Forlan: There's life after United

Diego Forlan is a rare breed. The striker, signed in January 2002 amid much fanfare by Manchester United for £7,5-million from Independiente, who famously took 18 matches to score his first goal for the club, is making a success of his career after leaving Old Trafford.

As Paul Ince, Andy Cole, Nicky Butt and Dwight Yorke — who is having to pursue his career in Australia after becoming surplus to requirements at Birmingham — will tell you, that is not easy.

The Uruguay striker, 22 when plucked from relative obscurity by Sir Alex Ferguson, having scored 37 goals in 80 appearances for the Argentine club, became a cult figure at United for his poor displays in front of goal, but his move to Villarreal last year has proved inspirational.

Forlan has scored 14 goals this season — including two in the 3-0 defeat of league leaders Barcelona last month, “my best match in Spain”, he says — to be the second-top scorer in La Liga this season. Along with fellow striker Juan Riquelme, another South American, who comes from Argentina, he has become a part of the most prolific attacking force in Spain, driving his team to new heights, challenging for the fourth Champions League spot.

However, despite his success this season, Forlan says that it was not easy to leave United, who are, after all, one of the biggest clubs in the world.

“The coach [Ferguson] told me, ‘You are not going to play. I wish I had played you more, but it is not possible.’ He was honest, I appreciate that,” the diminutive Uruguayan says. “There were some injuries and really there was no reason for me to go, but he saw it was the best way forward. I finally realised I did not want to spend lots of years in the club but not playing regularly. I wanted to challenge myself again.”

So Forlan is glad that he has managed to leave behind the cult figure he had become at United. And who would not? Forlan (a striker, remember) was being hailed by the fans because he was not scoring and because he was trying hard.

“I scored 23 goals over there, but I feel fans respect me now for the right reasons,” he says.

Not that the Old Trafford hierarchy seem to have noticed. Only first-team coach Mike Phelan has phoned him since he left.

“I understand why there is not so much contact now, I belong to another club now,” Forlan says. “United is a big club, but it looks very well after the small details [when you are a player there] — they know your family, who you have around you, they know everything. It was like being part of a family.”

Forlan would not be surprised if assistant manager Carlos Queiroz takes over the reins at Old Trafford when Ferguson finally decides to retire.

“I used to say to [Juan Sebastian] Veron, ‘I bet this guy is going to stay here a long time,’ and then he went to Real Madrid. So I can easily believe he may take over after Ferguson goes.”

During Forlan’s time at the club, Queiroz grew into a hugely influential figure — so much so that when things did not work out at Real, Ferguson wasted no time in reinstating him as his right-hand man at United.

“When I was there, Ferguson did not come to training that often. Many times Queiroz used to take charge,” Forlan says. “He put the emphasis on tactics, in the movements of the players, in our placing. English football tends not to concentrate much on the tactical aspects of the game and, if you do, it makes a difference.”

Villarreal, a village of 43 000 people and 10 000 season-ticket-holders, are using to their advantage this striker who can use both feet with the same devastating effect.

“I want to make Villarreal big, but you never know what is going to happen to you — we all want to play for big teams. It is going to be hard to consolidate this club. There is money, but the president may say one day, ‘Well, that is enough,’ and then only an Abramovich can save you.”

Eight years ago Villarreal were just another second-division team; now they are fighting with Real Betis, Sevilla and Espanyol for the fourth Champions League spot in La Liga. They owe their success to the financial backing of Fernando Roig, chairperson of the tiles company Pamesa; to a strong development system with 700 youngsters and to the canny knack of buying players with potential on the cheap, especially from South America.

Riquelme is on loan from Barcelona, but the club can boast two Brazilians, a Uruguayan and five Argentinians.

Aston Villa approached Forlan in the off-season, but he is happy to have settled on the east coast of Spain. Even so, he says: “I love England and I would love to go back. I hope I can get the opportunity.”

There is a sense of an unfinished business and if he continues his rich vein of scoring form, who is to say that he may not become a unique player in United’s history by beating a path back to Old Trafford. — Â