Why did you change your number this season – were you offered the No.10 shirt?
When Ruud [van Nistelrooy] left and no-one took it the following season I asked the manager and David Gill if I could have the shirt. I had to wait a year until the new kit came out [at the start of this season], but as soon as that happened I was given the shirt which was great. Ten has always been my favourite number.
Did you know much about the history behind the shirt at United – Denis Law, Mark Hughes and Ruud, of course, are all former holders…
They were all great players who scored so many goals for the club so I knew what a big number it was for me to take. But that great history makes wearing the shirt feel even better and also makes it more of a challenge to succeed. I always keep my first shirt of every new season so I’ve got the first no.10 one I wore against Chelsea [in the Community Shield] up at home.
It’s also an iconic shirt throughout world football – Puskas, Pele, Platini, Maradona, Baggio, Zidane and now Ronaldinho have all worn it – was that in your mind too?
Yeah, it’s definitely been an important number down the years. It’s probably more of a traditional number in South America for the best players to wear no.10 compared to here and when you look at the players who have worn it, it feels great to have the number. Hopefully when I’ve finished people will look back and say the same thing about me.
Have you got a favourite No.10 that you used to watch as a youngster?
Not really. Duncan Ferguson was obviously a big hero of mine but he was no.9 when I was a kid. He did switch to no.10 when I broke into the team at Everton though. Michael Owen is probably the no.10 I remember watching the most. Even though he played for Liverpool, I still always enjoyed watching him.
What have you seen of Pele in action?
I’ve watched a lot of videos of him and you can see what a brilliant footballer he was. He had two great feet, was strong in the air and also a very good athlete. He’s rightly up there as one of the best players of all time.
What about Maradona – did he have everything as a player?
Yeah, I think so. He’s definitely the best player there’s ever been in my eyes. He had pace, great skill and an unbelievable desire to win.
He said at the end of last year that he believes you have a strong claim to be the best footballer in the world – do compliments like that inspire you as a player?
It’s amazing to hear nice comments from anyone, but particularly from someone like Maradona. It gives you great confidence to go out there and try and be as good as them.
Denis Law is obviously a famous no.10 at United. It must have been nice to be presented with your new shirt by him?
It was fantastic. He was an unbelievable player, who scored so many goals for the club and for him to hand the shirt over to me was a real honour. He was a player who could score any kind of goal. He wasn’t the tallest but he was very good in the air. He was also a very brave player and a real goal poacher inside the box.
He said recently that he believes you, Ronaldo and Tevez can form a new holy trinity at United&hellip�;
Really? I hadn’t heard that! If we can get anywhere near that then it would be amazing. It’s great to hear things like that, but the likes of myself, Ronaldo and Carlos will tend to get more of the praise as we score the goals. The three of us know the importance of the other lads in the side and the part they play in helping the team be successful, so it’s not just about the players who score the goals.
And Zinedine Zidane – is he the best there’s been over the last decade?
Yes, definitely. I was lucky enough to play against him at Euro 2004 and I remember when we were lining up in the tunnel looking over at him and thinking ‘wow.’ It was mad. I remember the game well. We’d gone 1-0 up and done pretty well, but ended up conceding two in the dying seconds, both of which Zidane scored. The first was a free-kick – I remember being sat on the bench [after being substituted] at the time thinking he was going to score when he was lining it up. I just had a feeling about it. France then got a penalty in injury time and he held his nerve to put it away. Those kinds of moments are what set the top players apart from the rest. It was sickening for us to lose so late, but for me personally it was an experience which I learnt from and which gave me the confidence to believe I could play against the best.
Your first goal in the no.10 shirt came against Roma in October – what do you remember about the goal?
It was similar to the second one I scored against AC Milan last season. I hit it early, made good contact and thankfully it went into the far corner. It was a relief to get that first goal because I’d missed the first few games of the season with my broken foot. It was even more pleasing that it came in such an important game.
What’s your favourite goal that you’ve scored in the shirt so far?
[Long pause] Probably my one against Arsenal, which the dubious goals’ panel might try and take off me! Other than that, I’d say my second goal against Aston Villa at Villa Park [in October]. It was a good move, a nice ball from Tevez and I managed to slot it home.
