Barcelona captain Gerard Pique has recounted a story from his time at Manchester United which helped him develop into the player he is today.
The Spaniard arrived at Old Trafford as a teenager in 2004, making his debut against Crewe Alexandra, and played a supporting role in Man United’s double winning 2007/08 campaign, making 13 appearances in all competitions.
Pique was taken under the wing of Pep Guardiola the following summer and, within two years, had won the World Cup, the Champions League, La Liga and the Spanish Cup.
Writing in an illuminating column for the Player’s Tribune, Pique shed light on the time when Roy Keane almost caused him to void his bowels and, in the process, helped him to develop into the professional he is today.
“I arrived at Manchester United a boy, and I left a man,” he wrote. “It was a crazy time for me, because I had never been away from home before.”
“I spent my first 17 years growing up in Spain in Barcelona’s youth academy, and it almost felt like I was playing for the local school team or something.
“I knew everybody there, and I was close to my family. So, to me, football was just fun. I didn’t understand the business side of the game at all. Then I arrived at United, and honestly, it was a complete shock.
“One of my very first matches at Old Trafford, we were in the dressing room getting ready, and I was nervous as hell. Imagine it — I’m 18 years old, and I’m sitting in that little dressing room putting on my socks next to Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand. I wanted to be invisible. I was thinking, Just do your job and go unnoticed.
“So we’re sitting there waiting for the gaffer to come in and speak to us, and I’m literally sitting right next to Roy Keane. The dressing room is so small that our legs are almost touching. There’s no space at all.
“It’s dead quiet. All of a sudden, you could hear this little vibration. Very soft.
“Roy is looking around the room.
“I realize it’s me. It’s my cell phone. I left it on vibrate, and it’s in the pocket of my pants, stuffed in the clothes bag that’s hanging right behind Roy’s head.
“Roy can’t find where the noise is coming from. Now he’s looking around the room like a maniac. His eyes are darting everywhere, and he’s trying to figure it out. You know the famous scene with Jack Nicholson in The Shining, when he bursts through the door? That’s what he looked like.
“He screams out to everybody, ‘Whose phone is that?!’
“He asks again.
“He asks a third time.
“’Whose. Bloody. F*****g. Phone. Is. That?!’ Finally, I spoke up, like a little boy. Very softly, I said, ‘I’m so sorry. It’s mine.’
“Roy put his arm around me, and he laughed, and he told me not to worry about it.
“…. No, come on, of course I’m joking! Roy lost his mind! He went nuts in front of everybody! It was incredible. I almost shit myself. But it was a good lesson.”
Pique provides some wonderful insight here and sheds light on a series of other stories from his United career. But the one sentence that captured my attention the most was this one, referring to the aforementioned phone incident: “It was one of a thousand mistakes that I made when I was at United.”
Under Sir Alex Ferguson the stakes and expectations were always sky high, but the Scot also had a remarkable capacity to make every player, even when out of form, feel respected and understood.
He knew that players at that stage of their career had to make mistakes. Mistakes are absolutely crucial, as Pique points out by mentioning that defeat to Bolton Wanderers, where his mistimed header allowed for Nicolas Anelka to score. That was his lowest moment at United, yet it proved to be the platform – the watershed moment – for a sensational career.
And now, with the case of Luke Shaw in mind, you have to wonder whether this culture of accommodating mistakes, of making players feel valued regardless of form and handing them chances to right their wrongs, is still there in 2018.