By Will Tidey
When Javier Hernandez joined Manchester United from Mexican side Chivas de Guadalajara last summer, the Nike store outside his hometown stadium put up a billboard to toast his departure.
“The future of an entire nation is at your feet,” it read. “You leave as a hero, return as a legend.”
For a 21-year-old with no Premier League experience, and a profile in England built on fleeting glimpses of the striker at the 2010World Cup, the weight of a nation’s expectancy was a lot to bear.
To his enormous credit, ‘Chicharito’ has carried it effortlessly. The bright-eyed, lightning-fast Mexican has scored 20 times in his debut season at Old Trafford, developed a fine partnership with Wayne Rooney and consigned Dimitar Berbatov – the Premier League’s joint top scorer – to a life brooding on the sidelines.
In Ferguson’s reign of nearly 25 years at Manchester United, few transfer fees have delivered such rapid returns as that paid for the big talent they call ‘the Little Pea’.
When you consider Hernandez cost United just £6 million last summer, he represents quite spectacular value – £300,000 a goal, supplemented by an infectious effervescence that galvanises everybody around him.
It was Hernandez’s brace that saw United past Marseille in the Champions League last 16. He scored again in the quarter-final against Chelsea. And in the Premier League, his goals against Everton and Chelsea in the run-in proved crucial.
So much for the “bedding in” period Ferguson had expected when he signed him. Hernandez adjusted almost overnight to life at United, and a combination of instinctive finishing and burning ambition took care of the rest. Like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before him, the Mexican’s knack for scoring important goals simply couldn’t be ignored.
“We thought he was a young lad who was going to progress and maybe have to get used to our training and English football, but he’s been an absolute star and a real bonus for us,” Ferguson said.
In terms of value-for-money delivered by forwards during Ferguson’s time at United, arguably only the £1.2m paid forEric Cantona in 1992 and the £1.6m spent on Solskjaer in 1996 bear comparison.
Cantona is untouchable in Old Trafford legend, but Hernandez unquestionably has the gifts to surpass the achievements of the baby-faced assassin. If he stars in Saturday’s Champions League final against Barcelona, the frequent comparisons to the hero of 1999 will only be magnified.
From there, it seems almost anything is possible. Pele has even said Hernandez can emulate Lionel Messi – although all Pele accolades should of course be tempered by the fact he once said Nicky Butt was the best player at the World Cup.
United’s fans have long been won over. They named Hernandez their player of the year and have made a cult hero of the predatory striker some are already comparing to Old Trafford legend Denis Law. The Mexican’s team-mates share their adulation.
“Lil Pea is the real deal,” Rooney told his followers on Twitter. “(He’s the) buy of the century.”
Back in Mexico, Jorge Vergara, the owner of Chivas who sold Hernandez to United last summer, now believes his former player has a commercial value in excess of £120m. But he still maintains he did the right thing in selling him to United.
“[Ferguson] knew that [Hernandez] was good but I told him he is better than you think,” Vegara told Yahoo! Sports.
“My belief in life is that we made a good business…but someone has to make the last buck always. Why be angry about that? I am happy, we did good and got a lot of benefits. Someone always makes the last buck, or in this case the last 200 million bucks.
“And I said it one year ago and I will say it again, he is going to be the best player in the world.”
And so to Wembley, where on Saturday night Chicharito is almost certain to start alongside Rooney in the biggest club match in world football. With Messi in opposition, what better stage that this for the precocious young Mexican to continue his meteoric rise and enhance his skyrocketing reputation?
One thing is for certain, the Little Pea will not be overawed by the size of the occasion. And having watched his performances for United in the second half of the season, Barcelona will be more than a little concerned of his potential threat to their ascendancy.
“You leave as a hero, return as a legend,” read the billboard. If Hernandez continues at this rate, it just might happen.