Former Everton midfielder Manuel Fernandes discusses his sole footballing regret, the day he continued playing with a broken leg, ‘living both lives’ in Istanbul, winning trophies and dealing with racism in Russia, and THAT goal against Manchester United. This is a 'long read' article, that first appeared in the Everton matchday programme on 1 March 2020...
Sitting in a Valencia police station in the small hours of January 4 2008, Manuel Fernandes was convinced he’d torched his proposed loan return to Everton.
He’d tried to halt a nightclub scuffle between friends and “some guys in a bar”, who, it turned out, were off-duty police officers.
Ultimately, Fernandes’s eventful night on the tiles did not cost him the move he was desperate to complete.
He came up short of his own expectations second time round, though, and the “upset and disappointment” that caused Fernandes lingered for a long period.
His extended low is instructive in the context of Fernandes’s prevailing outlook.
In one breath the Portuguese admits he “should have done more” in his career, in the next insists, “I don’t say that regretfully, I made my decisions and have to stand by them.”
Fernandes chose an “active” lifestyle during nearly four years with Besiktas in Turkey and is comfortable with that particular decision.
“I was performing on the pitch and also living the life,” says Fernandes.
“I was single and always with my friends, I was young and physically fit. “If I did it today, I’d get injured and be in hospital for a month.”
Fernandes, who turned 34 last month, thought he’d win “70 or 80” Portugal caps after replacing Cristiano Ronaldo for his debut aged 19 in February 2005.
He was the golden boy of Benfica’s title-winning team that 2004/05 season and admits to subsequently getting ahead of his station.
It was the explosive midfielder’s debut campaign and Benfica’s first championship in 11 years.
“It goes to your head a little bit and to stay grounded is complicated,” says Fernandes. “Money comes along, people you are not used to. There are lots of emotions and you’re too young to deal with them.”
Fernandes issues a mea culpa over his torrid start at Valencia two years later, too.
“My head was not in the right place,” he explains.
Metaphorically, Fernandes’s head was still at Everton.
He had spent the second half of the previous 2006/07 campaign at Goodison Park and routinely tended towards the exceptional.
A graceful mover, the self-assured Fernandes in full flight made for captivating viewing. He had bundles of energy and played with an abandon scarcely sighted in Premier League football.
Add his gossamer touch and imaginative passing and you understand why Evertonians considered Fernandes the one who got away when he was unveiled as a Valencia player in August 2007.
The fans’ disappointment was reciprocated by the player.
He had joined an Everton pre-season camp, refusing to play for Benfica in a Champions League qualifying match to remain eligible for the Blues’ European campaign.
But two days after Fernandes attended Everton’s Goodison draw with Blackburn Rovers on 25 August – he had passed a medical – news emerged of him signing a six-year deal in Andalusia.
“I had been in the camp waiting for the situation to be sorted with Benfica, then after the Blackburn game I was waiting to be told what to do,” says Fernandes.
“Sven-Goran Eriksson called me about going to Manchester City but my decision was made.
“The Benfica president was threatening to fine me if I did not go back.
“Everton felt like home and my intention was to sign but unfortunately nothing happened.
“I only learned about Valencia’s offer when I arrived back in Lisbon.”
Fernandes was not long through the door in Valencia when manager Quique Sanchez Flores was replaced by Ronald Koeman, whose arrival as Benfica boss had coincided with a drift in the player’s focus.
Regardless of who was calling the shots at the Mestalla, however, Fernandes wasn’t listening.
“I didn’t want the move and it was difficult to change my mindset,” he says.
“I wasn’t mature enough to deal with it and didn’t care enough if I didn’t play. The first six months were awful.
“I was unhappy and felt I’d made a huge mistake.”
Fernandes met agent Jorge Mendes in a Valencia hotel on 3 January 2008 to discuss the finer details of the player’s second coming at Everton.
Following those talks he headed for town with friends and teammate and countryman Miguel, who was celebrating his 28th birthday.
“My friends got in trouble with some guys in a bar,” says Fernandes.
“I went to separate them but those guys were off-duty policemen.
“They took everyone, so I was arrested at 1am and taken to the police station.
“I was there thinking, ‘I am on my way back to Portugal. This is going to get complicated’.”
Fernandes was wrong on both counts.
His destination was Everton – the deal completed eight days after his arrest – and more than 11 years later he remains a Portuguese abroad.
Fernandes originally left Benfica for Portsmouth aged 20 in summer 2006. Things soured for Fernandes at the Stadium of Light 12 months earlier when Koeman was hired following title-winning manager Giovanni Trapattoni’s resignation.
“I have to blame myself as well,” he says, introducing the subject of his complex relationship with Dutchman Koeman.
“I felt he wanted to change everything too quickly.
“There were rules like not being able to wear high numbers [Fernandes was not allowed 99 on his back].
“It made no sense and wasn’t going to change what I did on the pitch.
“But I was young and at times showed a lack of humility.
“I should have just done my best without any arguments.
“When that [quarrelling] happened from the beginning it was never going to go well.”
Fernandes, it should be pointed out, is erudite, warm and unflinchingly honest.
His English is excellent and he already spoke the language when the prospect of Premier League football lured him to Portsmouth.
Fernandes’s knowledge of the south coast team was limited to the identity of a few players he grew up with on the computer games which piqued his interest in football.
“Sol Campbell, Andy Cole, David James,” he starts.
“Watching them train, you understood how they achieved what they did. I absorbed everything.
“Sol Campbell would be furious losing in training... ready to fight someone.
“They’d had great careers but every day were so competitive and keeping everyone on edge.”