As a goalscorer you always remember all your goals. As soon as someone mentions a certain game to you in which you scored you can see the goal immediately in your mind. Hopefully, there will be a few more to come between now and the end of the season.
How do you feel you’re developing as a striker – would you liken yourself to any of the aforementioned front men?
Not really. I think it’s difficult for you to compare yourself to someone else, but I certainly hope I can become as good as them. I’ve definitely changed the way I play this season in the fact that I’ve played further up front rather than in behind a main striker; that’s something Carlos has done. I’d probably say I’ve enjoyed that role more as you seem to get more chances and hopefully that means I’ll end up with more goals.
Aside from injuries, has the season gone better than you had hoped for or were you expecting more?
It’s been very much stop-start for me to be honest. Obviously I broke my foot in the first league game of the season and then came back and went on a good run. I then injured my ankle and came back again. Hopefully I can have a good run in the side now and keep scoring goals. We’ve got ourselves into a good position in the league. We had a poor start to the season and even after the first month or so I think we were all worried that we’d already dropped quite a few points. Since then we’ve done well. We’ve also seen that the other top teams around us like Arsenal and Liverpool can drop points as well, so that gives us confidence going into the second half of the campaign.
Did you feel you were in your best form ever during your run of eight goals in seven games during October and November? There were two goals for England slotted in there too…
I don’t think I was playing at my best, but in terms of goalscoring it was the best period of my career so far, which was pleasing. When you’re on a run like that you go into every game believing you’ll get chances and put them away.
How do you see the criticism you get when you’re not scoring – do you accept that it comes with the territory at a club like United?
Yeah. I think any forward accepts the fact that you’ll get criticism if you’re not scoring. You just have to get used to it and focus on your game.
Many people questioned your partnership with Carlos Tevez, but did you always believe it would work out?
Yes, definitely. He’s a great player and he’s done really well since he joined the club and I think we’re working well together. I think our partnership proves that all good players can play together no matter how similar you are.
The manager picked Tevez’s goal against Middlesbrough, which you set up with a back-heel, as his favourite of the campaign so far – was that move all about instinct?
Yeah, I think so. I knew as soon as he passed the ball that he was going to move in behind me and I managed to get it back to him and he finished it off brilliantly. It was a good goal and I was really pleased for him.
Tevez and the other lads who joined this season seem to have taken to life at United quickly – what have they brought to the dressing room and have they joined in the pranks yet?
Yeah, they have! Nani is a really funny lad around the dressing room. He’s picked the language up very quickly, probably more so than Carlos and Anderson. Anderson is another who likes a joke, whereas Carlos is pretty quiet and usually just sits and looks on, having a laugh to himself! Owen [Hargreaves] already knew a lot of the players from the England set-up and he’s a really good lad. So they’ve all fitted in very well.
You said before the season started that you felt this squad is the strongest you’ve been involved in during your time at United. Are you sticking by that statement?
I think that’s been proved by the way in which players have come in and performed when someone has been out with an injury. We’ve dealt with setbacks like that very well. That’s when you see the strength of the squad. I think being champions has given us a lot of confidence. The pressure to succeed is still there especially as every team we play always wants to do well against us. But there’s a real belief in the dressing room and, for me, it’s definitely the strongest squad I’ve been involved in.
Some people have suggested that United rely too heavily on yourself and Ronaldo – do you feel any particular pressure regarding that?
No. More importantly we know football is a team game and it’s the whole team that should take credit, not just individual players. Every member of the squad plays their part and as a team we win together and we lose together.
Finally, you skippered a very young United side in the final Champions League group game against Roma. How did you feel as you stepped out of the tunnel at the Stadio Olimpico?
It was a great feeling to lead the team out and a big achievement for me. I was skipper for the first time against Copenhagen at Old Trafford last season, but to do it again against a team like Roma was a real privilege. Against Copenhagen a couple of the lads were injured in the warm-up and the manager told me only just before we were due to go out. With the Roma game he told me a few days before, so I had time to get excited and prepare for it. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to do it again.
This interview appeared first in Inside United magazine. To subscribe, click here