Once Manchester United have scouted for, negotiated with, and signed a new player and the fanfare has died down, the new man must start to adapt to life at a new club.
Fred, whose signing from Shakhtar Donetsk was agreed to earlier this week, will be United’s latest Brazilian midfielder, but Kleberson was the first in 2003.
“Ronaldinho told me he was going to Manchester,” Kleberson said. “He kept saying to me ‘come to Manchester!’ I wanted to go, but I was reluctant because I didn’t speak English and United didn’t have any Portuguese speakers. Ronaldinho persuaded me and I went to Manchester. But he didn’t.”
Kleberson struggled and made just 30 appearances in two seasons for United before joining Turkish club Besiktas. He was 24 when he arrived but his wife was only 16, and watching TV in Portuguese didn’t help him learn English.
“It doesn’t matter how talented the players are, the culture is so different so it does not surprise me when Brazilian players do not do as well as they should,” legendary Brazil international Socrates told me in 2010. “The other reason is that England is too cold for Brazilian footballers.”
Whereas Kleberson arrived from Brazilian club Atletico Paranense, 25-year-old Fred has lived in Ukraine for five years, while several Brazilians have made successful moves to England. However, nothing is certain in football, not even a high-profile signing. Players get injured and lose confidence when things aren’t going their way. At a big club like United, they find their minutes limited in the early days. Family issues can also loom large.
The wife of one former player described life in Manchester as being in “a golden prison.” People might think that families have the perfect life because they have plenty of money, but she had young children, with no friends or family close by.
Moreover, there are often language problems. Angel Di Maria’s wife was “lovely and friendly,” according to those who met her, but, without knowing much English, the family struggled to settle and he left United within a year. His teammates felt he had given up by March of his first season.
There can be other issues as players move from club to club, such as children being shuffled from school to school. Away games mean fathers are gone for days at a time, although in England they are usually in a hotel for only one night before Premier League games. Champions League trips are longer.
United have a player liaison officer and provide help for families on match days, but the club likes players to feel independent and, for example, to have a choice about the car they drive, rather than being told to use a sponsored one as happens at some clubs. Agents also employ people to help their clients settle, which often leads to jobs for a player’s relative or friend.
First impressions are often made in the dressing room. At United, new arrivals are welcomed, though their conduct is judged, and if they are considered “big time” they will be ostracised. Respect has to be earned and not everyone slots in: Fabien Barthez was an awkward fit at United and Mark Bosnich wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea either, although 40 alpha male work colleagues are hardly likely to all get along.
The team captain usually takes on most responsibility. Gary Neville was conscious that one new player was religious and helped him find a church to attend, as well as bringing a priest to the Carrington training ground over Christmas.
Neville also helped players find housing. United have long owned properties but, while they are in salubrious areas, they’re not for everyone. Jordi Cruyff was used to bustling city living in Barcelona and could not understand why players in their 20s were placed miles from the city centre in areas “surrounded by old people.”
Moreover, club houses are also not at the top of the property market, and as the father of one player told ESPN FC: “There’s a housing market for the rich of Manchester and Cheshire. And there’s a market for Premier League footballers above that.”
Players often rent to each other. Zlatan Ibrahimovic lived in a property owned by Tom Cleverley and, along with his family, was a perfect neighbour. The south Manchester and Cheshire area is a hub for players from many clubs, including United, Man City, Everton, Liverpool, Wigan, Bolton and Burnley, which means their paths regularly cross off the pitch. Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku were friends when Lukaku was at Everton.
United don’t like stories of their stars in casinos until the early hours, but as long as they’re not breaking any curfews, they’re left to their own devices and trusted to act like adults. The greatest deterrent used to be Sir Alex Ferguson, who was feared and had spies all over the city, but the culture has changed. In any case, players with families are often happy to live in leafy Cheshire, away from the bright lights.
“I started to enjoy Manchester, especially when my three kids arrived,” Nemanja Vidic said. “All our three boys were born in Manchester. We lived in Wilmslow, which was great for families. I didn’t go to Manchester city centre much. I had peace in Cheshire and really enjoyed it. Sometimes the weather could be hard, but I would not have stayed for nine years if I didn’t like it. I made some good friends and found the people to be friendly.”
Vidic had a tough start in Manchester, but his talent and professionalism eventually saw him excel. However, despite a greater support network compared with 2006 when he signed, there are no guarantees and failure to settle can be the back story to a loss of form and quick departure. At least Fred will be able to communicate in his native tongue with his Portuguese-speaking manager and will hope that he regularly hears Jose Mourinho say “you will start this game.”
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.