A clause demanding Portsmouth fork out €18m to permanently sign him if he played three successive games prevented Fernandes opening his stride at Fratton Park.
David Moyes had seen enough nevertheless to intervene right when Fernandes thought the pause button had been pushed on his English stay.
Fernandes was immediately parachuted into Moyes’ team in February 2007 and played nine Premier League games in his first Everton stint.
If the image of him bamboozling Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar with a stupendous strike is surely seared into the minds of anyone who witnessed it, then Fernandes’ memories of his picture-book Goodison goal are tainted by United’s comeback 4-2 win.
“It was one of my best goals, but I played awful in that game,” says Fernandes.
“You can’t lose at home from that position... at 2-0 we started trying to protect our lead.
“I was surprised to be straight in the team but everything about Everton made it easy for me. I liked David Moyes. He was very straightforward... no sugar coating. I would have a similar attitude as a coach.
“You couldn’t ask for a better group of players. The fans always stayed behind the team and so often gave us the final push. I was very fortunate to be part of the Club.”
Fernandes was made up to get back to Everton after starting only five games for Valencia.
“But I did not perform as well as I wanted,” he asserts.
“I was very, very happy to go back and so motivated. But I’d not been playing and wasn’t physically fit.
“Then I got injured in my fourth game [against Manchester City] and it was even harder to get in shape.
“No matter how talented you are, you have to physically match your opponents. I couldn’t.
“It was only towards the end I showed some semblance of what I had in my first spell.
“The disappointment over not doing what I wanted stayed with me for a long time.”
Fernandes rallied to become a prominent figure in the expressive Unai Emery-led Valencia team he rates as the “most talented” he’s played in.
He treasured his regular spot beside premium operators such as David Silva, Juan Mata and David Villa – who remains a close friend.
When Fernandes badly hurt his leg after 15 minutes of a game against Getafe late in 2008/09, then, he gritted his teeth and saw it through.
An X-ray the next day revealed a fractured fibula.
“We had a lot of options and I couldn’t give anyone the opportunity to play ahead of me,” says Fernandes.
“I was enjoying football again and doing well.”
So well Jose Mourinho attempted to get him to Inter Milan three months before that leg break.
Mourinho tried again when Fernandes was restored to health but the player suspected Inter of a ruse to flush out their primary target, Cristian Ledesma of Lazio.
He ultimately transferred to Besiktas in January 2011, winning the Turkish Cup four months later and staying three and a half years.
“They were some of my best years and Istanbul was a very nice surprise,” says Fernandes.
“I was living both lives but I don’t have that capacity anymore.
“It is not something to be proud of, nor would I recommend it to a young player.
“But if it works no one will say anything, that is the reality.
“I had an active life but I trained hard – I was in the gym every day, I did Pilates and boxing and never missed any workouts.”
Besiktas resisted bids from AC Milan and Tottenham Hotspur – managed by Fernandes’s old Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp – for their prize asset.
The player himself rebuffed Lokomotiv Moscow in 2013 but Fernandes’s head was turned the following year when Besiktas played hardball over fresh terms.
Even so, Fernandes harboured some “anxiety” over moving to a city he knew nothing about and a country whose football is engaged in an ongoing battle to eradicate racism.
“The offer from Besiktas was not what I expected, I felt underappreciated,” says Fernandes.
“Lokomotiv had ambitions to win titles and, truthfully, the financial aspect was very important.”
A generous contract did nothing to ease the difficulties of a first season when, in Fernandes’s eyes, some of Lokomotiv’s Russian players “viewed foreigners as the enemy”.
He won the domestic cup regardless and fancied “the second season could only get better”.
“I was mistaken about that,” laughs Fernandes.
A dispute with the club’s president was at the root of his spiralling fortunes. A change at the top, coupled with the player mastering the native tongue, enabled him to flourish in season three.
“We won the cup and I was top scorer,” says Fernandes.
“In my fourth season we won the club’s first championship for 14 years. When I started speaking Russian everything changed.
“I don’t know if that was because it was easier to communicate, or the others knew I could understand what they were saying!”
Fernandes chuckles as he utters the previous line.
His stance on the racism he’s encountered in Russia is contrastingly clinical.
“I’ve had incidents,” says Fernandes. “Russia is culturally different, that doesn’t justify certain behaviours but that’s how it is.
“I try to do my job as best as possible and this kind of stuff, I just let it go.
“After 20 minutes of one away game I went to take a corner and heard monkey sounds. I pretended I didn’t notice, if I’d reacted it would have got worse.
“I went to take five or six more set-pieces and heard nothing.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t alert someone... but sometimes doing nothing is the best option and makes the racists more irrelevant.”
Fernandes had been five years out of Portugal’s national side when his form in Lokomotiv’s 2017/18 league-winning season won him a timely recall eight months before the World Cup in Russia.
“It was probably my last chance to play in a major tournament,” says Fernandes.
“I could see other players in my position struggling and was super motivated all season to take my opportunity.
“I didn’t play as much as I wanted at the World Cup [once from the bench] but it was important for me to be there.”
Fernandes is currently in his sixth Russian season after swapping Lokomotiv for Krasnodar last summer.
He will settle in Lisbon following retirement – in “two or three years, or when someone tells me, ‘Manny, you’re a nice guy, but no one will hire you now’” – and since his late 20s has been preparing to fill a football-shaped hole in his life.
“I have ex-teammates who didn’t think about the future and it didn’t go well,” says Fernandes.
“I have investments and businesses and will study a management and marketing course.
“I can’t guarantee I’ll never do something else in football but I want to succeed in other areas and improve myself.”