David de Gea isn’t one to give too many interviews but even he couldn’t hide this week as Manchester United prepare to visit his former club.
The goalkeeper’s comments in advance of Wednesday night’s meeting with Atletico Madrid just showed how human affections can change with time.
‘I like the fact I was born in Madrid but, at the end of the day, it’s just a city,’ De Gea said to UEFA.com.
David de Gea pictured playing for Atletico Madrid in 2011, just a few months before he joined Manchester United. He returns to his boyhood club in the Champions League on Wednesday
De Gea has certainly come a long way from the thin, scrawny stopper that played for Atletico
De Gea was keen to make clear his affections not only for United but for the city of Manchester this week in the lead-up to what could be an uncomfortable return to his home city
‘Now I feel as if I’m from Manchester; I just feel like anyone else from Manchester. Where you are loved and welcomed is your home.
‘I’ve been here for many years and, obviously, anything can happen in life, in the world of football, but honestly I don’t see myself away from Manchester United.’
His words were certainly great news for United, suggesting strongly that the 31-year-old is open to extending his contract beyond 2023. If so, the club potentially won’t have to think about sourcing a new No 1 for another five years or more.
United’s fans will be thrilled as well. Their team would be seriously diminished without the Spanish keeper’s pretty much unrivalled shot-stopping ability.
The past decade has been troubled for United but it doesn’t really bear thinking about how much worse off they’d be without De Gea’s brilliance, a fact hammered home by the four club player of the year awards he has won.
But as De Gea prepares to return to the city of his birth, his remarks also reflect the fact he will not receive a warm welcome when he runs out into the Wanda Metropolitano.
De Gea shows off his brilliance on a seemingly weekly basis as United struggle defensively
De Gea makes countless valuable saves every season to give United some respectability
His departure from Atletico in 2011 was sudden and acrimonious. The fans felt a definite sense of betrayal from a player whose had repeatedly declared his loyalty to his boyhood club.
The regular links with Real Madrid during his time at Old Trafford haven’t exactly improved relations and De Gea feels he’s never really had the opportunity to fully explain a complex transfer.
In a recent interview with El Pais, he said: ‘It was very, very difficult to leave. People close to me said – it’s Manchester United, think over it, it’s a unique opportunity.
‘But at that time I was just about Atletico de Madrid. I had been there many years, since I was small. It was a moment… It was difficult to make that step. The fans loved me a lot.’
That’s unlikely to cut much ice and De Gea is likely to hear plenty of whistles and jeers from the red and white hordes on Wednesday night. This is not a triumphant return of ‘local boy made good.’
But you have to remember that De Gea back then was a scrawny 20-year-old buffeted by forces beyond his control during a transfer process he ultimately had little say in.
De Gea is welcomed to United by Sir Alex Ferguson following his 2011 move from Atletico
De Gea’s first season at United featured some errors described as part of the ‘learning process’
He was also bullied by opponents and needed to build himself up to be able to compete
De Gea’s career
ATLETICO MADRID B
2008-09 35 matches
2009-2011 84 matches
UEFA Europa League winner 2009-10
UEFA Super Cup winner 2010
2011- 473 matches
Premier League winner 2012-13
FA Cup 2015-16
EFL Cup 2016-17
UEFA Europa League winner 2016-17
FA Community Shield 2011, 2013, 2016
2014- 45 matches
He’s certainly come an awful long way from his first season with United, when the physicality of Premier League opponents left him battered and bruised.
De Gea, who cost United £18.9million, was written off by some after early mistakes, was told to bulk up by the club’s coaches and even had to address questions about needing an operation for his short-sightedness.
Sir Alex Ferguson described early misjudgements as part of the ‘learning process’ and saw only potential. Time would prove him correct and what was never in doubt was De Gea’s cast iron strength of character.
That perseverance had served him well during his early days at Atletico, too. Raised in Illescas, a town 40 minutes south of Madrid, De Gea was signed into Atletico’s academy aged 13.
In the summer of 2009, when the 18-year-old hoped to make a first-team breakthrough, he found himself fourth in the club’s goalkeeper pecking order behind Joel Robles, Sergio Asenjo and Roberto Jimenez. The club were casting around for potential loan moves for him.
But fate conspired to hand De Gea the opportunity he needed, with injuries and international call-ups pushing him into action. His senior debut came against Porto in the Champions League.
Three days later, on his LaLiga debut against Real Zaragoza, he conceded a penalty but then redeemed himself immediately by saving from Marko Babic, to the delight of the Vicente Calderon crowd.
Following a poor start to the season, manager Abel Resino was fired and replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores in the October.
Flores brought with him goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez, who instantly recognised De Gea’s immense potential, pressed his case to become the regular No 1 and would become a long-term mentor at Atletico and then later at United too.
