Nemanja Vidic, One-on-One: 'I was interested in going to Liverpool... but then Manchester United came'

Did Fergie stop him from joining the army? What was his best tackle? And has he ever actually murdered someone? Your questions answered…

“People ask me what I do these days and I tell them I’m a full-time driver,” chuckles Nemanja Vidic as he sits down with FourFourTwo at his favourite Japanese restaurant in Milan’s fashionable bar-lined Via Carlo Ravizza, close to his home and barely a mile from the San Siro. “I drive for my three boys – to school, to football. It takes a lot of time.”

The European Cup and five-time Premier League winner retired from football in December 2015 after a difficult spell with Inter, but he has stayed in Milan to improve his Italian.

He’s enjoying time spent with his family and playing golf, but the Serbian ex-defender would like to become a coach and manager. He keeps in touch with several of his former United team-mates and he’s surprised to hear that Billy Bragg sang about having an uncle who once played for Red Star Belgrade. But first, your questions…

Nemanja Vidic

Portrait: Mattia Zoppellaro

FACT FILE

  • Date of birth: October 21, 1981
  • Height: 6ft 3in
  • Position: Defender
  • Place of birth: Užice, Yugoslavia

What were you like at school? It’s hard to imagine you messing about!
Matt Burgess, via Twitter

I was best at sports! I went to school because I had to, but I wasn’t really interested in working at school. I would not encourage my own children to be like me when they’re at school.

What is it like when growing up in a warzone? Is it true your games as a kid were delayed by bombing raids?
Charlotte, via Twitter

When they started bombing I went back to my hometown. We didn’t know how bad it was going to get. When the bombing started, we heard sirens and went to the bomb shelter. We tried to live a normal life. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t feel like I was living in a warzone, but my town was bombed five times. They took out the strategic targets, but they were in the centre – the telecommunications centre which was 200 metres from my home. I heard the big crash. Nobody died, thankfully. I’m not politically orientated anyway, but bombs are sad to see – not just in Serbia, but anywhere in the world.

Yugoslavia

Serbia and much of Yugoslavia was not particularly safe during Vidic's upbringing

Your uncle and grandfather were both referees. Did they ever give you any tips for getting away with some of the game’s dark arts?
Anthony Page, via Facebook

They were good referees and my uncle refereed five derby games between Red Star and Partizan. They told me that if I respected the referee, the referee would respect me back. I tried that in the beginning and had some success with referees, but not all. In general, I didn’t have problems with referees.

How does the Eternal Derby compare to the derbies in Manchester and Milan? What’s the craziest thing you saw happen in one of those matches?
Robbie, via Facebook

I stood with Red Star’s hardcore fans when I was a young player at the club. I moved to Belgrade at 15 to play for the youth team. I sang with them and I loved it, because I was a fan of the club since I was very young. It was crazy on the terraces – you jump around and sing the whole game. In Belgrade, I knew the safe roads home from the derby, but it was more difficult going to Partizan’s stadium. I had to be careful, because if you’re recognised as a Red Star supporter there could be trouble. The trouble now has gone too far.

Manchester United conceded six goals in your first two matches with the club, including four in a defeat at Blackburn. Did you wonder what you’d let yourself in for? How difficult were those early weeks?
Eliot Greene, via Facebook

It was more than weeks – it was four or five months. I was training with great players and struggling to stay on my feet. They were fast and strong. [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Wayne] Rooney and [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy would run at me in training – [Louis] Saha, too. They were too much. I arrived in Manchester unfit because I came in January, the Russian season’s break. I did a quick two-week fitness course and they wanted me to play. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. It’s interesting that the reader mentions Blackburn. I don’t have the best memory, but I remember this clearly because the fans still applauded at the end. I couldn’t understand it – we hadn’t won the game. I was in shock. You wouldn’t have got this in Serbia.

Is it true that Liverpool wanted you?
Billy, via Twitter

Yes. Rafa Benitez called me and I nearly went there. I was interested in going, but my English wasn’t good and I was struggling to communicate. Then Manchester United came. Fergie called me at my apartment and said: ‘I watched you play for Serbia against France – I want you here’. United were decisive. Everything was done very quickly, within two days.

Nemanja Vidic

Vidic remonstrates with Liverpool's Sturridge, but the pair could have been team-mates rather than opponents

Who did you hate facing more: Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres?
Inderjit Singh, via Twitter

Drogba was tougher. Torres always created a chance to score, but Drogba was on you for the full game. People say: ‘You had a difficult game against Torres’, but it was just the one game. I went to head the ball but changed my mind and tried to pass to Edwin. I misjudged the distance and Torres scored.

