By: Dominic Fifield
The Mexican’s impressive form since joining United has provided timely vindication for Sir Alex Ferguson
For a man who had soared so staggeringly, twisting his body up and back to head his side into the lead, Javier Hernández’s reaction to the day he came of age as a Manchester United player was remarkably down to earth. “There are no heroes,” he offered in the aftermath of victory at the Britannia Stadium. “This was a good day not just for me but for all the players and the supporters. I’m here to learn, to work hard and do my best for United.”
This was the antidote to the week that was: a young forward, hero-worshipped back in his homeland having actually made a positive impression at the summer’s World Cup finals, offering a glimpse of his new club’s bright future. The two goals scored to defeat Stoke City, such stubborn and awkward opponents, had management staff and team-mates drooling as they made comparisons with Michael Owen or, more pertinently, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his pomp.
United needed a distraction after the Wayne Rooney shenanigans, and the 22-year-old Mexican international had provided just that.
Early indications are that Sir Alex Ferguson has unearthed another gem. United had rushed through the player’s transfer from Chivas de Guadalajara over the summer, conscious that Hernández might attract interest from elsewhere should he excel in South Africa. Their urgency was justified when he scored against France and Argentina. “If we had waited until after the World Cup we would have had to pay maybe three times the price,” the United manager claimed. “It was a good move acting so quickly.” But, even with his reputation established, few had anticipated such an immediate impact upon arrival in the Premier League.
At 5ft 9in, he hardly appeared a striker likely to slip seamlessly into the hustle and bustle of the English top-flight, surrounded by giant opposing centre-halves and consumed by the ferocity both in the tackle and the pace of the English game. Yet there is industry and resilience to the youngster’s approach that suggests he can thrive in this environment.
There was a goal against Chelsea in the Community Shield to settle the nerves and further rewards against Valencia at the Mestalla and West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, before his two goals in the Potteries. “He’s tough,” said the right-back Gary Neville. “He’s got the right attributes and the talent, but what sets him apart is his workrate. His attitude is phenomenal, he works so hard, and he has done since he arrived. You are rewarded for that. He is one of the most exciting prospects we’ve seen at the club for a very long time.”
Rewind some 18 months and such praise would have sounded fanciful. Back then his career was meandering at Chivas, his appearances restricted either to the bench or on loan at lower league clubs, and Hernández gave serious consideration to turning his back on the game to plunge himself fully into life at the Universidad del Valle de Atemajac, where he had been studying business administration part-time. His father, Javier Sr, a member of Mexico’s 1986 World Cup team, preached patience. “He doubted himself,” he said at the time. “We talked to him about being persistent and, in time, everything would come.”
The subsequent rush of goals for his club side – 21 in 28 games – offered reward and drew the attention of United’s scouting network, with the £7.4m price tag already appearing a bargain. He is two-footed, rapid and a feverish worker. “He wants to be a player and is showing the right things,” said Ferguson. “He’s an absolute pleasure to have. His attitude to training: well, he’s the first in and last one away.”
The late winner at Stoke demonstrated all the timing and anticipation of a natural goalscorer, eking out space between centre-halves and instinctively supplying a snapped finish. Yet it was the first goal, an improvised finish as he hung in the air after pealing off Marc Wilson, that caught the breath. The leap had been from a standing position, the startling power in the finish generated with the thrust of his neck backwards. Ferguson praised a “fantastic spring for a little lad”.
Jesús Padilla, now with Chivas USA and a team-mate of Hernández for three years in Guadalajara, put it less conventionally. “You think: ‘Here’s this little midget,'” he said, “but he’s got some serious hops.”
Those attributes will stand him in good stead as he continues his adjustment to the Premier League. It will help, too, that he remains humble while the division gasps at the early impression he has made. “I am enjoying my time in England,” he added. “This [success] is down to all the help I’m getting from my team-mates. They have trust in me, and the staff do also. It’s an unbelievable opportunity for me to play with the biggest team in the world. I just want to stay here a long time and win a lot of trophies.” After last week’s turmoil, his approach and attitude are cathartic.