West Ham revealed the signing of Patrice Evra on a free transfer on Wednesday, much to the envy of Manchester United supporters.
While the 36-year-old isn’t the player he once was, which is understandable given his age, Evra brings so much more than footballing ability to the team he plays for. Football club legends fall in to different categories. At United, the supporters have been blessed with plenty of heroes over the years.
There are the home-grown players, like John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Gary Neville who love the club and put their heart in to every game, playing with the determination of a fan.
There are the players blessed with world-class talent, whose ability wins trophies for the club, like Andy Cole, Ruud van Nistelrooy or Cristiano Ronaldo.
But then there are the players who have no reason to have a special connection with the club or fanbase, yet somehow manage to. They’re the players the fans fondly claim ‘get’ the club. They immerse themselves in the culture and the history. Players like Eric Cantona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Evra.
On his first day at training with United, Evra asked Neville where the nearest church was. The United captain was trying to think of a church close to Carrington, only for Evra to respond that he needed to go somewhere to “thank God for letting me join the biggest club in the world”.
These weren’t just empty words where Evra was concerned either. He went out of his way to educate himself about United and delved in to the past.
“I got a load of DVDs about the Munich disaster and the Busby Babes, about Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, about Cantona. The whole story of the club,” he revealed in 2010.
“You meet these people around the club and I wanted to know who they were, what they had done for the club. Out of respect. Because when you shake the hand of Sir Bobby Charlton you can feel the legend.
“All the young players here need to understand the history of the club. After I watched those DVDs I realised I needed to respect the shirt. I needed to respect the story. Every time I play that is in my head: what a privilege it is to play for Manchester United. When you pull on the shirt you are pulling on history, and I say thanks to God that I play for this club.”
When United won the league 2011, Evra did his lap of honour with a French flag with Cantona’s face on it. Embracing the legendary player, also his compatriot, cemented the love that the fanbase felt for him.
“I already knew Cantona was ‘The King’, but I really discovered who he was when I arrived here,” Evra said that year. “He is a legend. If French football players like me succeed at United, it is him who first opened the doors for us. We will never thank him enough for that. During my first season, I watched lots of Eric’s DVDs and told myself, ‘You now know what the United fans are expecting from the French players’.”
A banner for Evra can still be seen in the J Stand, reading ‘3 is the magic number’ in reference to his shirt number. The player put a picture of the flag on his social media accounts, again reiterating his love for the club, despite having left several years ago.
It wasn’t just the United fans that adored Evra though, but his teammates too.
He was a leader on and off the field, giving rousing pre-match talks in the dressing room, and was popular with all the different cliques.
“His influence in the dressing room is not something you will understand unless you’ve been in there with him,” Neville later reflected.
“At times, he was almost the glue that connected it. You talk about the British players and the foreign players, and he had equally good relationships with all. He’s a leader, somebody who would really get everybody going before a game.”
Sir Alex Ferguson recognised his popularity and leadership skills, so appointed him vice-captain. Evra repeatedly spoke about his pride over wearing the captain’s armband.
As a player, he consistently performed well and was as reliable going forward as he was defending. As the years went by, his pace wasn’t what it used to be though and after a hugely disappointing campaign for the team under David Moyes, Evra left the club.
He was past his best by then, so from a practical point of view it wasn’t the worst move for the club, but the fans were still gutted to see him go.
The 2013-14 season was an awful one, but Evra provided the fans with one moment of explosive happiness when scoring a rocket of a goal against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, before the Germans equalised minutes later. The team had been to visit the Munich memorial and Evra wanted to honour them.
“I always pray before games, I pray every day – to save my family, I even sometimes pray for my enemy,” he said. “But I asked, ‘Can I give something for the Busby Babes’. That’s why when I scored that goal, you can see I was really emotional.”
It’s not just United supporters that have a soft spot for Evra these days. His Instagram account has shown his playful side to the world, with his catchphrase of “I love this game!”, followed by infectious laughter drawing in affection from further afield.
— West Ham United (@WestHamUtd) February 7, 2018
Evra was unveiled as a West Ham player in a video where he was filmed blowing bubbles. “I’m for Evra blowing bubbles,” he said.
Their supporters shouldn’t expect him to star on the field.
He’ll have a tough time in the Premier League thanks to his advancing years and spending a few years away from the speed and physicality of the Premier League. But the impact he could have off the pitch, in their bid to avoid relegation, could be huge.
United fans are already looking forward to their visit to the London Stadium next month and will relish the opportunity to show him some love once more.