Bruno Fernandes, Manchester United and the Long Game


Fernandes’s stay at Novara had been brief: only a year, in fact, in which he won a place in the club’s first team, scored four times in 23 games, earned the nickname — the Maradona of Novara — before he was sold, at a vast profit, to Udinese in Serie A. Giaretta was central to that, too; he left Novara for Udinese in 2013, and recommended Fernandes to his new employer.

Guidolin had not seen much of Fernandes at Novara. When Fernandes arrived at Udinese, Guidolin was “curious” to see what this teenager with the unusual career path was like. “We went into training camp before the season,” Guidolin said. “Playing in Serie B and playing in Serie A are different things, but straightaway you could see that he was ready.”

Indeed, Guidolin felt that, perhaps, Fernandes’s early exposure to senior soccer — even at a lower level — had been in his interest. “A year in Serie B is a more complete experience than arriving straight from the youth system,” he said of players who move to Italy. “You could see that he had more certainty, took more responsibility, than most players his age.”

Looking at his trajectory since, it is possible to wonder if, perhaps, taking the long way around has worked in Fernandes’s favor. What stands out now to all of those who worked with him in his early days is his willingness to lead: to carry a team, even one as heavy as Manchester United, on his back.

Perhaps he learned that in those years he spent among the game’s lesser lights: one at Novara, three at Udinese, one at Sampdoria. By the summer of 2017, when he returned to Portugal — as the second-most-expensive signing in Sporting’s history — he had still not received a call-up to Portugal’s national team (though he had captained its under-21 side). His arrival was not heralded as a coup. “Most of the big teams had not seen much of him,” Martelinho said.

And yet, within just a few months, it was obvious what Portugal had been missing. “The Portuguese league is not as strong as England, Spain or Germany,” Martelinho said. “But it is maybe the fifth- or sixth-best league in Europe. It is not easy. Bruno made it look easy.”

His impact in England has been no less swift. It is not yet 12 full months since he arrived at Old Trafford, yet he has already been voted into one Premier League team of the season, and, with his team emerging as contenders to end a seven-year wait for a championship, he would rank among the leading candidates to win this campaign’s player of the year award.