Goalkeeping coach Emilio Alvarez pictured with De Gea at Manchester United in 2016
De Gea keeps a close watch on Fulham striker Zoltan Gera during the 2010 Europa League final
Their run to the Europa League final that season, where they beat Fulham 2-1, offered De Gea his first run of regular football.
He played especially well in the semi-final win over Liverpool, making key saves at Anfield as Atletico squeaked through on away goals.
While that brought De Gea to the attention of English fans more generally, the Daily Mail had reported as early as January 2010 that he was Ferguson’s preferred choice to replace the veteran Edwin van de Sar at United.
The keeper leaps in the air to celebrate Atletico’s 2-1 win over Fulham in the 2010 Europa League final in Hamburg
Ferguson famously only missed a handful of United matches during his astonishing 27-year stint as manager but one such occasion was in September 2010 when he skipped a League Cup tie against Scunthorpe to scout De Gea in a match with Valencia.
De Gea’s clear affection for the club he watched as a boy alongside his father meant he continuously denied the intensifying transfer rumours during the 2010-11 campaign in which he was Atletico’s undisputed first choice.
In November 2010, for example, he said: ‘I am very happy at Atletico and would like to stay here. It is a compliment that such a big club is interested in you, it is nice, but Atletico is my club – I carry it inside me.’
And in the following April, he insisted: ‘I’ve not signed anything, I am happy here. It’s all lies… If Atletico want me and fight for me, it will be difficult to leave. It is my lifetime club.’
Such heartfelt statements only came back to bite him when the transfer duly went through that summer but it’s likely everything was out of his hands anyway.
Atletico’s chief executive Miguel Angel Gil Marin made no secret the club was willing to cash in on their talent and the player’s confidant Alvarez also believed joining United would further his career.
What irked the Atletico fans was that the clubs tried and failed to keep it all under wraps.
De Gea admitted it was ‘difficult’ to leave Atletico in his farewell press conference in 2011
Literally so when members of his entourage tried to disguise his arrival at the Bridgewater Hospital in Manchester for a medical by holding up a white bedsheet. Unfortunately, the 6ft 5in keeper made a dart for the door and was papped.
In his farewell press conference at Atletico, De Gea painted the move as a ‘difficult’ one for him and insisted he would ‘always carry the club in my heart.’
De Gea lifts the Premier League trophy in 2013 – but United haven’t come close to winning the title since
The fans weren’t buying it. Atletico’s Ultras held up a banner reading ‘De Gea, you’ll never be one of us’ ahead of a match early in the following season.
In the near 11 years since, De Gea has proved himself a worthy heir to Van der Sar and, taking the lineage back further, Peter Schmeichel.
The Spaniard has played 473 matches for United and his legend will be assured even if he leaves next year.
But unlike Schmeichel and Van der Sar, he has not won much silverware and what successes there have been seem like a lifetime ago now.
It looks highly likely United won’t win a trophy this season, making it five years since Jose Mourinho led them to the League Cup and Europa League in 2017, their last addition to the honours board.
De Gea, of course, was there when United won the Premier League in 2012-13, Fergie’s last season before retirement. Of the current squad, only he, Cristiano Ronaldo and the lesser-seen Phil Jones know the feeling of being crowned champions of England.
There have been personal highlights, including the aforementioned club accolades and countless match-winning, or more often match-saving, saves.
But De Gea’s time at United has seen a constant churn of managers and players in most cases not up to the task, mismanagement of the club at the very top and an inescapable feeling of drift and decay.
De Gea, seen after last season’s Europa League final defeat, has spoken of a ‘curse’ on the club
In that El Pais interview, De Gea suggested the club was ‘cursed’ as it no longer competed for the top honours, as if Fergie had accidentally smashed a mirror on his way out.
There have been controversial moments. Louis van Gaal dropped De Gea in 2015 after a £29m move to Real Madrid collapsed on deadline day because the necessary paperwork was allegedly submitted two minutes late.
Last season, De Gea was criticised after failing to save any of Villarreal’s 11 penalties in the UEFA Europa League final, then seeing his own decisive effort saved.
The fact De Gea has won four player of the year awards speaks of United’s decline
He has seldom been challenged for the No 1 shirt but raised his standards to see off the ambitious England keeper Dean Henderson last season.
De Gea has been a true asset and a tower of strength during his time at Old Trafford and his words and actions portray a man and footballer content with his lot in Manchester.
You only have to look at his celebrations when United beat bitter rivals Leeds 4-2 on Sunday to recognise that.
He will, however, have to draw on that famed mental resilience when he confronts those hostile Atletico fans on Wednesday night.