Valencia: 'It's about more than scoring goals'
Replacing Ronaldo was never going to be easy, but Antonio Valencia says he's now ready to come into his own. He tells Ian Herbert about his life back in Ecuador, and why the usual football trappings are not for him
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If Sir Alex Ferguson actually attached significance to such things – and he doesn't – you could be forgiven for thinking that he sought to put the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo out of mind by signing a diametrically opposite personality for the right wing when his much treasured playmaker left for the Bernabeu this summer.
Ronaldo left Old Trafford after his last match against Arsenal on 18 May in his Bentley, stopping to sign programmes pushed through the windows by supporters at the lights on John Gilbert Way. Antonio Valencia drove into Old Trafford two months later in a fairly old BMW 3-series – the same one he'd been driving at Wigan. He still hasn't changed the three-year-old car, and after just a few minutes in his company you sense that the Bentley brochures placed around reception at United's Carrington training complex are not for him. He'd also probably have avoided moving house over the summer – from Warrington to Wilmslow – if he could have. "I changed houses because my new place is nearer here," he says. "If my previous house was nearer I would have stayed."
Valencia is a reluctant occupant of the spotlight – this is his first newspaper interview since the £16m summer transfer – and the kind of profile Ronaldo enjoyed does not sit well with a player whose name elicits the same response from every Spanish-speaking journalist who has observed his development: tranquilo, quiet and relaxed. As he embarks on a discussion of his United story so far, which following a period of adjustment has seen him to four goals in the last 10 matches (more than he managed in each of his three seasons at Wigan Athletic) he is keen to make one point clear: he is not at his new club to fill Ronaldo's boots.
"I am my own man," he says immediately, when Ronaldo's name crops up. "I thought Cristiano was a very good player but I always play according to what I think and what I want to do at that particular moment and what I know. I never imitate anyone." The No 25 jersey has helped in this respect, he reveals – Michael Owen is welcome to the iconic 7 on his back – and it becomes clear that Ferguson just told him to blank out the Ronaldo comparisons as best he could. "He said, 'You don't have to follow Cristiano but you do have to work' – and I'm doing that," Valencia says. "He said, 'Enjoy it, enjoy Manchester. Do things well.'"
As he settles back, his unlaboured assertion complete, you begin to see why Rio Ferdinand has likened Valencia to Paul Scholes in his efforts to keep things low-key. The 24-year-old doesn't disagree with the assessment. "I like to spend time at home with my partner and my family. I never look out for a photo opportunity," he says. "If that's what Paul Scholes is like then, yes, the comparison is correct."
But the similarities stop there. Valencia's road to Old Trafford has been a long and winding one, even though the last leg was a mere 20 miles down the motorway. It started out in Lago Agrio, a small town in the north-east of Ecuador, where the rivers and rainforests of the country's Amazon basin have been polluted by the oil industry, and the proximity of Colombia's Putumayo region – the heart of the Latin American cocaine trade in Latin America – makes for a dangerous way of life amid the warring paramilitary groups and refugees fleeing the violence.
Valencia's home was also a long way from the Chota valley, the mining region which produced the few other Ecuadorean players who have made it to the Premier League – Aston Villa's Ulises De La Cruz, Birmingham's Giovanny Espinoza. So alien was the idea of a football career that he didn't tell his father when he left home, aged 16, with an offer to play for El Nacional, the military-backed club in Quito, Ecuador's capital city, on a salary of 50 dollars a month.
"He couldn't see why I shouldn't be with the rest of the family, completing my studies, but I knew I could prove something to him if I got established." His mother saw the possibilities and his elder brother, Carlos Alfredo, paid the fare for his eight-hour bus journey. He began life in central midfield, where he sometimes still plays for his nation. "I guess it's good for the manager to know I can [still] play in the middle [now] if he wants to change things around during the game," he says.
Within a year he found himself playing for Ecuador's Under-20s where, alongside Birmingham City's Christian Benitez, he scored 17 goals in 23 matches. In March 2005 came the full international debut game most Ecuadoreans still remember him for: he scored twice in a 5-2 win over Paraguay as the team came back from 2-0 down. A move to Europe followed – Villarreal in La Liga – but the Spaniards couldn't make their minds up about him. He had found himself loaned out to Recreativo Huelva in the second division before the 2006 World Cup came around and the then Wigan manager Paul Jewell, who had tuned in to scout a Polish player on the television, was instead struck by Valencia playing for the opposition.
