Of all the heart-warming sights to accompany the unfolding of Juan Mata’s transfer to Manchester United last weekend, the image of David de Gea embracing United’s new Spanish superstar with a loving bear hug is the one that bodes particularly well for the future.
Mata later revealed that de Gea had spent the last few days texting him, asking him ‘When are you coming, when are you landing?!’ and ‘Are you coming by helicopter or by bicycle?!’. All the signs are there: we may well be witnessing the beginning of a great man-love story between the goalkeeping giant and the diminutive playmaking magician.
As a sign of good will towards United’s blossoming new Spanish bromance, here are four of the finest and most inseparable United friendships from recent times…
Gary Neville and David Beckham
Although Neville and Beckham were both right-sided players who graduated from the famous ‘Class of ’92’ academy team, there are few further obvious similarities between the men who occupied United’s No.2 and No.7 shirts for most of the 1990s and part of the 2000s. One was a finely chiselled, highly fashion conscious and fame craving superstar, the other an unglamorous, publicity shy local lad with no interests except Manchester United. Yet Neville and Beckham grew into lifelong best friends during their time at United, developing a telepathic understanding on the right wing, with Neville a relentless support and distraction to create space for Beckham’s trademark crosses. The pair shared rooms on away trips for both United and England, and acted as rock-solid supports for each other as they progressed together to the highest levels of European football.
Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs
Whilst he today typically receives justifiable praise for his impeccable fitness and conditioning levels, there was a time when Giggs existed at the heart of the Manchester party scene, the teenage heartthrob long before Beckham developed his untouchable star appeal. Butt, along with the soon-to be-sold Lee Sharpe, was Giggs’ undisputed partner in crime during the player’s breakthrough seasons. They grew into a cheeky double-act who were behind all the dressing room pranks and could regularly be found causing chaos in Manchester’s nightclubs, much to the chagrin of Sir Alex Ferguson. Nicky left the club for Newcastle United in 2004, but the pair remains in regular contact.
Park Ji Sung and Patrice Evra
The Frenchman and South Korean developed an endearingly close relationship during the years that they shared at Old Trafford. Drawn together through the shared experiences of adapting to their new lives in England, the pair shared a room on away trips and agreed to celebrate together if either scored. After heading home against Wigan in November 2010, Evra commented “it was a great cross from my best friend Ji-Sung. I’ve been waiting a long time for this, so maybe I’ll buy him a car for Christmas!” “I miss him every day because he’s a really important person in my life,” Evra said of his departed friend after he left the club in 2012. Cynics could perhaps argue that Patrice would have done well to pick up some of Park’s defensive prowess during the time they shared together as best buds.
Fabien Barthez and Laurent Blanc
Whilst admittedly not a relationship cast solely in the furnaces of Old Trafford, Barthez and Blanc were able to rekindle their budding relationship when the latter was brought in to replace Jaap Stam during the 2000/01 season. As a good luck superstition, Blanc had taken to kissing the bald head of Barthez before the start of each of their international fixtures for France. They then went on to replicate the routine after being reunited at club level, performing the ritual before Champions League matches. Unfortunately, though, the kiss did not prove an all too effective good luck charm: Blanc largely struggled to adapt to the pace of the English football, whilst Barthez was eventually sold to Marseille in 2003 in the wake of a string of embarrassing errors.
And one not so loving relationship…
Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole
Such is the importance of media relations, club reputation and team spirit that relationships which have broken down within football rarely become common knowledge. Yet even the most influential PR men on the planet would have struggled to hide the bitter bad blood that existed between United’s two English strikers around the turn of the century. Cole and Sheringham just, well, hated each other. Cole in particular has had no hesitations in broadcasting his level of distaste for the former teammate to the world: “I just loathed him personally for 15 years,” the striker said in 2010. The pair played together at United and achieved substantial success, including the historic 1999 treble, but did so whilst reportedly never exchanging a single word. Sheringham had snubbed Cole whilst on England duty in 1995, a grudge which Cole appears to have never managed to come close to getting over.