was incredible and that said to me, 'Look where you are'," Mata says. "I really didn't know how they would react because in another club it probably would have been different. But when I saw their faces and they said, 'Next year, next year' and they keep doing that, then you really feel they deserve more.
"And football is more than winning or losing a game, you know? If you travel around the world you see it is more than a sport, it's a way of living or it's an escape from a bad situation and that's why you realise it is more.
"It's a platform to help people build their lives. It's the biggest force in the world."
Platform is an important word for Mata who two years ago became the first footballer to sign up to the collective movement that is Common Goal, donating one per cent of his salary to support football charities around the world. So far 108 football people - players, managers, administrators - have joined, along with clubs and including leading women players in US internationals Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. In fact, women make up 50 per cent.
"It says how involved they are. They are always fighting in football," Mata says. "It explains why they understand, from the first moment, a movement like this one, which is about equality also. It shows the commitment, because even though they don't have the same salaries they still contribute with one per cent of their wages. They set an example to everyone."
Mata is not disappointed with the numbers involved. "I understand that some people might say there are not enough big-name players, but this is much more than we expected so far. It started as a conversation, an idea and we didn't know whether it would be possible or not. It's been proven to be possible and sustainable, efficient, easy to join, safe.
"Joining Common Goal is a very good platform for everyone who wants to help through football. It's only the beginning and can only grow and get better. We are creating a solid foundation."
His ideal would be a levy across football - including on transfer fees. "To have this one per cent as a standard would be great," Mata says. "Transfer fees are an example. If there is a £50 million transfer and one per cent goes to social causes then, yes, I think it's also a way to connect professional football into grass roots, into people. It's an efficient and sustainable bridge and that's what Common Goal is.
"And gradually I have made that realisation that football is more than just a sport. It's a driver for many people in the world, it unites people, unites countries and it's all down to the passion for the sport. That's why when you are a football player for Manchester United you know you are in a lucky or privileged position.
"Playing for this club is something very special in a player's career. That's a reality. Not many players are able to say, 'I played for Manchester United and I was there for six, seven, eight years.'
"When I was a kid I only ever wanted to be a professional player. My dad was, but he didn't play in the first division and my only aim was to do that, to make my family proud. And then that came and now I am at a club where David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Eric Cantona used to play and it feels surreal."
Does that bring added pressure? "Of course. We know that fans of this club have been used to winning and when you are in a period of change - Alex Ferguson leaving and different managers - and trying to win this Premier League title again, which we haven't won for six years, then, of course, there is pressure from the fans, from the media and everywhere. But there is only one way you can deal with it and that is to face it and manage and cope with the pressure. Also, you need to realise who you are playing for.
"You journalists speak more about United than other clubs, right? That's something I realised from the first moment."
Mata is 31. With age has come an evolving role. "As you get older you can also put experience to the team, right?" he says. "I feel the same as the young players when we are training and how much I enjoy it, but when they start speaking about when they were born then I'm in trouble! "'Yeah, I was born in '99 or 2000'. I am always used to being the youngest! In Castilla, Real Madrid B, I was the youngest, in Valencia, the youngest, at Chelsea I was 22 when I arrived and suddenly..."
How does that feel? "It feels OK. Physically and mentally it feels good. I am calmer and I react better to the bad moments. I used to be worse when I had a bad game and it was really painful and (lasted) longer than it should because that was not healthy.
"We have a young squad, the last starting XIs were the youngest (in the Premier League)? Marcus Rashford is 21 and he's already played many games and scored many goals. The experience they have at that age and playing for a club like this is priceless and another thing that is needed is us experienced, older players to get the balance. I think Ole (Gunnar Solskjaer) knows that."
After football Mata will stay involved in the sport - "It's like in the movie industry. The best you can be is an actor and after that a film-maker," he says, while there will be a lifelong commitment to the social philanthropy that is Common Goal. "It will endure," Mata says. So when will he be satisfied at United? "I don't know," he says, pausing.
"We can speak about trophies and celebrate winning the Premier League or Champions League and that would be fantastic. But even if we don't do that, I am going to try to keep improving and bringing this club back to where it belongs and that will make me happier with myself, because sometimes you cannot always get what you want, but you can give everything and I will do that."
Leading lights who have joined Juan Mata's Common Goal charitable movement:
Mats Hummels (B Dortmund)
Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus)
Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich)
Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester)
Charlie Daniels (Bournemouth)
Alfie Mawson (Fulham)
Shinji Kagawa (Real Zaragoza)
Leon Balogun (Brighton)
Duncan Watmore (Sunderland)