Jewell flew out to Germany a few days later, saw Valencia play against both Costa Rica and England, and hired him, but it was not until Steve Bruce was Wigan's manager that a loan deal became permanent. Bruce also dismisses those Ronaldo comparisons. "I'd say he is more like my Manchester United team-mate in the early Nineties, Andrei Kanchelskis," Bruce says. "Andrei was quick, strong and able to steam past a defender. Antonio is similar. His stats at Wigan were phenomenal. He ran further than anyone else, worked harder than anyone else and did it all at pace."
The struggle of those Spanish years certainly demanded some self-belief, Valencia reflects. "I was very young – only 18, I always wanted to play football. I wanted to better myself and I was always confident that I would eventually play in a big team." Ferguson shared that conviction – so much so that he met the player before signing him. "I was aware of United's interest during the [summer] holidays but my agent dealt with everything," Valencia says. But Ferguson made no secret of the fact that he wanted more goals from his new recruit.
The seven goals which came in a near three-year Wigan career "probably included all the training sessions," Valencia joked recently – but the manager was serious. "He told me I must concentrate more in training and in matches, that I must try to score goals at every opportunity but also help my team-mates to score," Valencia says. "So I'm practising all the time. I practise with my team-mates and I like to improve and get better with it. I'm working on that side of my game but there are crosses, tackling back, making the right pass. I hope my all-round contribution is what counts, not just the goals."
The player's general insouciance enabled him to block out the background noise when it took him 12 games to score for United. "I was always calm and felt no pressure," he insists. "Even if I hadn't scored a goal up to today, I would still be quite happy. I'm a professional player. Even if I wasn't playing well I would be a professional." But perhaps it also helped that a childhood growing up in the rainforests made him one of the few prospective players who could not name a United player as a boy. He admits that the names "Giggs" and "Scholes" did not trip off the tongue. "There was no Premiership transmission when I was a boy and it was the Italian league I watched back then. It was Roma and Francesco Totti. I didn't know anything about United."
United fans awoke to his potential after he found the net twice in four days in October, at home to Bolton and on CSKA Moscow's plastic pitch, with a goal and assist in the 4-0 win at West Ham last Saturday underlining his potential. "It's different from Wigan because here I have to play two or three times a week," he says. "Here I have to have greater concentration and be aware that I need to play better on a regular basis."
Valencia's cohorts at the club includes Patrice Evra, with whom he can communicate in Spanish, and the Portuguese-speaking contingent of Luis Nani, the Da Silva twins and Anderson, though the impression that he has changed clubs but not lives is reinforced by the fact that his contact with his Latin American friends at Wigan – Maynor Figueroa, Hugo Rodallega and Hendry Thomas – is as great as ever. "I also watch the Wigan matches," he says, with a grin. "Nothing's changed. I'm quite happy, I go to the same restaurants with the same friends."
The one change he cherishes is that Ferguson does not seem quite so struck by his passing resemblance to Michael Jackson as his previous bosses – not least Jewell, who once joked that, if things didn't work out at Wigan, Valencia could always double up as a Jacko lookalike. "My first, second and third managers told me this but I look at myself in the mirror and honestly can't say I look like Michael Jackson," grins Valencia. The words of a player who considers himself his own man – mi propio hombre, as he calls it – and not a pale imitation of a global superstar.
My Other Life
*English lessons are suddenly taking up a much bigger part of it. At Wigan there was a lesson every week, here at United it's almost every day. They didn't tell me to step them up: it was my decision. I know it's very important to communicate. Family is an important part of my life. We – my girlfriend Zoila, my daughter Domenica and I – have moved to be nearer United's training ground. But other than that life's not changed all that much. I still like to go to the same restaurants with my old mates from Wigan – Maynor Figueroa, Hugo Rodallega (above) and Hendry Thomas. Pau Brasil in Manchester's Northern Quarter is one we like. I'm missing Ecuador less and less. My family are often over but I do miss an Ecuadorean dish called ceviche – it's raw fish with lemon. You can't get that here. I can't complain about the English food, though. I do like the chicken and pasta now.