FACT FILE

  • Clubs: 2000-04 Red Star 95 games (16 goals); 2000-01 Spartak Subotica (loan) 27 (6); 2004-06 Spartak Moscow 41 (4); 2006-14 Manchester United 300 (21); 2014-16 Inter 28 (1)
  • International: 2002-2011 Serbia 56 (2)
  • Playing honours: Yugoslav Cup 2002; First League of Serbia and Montenegro 2004; Serbia and Montenegro Cup 2004; Premier League 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013; League Cup 2006, 2009, 2010; Community Shield 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013; Champions League 2008, Club World Cup 2008

Were you in the running to take a penalty in the 2008 Champions League Final? How prepared were you to take one before Nicolas Anelka missed Chelsea’s seventh kick?
Neil Meehan, Old Trafford

We knew the five. After that, it was about who felt confident. I was going to shoot seventh or eighth – me or Giggsy. I said he had more experience and should shoot. He did, and I was next, but I wasn’t needed. Giggsy was still sharp when he was 40, you know. He could still change direction quickly.

After the 2008 final, what were your movements between leaving the Luzhniki Stadium and flying home?
Calvin Betton, via Twitter

That was a great night. I’d played for Spartak Moscow in Luzhniki and I had friends who came to see me. Russia was good to me. It was the first time I’d left Serbia and it was hard in Russia at first. Over time, I learned about Russia and enjoyed it. I was happy to go back there with Manchester United. I didn’t sleep that night in Moscow. It was a long party and I was drinking fast. Maybe that’s why I forgot that Drogba wanted to punch me during the game.

How much did you hate the food and weather in Manchester?
Anthony Murphy, via Facebook

I struggled with the weather in the beginning. [FFT: Even after living in Moscow?] Come on. Moscow is cold in winter but you don’t have rain – you have sunshine. I was OK with the food in England: it was good at the training ground and I had a wife at home who knew how to cook, especially Serbian dishes. She makes an excellent punjene paprike – peppers stuffed with meat, onion and spices. At Carrington, they asked me if I’d like Serbian food. They were advanced like that. Our three boys – they’re now aged nine, seven and four – were born in Manchester. I had the best time of my career there and we still have a house there. The only thing I had a problem with was the weather. I really enjoyed Manchester, the social life and its people.

Nemanja Vidic

Vidic carries a takeaway in 2009... but was it Serbian or Mancunian?

You seem quite a fearsome chap. Was Fergie ever brave enough to give you the hairdryer?
Matthew Chant, Warrington

I don’t know about ‘brave’ – he was the boss. He could sack me if he wanted. But I think it’s good to have these strong conversations between manager and player. They can lift the player. Even the hairdryer was used for a purpose. But physically I was stronger than him!

Is it true Ferguson talked you down from enlisting in the Serbian army?
Joe Thomlinson, via Facebook

Good question. Fergie said this in his book. He and I walked onto the training pitch and he asked me what was happening in Serbia. He could see I was angry and that’s how he interpreted it. But the truth is that I never spoke about going back to serve in the army.

Nemanja Vidic, Sir Alex Ferguson

Ferguson claimed he talked Vidic out of joining the Serbian army

Is it true you became a darts fan when you were in England? Do you play?
Hapag Lloyd, Salford

It’s true. I didn’t even know what darts was. I loved it because of the atmosphere – especially when they got a 180. People sing and jump. I stopped playing when I left England, but I practised a lot there and I used to be good. I can’t remember what my best checkout is, though!

HIGHS AND LOWS

  • High: 2002 - Wins the Yugoslav Cup with Red Star aged 20
  • Low: 2006 - Misses the World Cup through suspension and injury
  • High: 2008 - Wins the Champions League as Manchester United beat Chelsea
  • Low: 2009 - Picks up two of his four career red cards to come against Liverpool
  • High: 2011 - Named Manchester United club captain after Gary Neville retires
  • Low: 2011 - Sidelined for six months after twisting his knee against Basel

How did you feel when David Moyes made you and Rio Ferdinand watch videos of Phil Jagielka defending? Was it as big a deal to the pair of you as has since been made out?
Christopher Barnard, via Twitter

[Pauses] Players don’t always like what managers say to them. That’s normal – it even happened with Fergie. The sad thing for me wasn’t any specific incident; it was that with David as manager and me as captain, we didn’t do well. As a team we wanted to prove people wrong after Fergie went. We hoped to be better. We were not. We all lost and must share the responsibility and guilt, David as manager and me as captain.

Would you have stayed another year if you knew Moyes was leaving?
Colm Scott Byrne, via Twitter

The decision was made before David left. I felt it was time to leave. I didn’t push for a new contract. I had injuries and felt my body wasn’t the same as it was when I was younger. I saw that the car was running down and the brake wasn’t working properly.

Was the tackle on Kyle Walker at White Hart Lane in 2013 your best? He went about six feet up in the air!
Lee Thomas, via Twitter

I don’t remember all of my tackles – I was sometimes playing with concussion – but I remember that one. Kyle went honestly for the ball and so did I. It’s why I like that challenge: it doesn’t matter who won; what mattered is that we both went for the ball. I love that about English football and hope it never changes.

Why did you release that photo of you signing for Inter when you still played for Manchester United?
Doco, Belfast

I had signed for Inter – everyone knew that. The picture came after that. I didn’t publish the picture, but the club wanted to publish it and I understood.

