In the club at that time, we had players with great background – Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane – and they brought in young guys like me and Eric Djemba-Djemba to fight with those guys… it was not a fair fight, to be honest!
Those guys knew how to play in the Premier League, they had grown up there. Me and Djemba-Djemba just had dreams of beating those guys, and they were very nice guys, very patient – saying that we were the future, trying to help us – but they were just too far ahead of us.
One thing that I struggled with personally were the injuries I had, which were pushing me back. Then you lose time, you have to recover, then you have to get good physically, good technically. Then we had to come back and compete against Scholes, Butt, Giggs, Keane. Those guys had been in the team for many, many years, they knew what was required. As new guys, we came in like: “Ok, let’s play my style,” but it didn’t work out that way.
I learned a lot off those guys, especially the quality they had, how they managed the ball, how they led the team. We had our captain, Roy Keane, but Gary Neville was like a second captain, also Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, they almost managed the team. The way they talked, the way they communicated to you outside the field, the way they made the team feel like a family, put everybody on the same page, I was so glad to learn that.
I learned a lot as well from Sir Alex Ferguson, Carlos Queiroz, Mike Phelan. Let’s take a look back: it’s hard to manage that team at that time because everyone played for their national team. Outside of the players who were first choice, I would go to Brazil, Quinton Fortune would go to South Africa, Diego Forlan would go to Uruguay, Cristiano would go to Portugal, Djemba-Djemba would go to Cameroon… everybody was an international, everyone wanted to play. It must have been so hard to manage their playing time. Sometimes you would see Ruud van Nistelrooy sitting upstairs behind the bench, not even dressed. Oh my gosh. One day he’s scoring three goals, next game he’s rested.