David De Gea has already texted him. Sir Alex Ferguson hasn’t – not yet, at least – but he’s hoping their paths will cross in some corridor or other inside Old Trafford. There will probably be other familiar faces, too: tea ladies, kit men, security guards and the like.
All of which is to say that Sunday afternoon will probably bring back all sorts of old feelings for Javier Hernández. “For me it’s going to be emotional, of course,” he admits. “I’m going to play against some friends and I’m probably going to see some of the people who work around the club, who I have good relationships with. It’s a very important moment for me.”
It is, of course, a reunion rather than a homecoming: Hernández is a West Ham player now, the Irons having stumped up £16million to bring him back to the Premier League after two seasons with Bayer Leverkusen. Yet the fixture computer, that old romantic schemer, has decreed that his debut for his new club will take place at a stadium he clearly still holds dear.
“I don’t know how to describe it. I just can say that it’s luck,” the Mexican continues. “I’m very lucky to go back to my old club, my old home, my old house. To start my new chapter in this second part of my life in the Premier League is going to be something happy. I have very good memories from those four years in Manchester.”
His time at Old Trafford was shaped by Ferguson, who plucked Hernández from relative obscurity at Chivas and was handsomely rewarded: the forward netted 50 times in his first three seasons at United, despite often being used as an impact substitute. That strike rate, coupled with that winningly bashful grin, made him a firm fan favourite, yet the departure of Ferguson brought turmoil – both on an individual level and for the team.
“I was shocked, of course,” admits the 29-year-old. “Nobody saw it coming. That was his life. Was I upset? Of course. He was the manager who brought me over, opened the doors to Europe. He helped me to be a better footballer and we won the 19th and 20th titles together for Manchester United.
“Of course you’re going to be upset when a person who you have a good relationship with – who gives you confidence, helps you to improve as a person and as a player, gives you a lot of opportunities to live this dream – tells you he’s not going to be working with you anymore.
“We all knew there was going to be a transition. You had a manager [who had been there] 26 years, the best manager in history, achieving everything. He was unique, so it wasn’t a surprise. But nobody expected, for example, when we played with David Moyes, that we weren’t going to be in European competition.”
What changed? “Everything. He was there for 26 years and then David Gill left as well, so everything changed. Not in a good or a bad way, it was just change. I cannot tell you [that it was] only one thing. Then things didn’t [turn out] as good as Moyes wanted, as good as we wanted as a team. Nobody wants to be out of European competitions or not fight for the title.”
Today, United appear to be getting back to the top table of the game under José Mourinho. But Hernández is operating at a slightly lower echelon, with no Champions League football – he played in the competition for Leverkusen and while on loan at Real Madrid – and a title challenge not on the horizon. Yet his infectious positivity remains and he clearly believes that there are worthwhile challenges to tackle under Slaven Bilić.
“The coach first spoke with me two years ago, before I went to Bayer Leverkusen,” he adds. “Nothing happened then, but now I’m here at this historic club and I hope to repay the faith he has in me. I’m very happy, very glad to be here. It’s going to be a good challenge. The European spots is the target for everyone.”
So does Hernández feel any pressure, given the expectation that he’ll be the main man up front for the Hammers – with all the baggage that entails – rather than just a super sub like the old days? Not a bit of it. “It’s the same,” he laughs. “I felt the same when I went to Manchester United, to Madrid, to Leverkusen and now at West Ham. The only pressure I have is my pressure, that’s it.”
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