Vidic joined Inter in 2014

Why didn’t it work out for you at Inter?
Lee Embleton, via Facebook

The club was going through a lot of changes, in the same way as Manchester United were – maybe even more. At the same time as I arrived, seven or eight players left, and important players, too: Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Diego Milito. There were big expectations for me and I tried hard, but there was trouble for me from the start. We played three at the back. I played in the middle and felt like I was there to fix problems, but even if there were no problems you’d get them in that position. I didn’t enjoy that role – I hadn’t played it for a long time. I tried to adapt but it just didn’t happen. Then [Roberto] Mancini arrived. We didn’t start well; I didn’t play for two or three months. We didn’t have a great relationship. Then I got injured. That’s basically the story.  

Nemanja Vidic

Portrait: Mattia Zoppellaro

Did the Inter squad have the same winning mentality as the players at Manchester United did?
F Murray, New York

When I arrived at United we had a lot of young players who hadn’t won much. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what it’s like to win something. The perception of winning isn’t the same as the reality. I became a winner at United; I never had the chance to be a winner at Inter.

Nemanja Vidic

Vidic's two years at San Siro didn't go to plan, with both player and club struggling

Who was the hardest player you faced in the Premier League? And how would you deal with Diego Costa if you were still playing now?
Jay Pollitt, via Twitter

Drogba was physically the hardest; [Luis] Suarez and [Sergio] Aguero were the best. Drogba would be even better if he didn’t get so many injuries. They were the top three I played against. Costa? I’d deal with him like I did the others. You are what you are and I played my own game against everyone.

Would you agree that there’s a real lack of top-class centre-backs in the game right now? Who is the best up-and-coming defender that you have seen recently?
Ash, via Twitter

Football is changing, with Barcelona being the best example of that. Midfielders play as centre-backs. But if you face Barcelona then you are playing against a team who will always attack. Even at United, though, Daley Blind and Michael Carrick play as defenders. Left-backs can play as central defenders. That wouldn’t happen before. Is the game changing or are there not enough defenders? I’m not sure. Do we want defenders any more? Some managers don’t know what they want. I know what I like: defenders to defend. Defenders bring balance to a team and having too many non-defenders can lose that. I still believe in Chris Smalling. He did well last season and he can improve and do better. He has the mentality to defend, and the physical size to do it. He likes to defend. With a good partner he can be even better.

Blind's fine passing saw him moved to centre-back last term

What would you do if the team coach you were travelling on was attacked with bottles? What did you make of the reaction of Jesse Lingard & Co. when it happened at West Ham?
Anthony Wilson, via Twitter

I would hit them! [Laughs] No, I’m joking. I did see the bottles and I was surprised it happened in England. I didn’t like it. Watching football in England is not dangerous and I liked that. What would I do? I would probably put my head down.

We’ve all heard the chant, but have you actually murdered anybody? Seriously, though: what do you make of the chant? Does it offend you?
Alan Jones, Hampshire

It doesn’t offend me. It was great to hear the fans singing and to respect you as a player. I didn’t know it was me when they first sang it, I was so focused on the game. Someone asked me if I’d heard the song. I asked them what the fans had sung and he replied: “Well, it’s a bit tough.” The song was great. Of course I’m not a murderer, but I appreciated fans singing for me.

Nemanja Vidic

"Nemanja, woaaah!"

You said after retiring from international football in 2011 that the criticism you got from the Serbian media and supporters was part of the reason. Do you regret that now? You could have proved them wrong...
Aleksandar, via email

I don’t regret the decision at all. The decision wasn’t an impulsive one; it was made over time. I didn’t have a great relationship with the media in Serbia. Some of them didn’t have a professional relationship with me and they sometimes wrote stories that were not true. I was fed up and realised I could not change what they were doing. So the media was one reason, but there were others.

If you could play one Manchester United game all over again, which one would it be?
Chris Breward, via email

The 2007 FA Cup Final. We played Chelsea and lost 1-0. I’d like to play that again and win it this time! I was very disappointed. The FA Cup is the only trophy we didn’t win in my time there. I don’t want to play a game again which I have already won – there’s a chance I could lose! Two other games I would replay would be those two finals against Barcelona.

Should I go to Serbia on holiday?
John Ashton, Middleton

Of course! You can have a really good time. In Belgrade, it’s really nice in the summer with the bars by the river. Serbia has a very interesting history and it’s good value for money, too. People say the women are beautiful and I have to agree. That’s why I married one!

Are you considering a coaching career? What sort of manager do you think you’d be?
Dr. Wei Chun Loh, via Twitter

I would like to be a manager, but only if I had the opportunity first to be a coach and learn from someone for maybe one or two years. I would take the experiences I had of the managers I’ve worked under – some great ones, such as Alex Ferguson. Nemanja the manager won’t be the same Nemanja that you saw on the pitch. They are two completely different roles.

Should I go to Serbia on holiday?
John Ashton, Middleton

Of course! You can have a really good time. In Belgrade, it’s really nice in the summer with the bars by the river. Serbia has a very interesting history and it’s good value for money, too. People say the women are beautiful and I have to agree. That’s why I married one!

This feature originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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