One afternoon in June 1995, I was playing golf with Ryan Giggs near Manchester when I got a phone call from Alex Ferguson.
Straight away, I felt something was up. Intrigued, I took the call.
Fergie said, without preamble, ‘Yeah, where are you?’
‘I’m just playing golf with Giggsy.’
‘I need to see you.’
At that point, I really began to worry. What exactly had I done wrong now?
‘Ok Gaffer, I’ll come and see you tomorrow. What time?’
He replied, ominously, ‘No, no. I’m at the golf club now.’
With that, I knew it must be serious. So I took the buggy and swiftly abandoned Giggsy at the sixteenth – which he didn’t particularly appreciate. I ended up sitting in the car with Alex, who told me, ‘We’ve had an offer for you from Inter Milan and we’ve accepted it.’
My immediate reaction was to think, fair enough, I’ve been at Man Utd five or six years – perhaps it’s simply run its course.
Still, when a club accepts a bid for you, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Frankly, it was disappointing – I was just about to sign a new contract. I’d been talking with Martin Edwards about extending it another four or five years, which would take me to a testimonial year. I also had a three-year-old kid – Thomas – so we were settled in the area.
Ultimately, however, it was my decision to leave Manchester.
Within two days of that chat with Alex I’d packed my stuff and was landing in Milan. But at least my move left a tangible legacy at United: that training ground, Carrington – I built that. They needed my transfer fee in order to pay for it.
Moratti Il Presidente
Massimo Moratti was the one that wanted me at Inter. He’d actually shown up at the infamous Crystal Palace game, where Eric Cantona jumped into the crowd, in order to see me in action for himself. Later, he even came to my house in Manchester with all his entourage to make sure the deal was done.
It’s hard to explain how incredible he was – he was a great, great man. He thought I was a warrior: he loved me.
While I was there, we had some wonderful players, like Roberto Carlos (who didn’t stay as long as I’d have liked), Zanetti, Djorkaeff and Zamorano. But I don’t think we were the best team in the league, and we sometimes looked like the paupers compared to AC Milan.
When you looked at their team, they’d have Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta – there’s no doubt we had a lesser team. We didn’t have any superstars so to speak. And that’s what Massimo was trying to change with his project at the club. He was ambitious and wanted to bring us up to the level of Juventus and Milan.
Style, Culture, Fans
Things were very different at Inter. It was hard at first because when I got there the manager, Ottavio Bianchi, insisted on playing me in the wrong position. He was employing a 3-5-2 with me on the left wing. Privately I wondered, ‘Has he not fucking seen me play?’
I’d played centre-midfield for Man Utd for six years, so initially it was hard to accept. Only when Roy Hodgson came did I begin to reach my true level.
The style of football there was not what I was used to. It contrasted with the English mode, which was all hustle and bustle. In Italy it was very slow until you got to the final third – then it was bang, bang, bang, quick feet, quick moves.
You had more time on the ball in Serie A.
But I loved it all. Moving there was one of the best things I ever did: the culture, the language, the food, the weather, the people, it was just a different environment. It also helped that the place I had was right on the shores of Lake Como, which was gorgeous.
When you live on the continent, you have to immerse yourself in the environment and the culture. It’s not just about playing the game: you have to fit in. I remember that a language-tutor from Wales who spoke fluent Italian used to come to my apartment to give me lessons twice a week. It took me a while, but once I got it, it was fantastic.
At the time I think there was more racism in Italy towards black players than in the other top leagues. I experienced it, George Weah experienced it.
In England, when things go wrong the fans start booing you. But in Italy, they whistle you, which for me doesn’t have the same effect. Booing can affect your game, but when they’re whistling, it just sounds a bit soft.
For example, we didn’t really start well in my first three months at Inter. We struggled a bit, and the fans were whistling – yet it had almost no effect on me.
But they are certainly passionate. And that’s one thing I noticed – in England, we’re losing our passion because of the gap between player earnings and the normal person, but in Italy they were so intense: constantly singing, the scarves, and Milan derbies were something special.
Hodgson and Homeward Bound
When you look back, what happened to Roy Hodgson at Inter was a bit harsh. When he first went in he had a great relationship with Moratti, but he had to change a lot of things. There were a lot of older players who weren’t playing, and those guys were friendly with the fans, who usually got their way.
Towards the end of the 1996/97 season, things weren’t going well and it fell on Roy and he ended up sacked, which I don’t think he deserved. It was tough on him. When he looks back, he’ll be aware that he had some great moments in Milan, but managing Inter was a real tester for him.
It’s very hard to break the language barrier. At the start he had only broken Italian, and when you’re trying to communicate, it can be frustrating. Roy undertook a lot of the coaching himself, so it was a real challenge when trying to get a point across to the players.
But I really admired him. Once he came, my game took off.
Eventually, when I said I wanted to go back to England, Massimo Moratti ended up in tears. We’d just signed Ronaldo for next season, but because of family issues it was best for me to go back to the UK. I didn’t want to – I could’ve stayed there forever.
Massimo was crying, he was really upset about it. I adored the man, and respected him. I still speak to him.
He made those wonderful years possible. I’ll never forget them.