Manchester United became the best “school” in Nani’s life once he learned how to work with Alex Ferguson – but crossing that bridge was not easy for the former Portugal star.
Nani’s United career was a curious one, for he constantly had to contend with comparisons to compatriot and fellow Sporting CP product Cristiano Ronaldo, and that seemingly impacted fan expectations of him at the start.
His first season had some memorable highs, as he highlighted his penchant for a spectacular goal or two with long-range strikes against Middlesbrough and Tottenham, while also helping United to a Premier League and Champions League double, scoring in the penalty shootout that secured European glory.
Yet, despite his 12 Premier League goal involvements that term, Nani was regularly decried for a lack of consistency in his performances – a talented winger who seemed to frustrate as much as he did delight, with a man-of-the-match display in a 4-0 FA Cup win over Arsenal in February 2008 evidence of the devastating ability that perhaps was not shown enough.
After playing only 13 games – partly due to injuries – in his second domestic season, some fans might have expected United to cut their losses with Nani, but the penny seemed to drop, as he had a hand in 10 goals (six assists and four goals) in 23 appearances in the subsequent campaign and that proved the launchpad he needed.
Nani’s best individual season followed in 2010-11 as he claimed 14 assists and nine goals to earn himself a place in the Professional Footballers’ Association’s (PFA) Team of the Year and win United’s Players’ Player of the Season award. The key for him? Finally understanding what made Ferguson tick.
Speaking to Stats Perform News, Nani said of his time working with Ferguson: “I think the best moment is all the trophies we won together, because I think when you play for a coach like that, the way he managed the team and always continued to win, we are privileged, no?
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) November 17, 2018
“But obviously, I learned to understand how to work with Alex Ferguson, because at the beginning, I was not understanding very well, because I was too emotional.
“My background, you know, you need some lessons of life, and I was learning so fast with all my team-mates and the coaches helping in that way, and I was happy at the end because they made me mature so fast.
“I learned how to play the game with them and how to behave in a big club like Man United, and that’s why today when I look back, I have so great memories.
“That was my best school in all my life because what I learned from the time I had, seven years in Man United, they gave me today the capacity to be who I am and to understand things the way I understand them.”
Across his time in the Premier League, only five players made more assists than Nani (43), though that figure may have been even more impressive were he not restricted by injuries to just 11 league games each in Ferguson’s final season and David Moyes’ solitary campaign.
Louis van Gaal subsequently decided his time at Old Trafford was up, but Nani looks back fondly on his time in Manchester, and particularly under Ferguson, whom he shared a touching moment with as he walked down the steps of the Stade de France having helped Portugal to Euro 2016 glory.
“Nani!” came the shout from Ferguson.
“Boss!” replied a visibly shocked but joyous Nani, still seeing the Scot as a person of authority despite being out of the game for three years at this point. The pair hugged and exchanged a few words before Ferguson sent his former player on his way.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 10, 2016
And it was this personable character – rather than the authoritative figure Ferguson is often perceived to be – that Nani remembers most, yet still took some time to get used to.
“I understood that he would always like the players to go and talk with him,” Nani said. “But he appreciated more when the players opened up to him and were honest, and told him whatever the truth was or whatever you needed.
“If you had any problem, he would like to have this opportunity to hear from the players, and as soon as you do that one or two times, you are more confident to talk with him, and then you feel you closer to the manager.
“You understand and you feel like, ‘Oh, now he understands me, it doesn’t matter if I’m happy or not’.
“So, I knew I could count on him if I needed to talk or if I needed anything, or if I wasn’t in good shape or good form, it doesn’t matter because he sees me as part of the team.”
Now 34 and in MLS with Orlando City as he approaches the end of an illustrious career, Nani may feel he could have achieved even more on a personal level at United.
But being shaped by a man as revered as Ferguson is a claim to fame in itself.
No keeper in the world was stopping this @LuisNani strike!
And how about that celebration… pic.twitter.com/8RUBWtXLCM
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 10, 2018