By NEIL CUSTIS
SECONDS before kick-off tonight Javier Hernandez will drop to his knees and thank God he is still playing football.
His pre-match routine that sees him kneel on the halfway line with his palms outstretched is far more than a request for a little extra help.
He credits his faith for stopping him giving the game up altogether just 12 months before Manchester United bought him.
Hernandez, 22, said: “I started doing that when I was thinking of quitting. When I started playing a bit more, I started to do that only to say thank you for helping me.
“I feel He helped me a lot and always he is there.
“That’s why I like to say thank you for letting me be part of another game, for letting me play in another game.
“I started thinking if this is what God wanted for me, I needed to work hard.
“That’s the thing for me. I want to play every game, I want to play a lot, and I do that because I’m thankful.”
But why did Hernandez want to quit so early in his career at Mexican club Chivas?
He said: “I wasn’t playing the minutes that I wanted to at the time and the coach wasn’t playing me. I don’t know why that was, but I was frustrated.
“My confidence started to go down and I asked my father and my family whether I was still right to play football.
“I just wanted to play, but I was training with the squad all week and wouldn’t play in the games. I would always go to the reserves.
“My family told me I had spent a lot of my time doing this and trying to make my dream come true, so not to give up on it.
“They said to keep fighting, keep focused and concentrated and that the most important thing was to keep enjoying the game because I am very lucky.”
Luck does not come into it for a striker blessed with goalscoring gifts that could yet prove crucial today in the Champions League final against Barcelona.
Alex Ferguson has called him the sensation of the season.
Back home he is called Chicharito or “The Little Pea” after his father’s green eyes.
But he has plenty of other names he has to answer to inside and out of Carrington.
Hernandez said: “My nickname is Chicharito, sometimes Chico.
“All my team-mates are trying to do their best to call me by my nickname because it’s strange, but they call me Chich, Chico or Chicha sometimes. Mick Phelan I think sometimes calls me Javier and other people too, but most people at the club call me Chica, Chico.
“My family call me ‘Javi’ and when they are angry it’s Javier!”
Nobody in Manchester knew any of his names before last summer when Hernandez was revealed as United’s shock £6million signing from Chivas.
Many fans were disgruntled, wanting a big name after surrendering the title the season before to Chelsea and going out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
His response has been 20 goals in his debut season and now he leads United’s attack this evening at Wembley.
Hernandez said: “It’s still hard to believe, especially when I was with my family when I got my medal and the Premier League trophy last Sunday.
“When I came here, my first thought was that I needed to work very hard to get a lot of minutes or to try my best to play a little bit, like 10 minutes in every game or whenever I got the chance.
“But right now I’m playing a little bit more, a lot in fact, and when I got the medal it was just an unbelievable feeling.
“Now we have the 19th title but hopefully on Saturday the Champions League as well.”
Hernandez thought it was a wind-up when United’s chief scout Jim Lawlor handed over his card to his father and said they wanted to sign his son who they had been monitoring.
Hernandez said: “The first time I spoke to Jim Lawlor, I didn’t believe it.
“The first I heard about it was when my father said to me ‘there’s a person interested in you, he wants to talk with you’, and he gave me Jim Lawlor’s card with the Manchester United badge on it.
“I didn’t know if it was genuine or not, because some agents in Mexico have cards on which they put the badges of all the big teams of the world, so I thought ‘Okay, it’s one more of them’.
“But my father told me, ‘No, it’s really Manchester United’. I said to him, ‘Don’t joke with me about that’ and then when I saw my father crying, I knew it was really true, that it was Manchester United.”
Hernandez, whose father and grandfather played professionally in Mexico, had to keep his transfer a closely-guarded secret on United’s strict orders so the deal could not be hijacked.
He said: “I knew for about two to three months. It was very hard to keep it secret.http://tap2-cdn.rubiconproject.com/partner/scripts/rubicon/emily.html
“We’re a big family, we’re all very close and always want to talk about what is going on with each other.
“So we didn’t tell my grandparents or my mother, for a while, so it was difficult.
“We came over here – my mother, father and my sister – and we didn’t tell the whole family, friends and other people.
“But one hour before the deal was made public we called the rest of my family and our closest friends to tell them of the surprise.
“They were very happy. It was like a dream for them because in my family we always say that we eat, sleep and talk football always, because my father and grandfather were players, so it was a great surprise for them.”
Hernandez has worked hard at building himself up physically over the last year to survive the rigours of the Premier League – something that has earned further praise from manager Ferguson.
Fergie put his faith in a young player who has shocked the footballing world and who will now have the confidence to take on the world’s best club side at Wembley tonight.
Hernandez said: “He’s amazing because in every chat, in every pre-match talk, he always finds the right words. It’s a gift.”
Hernandez will then kneel on the halfway line, hold out his hands and just thank God he is there.