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The pugnacious world of a United star

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Andy Brassell

Andy Brassell is a regular contributor to FOXSoccer.com, covering Europe and the UEFA Champions League. He is also the author of All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League.

 
   
 

This Sunday Patrice Evra returns to where his Manchester United career began. It was in a defeat to City at Eastlands, back on 14 January 2006, that he made his United debut and the-then 25-year-old, like many a prestigious name before him, looked utterly bewildered by the bustle of the Premier League. He was promptly hooked off at half-time by Sir Alex Ferguson.

Those with any awareness of the Frenchman’s character knew he would be back. The eighth of 25 children, Evra was born in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, before growing up in Les Ulis, the same southern suburb of Paris that spawned Thierry Henry. Accordingly, he is no shrinking violet. Current events, in the form of the continuing fallout of last weekend’s spat with Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, are the latest reminder of Evra’s highly developed bullish
streak.

He has ever been thus. Somewhere in the depths of Youtube lies a curious short film, shot on camcorder by an unidentified Monaco player before the team’s decisive 2004 Champions League semi-final second leg at Chelsea. It shows Evra waking up on the morning of the game, stretching with gusto and opening the shutters to a view over a palatial courtyard. The left-back then puffs out his chest and yells out “you talkin’ to me, Lampard?” in his best Robert De Niro, then shrieking a few more obscenities in his then-stunted English before wandering off to get dressed.

This bit of youthful horseplay actually resonates with the truth of a significant constant in Evra’s personality.

Patrice Evra fends off the attention of Liverpool forward Luis Suarez. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

He doesn’t back down, ever. Whether simply winding up opponents, as he did when he dismissed Arsenal’s players as “babies” in May 2009 or causing a major political storm, as he did with his haphazard captaincy of France during their disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, Evra speaks his mind.

This self-belief has come in handy on a sporting level too. Last season he looked to have developed a fatal positional weakness, losing his ability to spring back from attacking play to cover his flank, and there was a feeling that Evra could be slipping from his perch as one of Ferguson’s mainstays. Instead, the player whose boss described him as “sensational” and “miles more consistent” than anyone else in United’s squad during 2009/10 knuckled down, recovered and missed only three Premier League games as United retained its title.

His ability to turn his oft-brutal powers of assessment on himself is another recurring theme in his make-up.

When Ferguson told him in no uncertain terms he quickly needed to shape up in the wake of his disastrous debut, Evra famously retreated not just to the gym but to the TV – with a pile of DVDs covering every aspect of United’s history, stretching back to the Busby Babes and the Munich tragedy.

He is now arguably the most fervent disciple of the manager in the current squad. It was this close relationship that persuaded Evra to go back on his decision to quit United in the wake of the 2010 World Cup, with Real Madrid and Internazionale poised to make the most of his desire for pastures new.

Ferguson made a personal trip to the player’s home to successfully talk him round. “When Sir Alex Ferguson talks, it’s a good idea to listen,” Evra later reflected.

Even for a man as comfortable with media controversy as Evra, the reassuring feel of stability must have been welcome, especially given the chronological context. The experience in South Africa really rocked him. He was never going to consider turning down the captaincy of France, having never hidden his pride at representing his nation, though he later said then-coach Raymond Domenech had “apologized” as he let him know he was passing him the armband.

Patrice Evra in happier times with the France team. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Another benefit of hindsight is the realization that Evra was not prepared for such an impossible job – who could be? Always a hub of team morale – he is a lively presence and is the locker room DJ at Old Trafford – his empathy with his team-mates led to him being unfairly painted as a ringleader of the mutiny of Knysna.

The enduring image of him rowing on the training pitch with fitness coach Robert Duverne eventually condemned him to a whopping five-match ban from the national team following a post-tournament enquiry by the French Football Federation. Evra was vilified. A parallel governmental enquiry into the debacle saw Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno suggest neither he nor Franck Ribery should ever play for France again.

Just before the announcement of that suspension, in August 2010, Evra ended his post-World Cup silence to give a lengthy – and typically pugnacious - interview to French newspaper Le Figaro. He was clearly stung by the criticism meted out by Lilian Thuram, such a respected figure at all level of French soccer – and no political lightweight either.

Evra responded with a broadside. “What we did in South Africa was serious. Why pour oil on the flames?” he ranted.

“He (Thuram) sullied my name without knowing what happened. I called him to ask for an explanation. He didn’t get back to me, so I left him a pretty rude message. Lilian thinks he’s the new head coach, the president of the Federation and the president of France all rolled into one.”

And then, the money shot. “Reading books on slavery, wearing glasses and a hat doesn’t make you Malcolm X.”

Again, Evra eschewed self-propaganda, admitting his own role in the whole unholy mess of the World Cup campaign. “We weren’t in touch with reality any more,” he admitted.

“We only understood the rift that had opened between us and the public when we started getting ‘phone calls from our close friends and families.”

The current controversy over Suarez’s alleged racist comments is typical of reaction to Evra. We know little or nothing of the ins and outs of the incident so far, and certainly not enough to make a value judgment. But because it involves Liverpool and United, and Evra, many at either side of the divide have already made their minds up. The United man already accused Chelsea groundstaff of racism back in April 2008, which was unproven, so to many, he is the boy who cried wolf. Or he is always shooting his mouth off, so is not to be sympathized with.

Evra’s capacity for even-handedness is overlooked, but this won’t bother him. He is great at just getting on with it. Just as in 2004, there was substance beneath the larking; Monaco reached the Champions League final, and he won Ligue 1's Young Player of the Year title – he will put this to one side on Sunday.

He has long since exorcised his Eastlands ghosts, when he set up Paul Scholes’ last-gasp winner there in April 2010 as United pushed Chelsea hard for the Premier League. Ferguson’s men again have a formidable challenger this season, but the experienced Evra will not shy away from the battle.

Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.

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