Long read: Being Paul Pogba – life as football's most scrutinized superstar
The room falls silent as the television cameras zoom in on the young superstar. The interviewer gets things underway. “Well, Paul, a 2-0 victory – what’s your response to that?”
The youngster shifts uneasily from one foot to the other, his eyes nervously darting around the room, trying to avoid any eye contact. “Well, there’s nothing you can say about it,” comes the mumbled reply. “It was magnificent… erm.”
His prolonged pause is met by stifled giggles from team-mates, who are gathered just out of shot. Clearly embarrassed, he fixes his gaze on his interviewer for the first time and takes a breath. “It was great to go down 2-1 in the first leg, and then come to Millwall and win 2-0,” he replies, semi-confidently.
The two-legged clash in question was a FA Youth Cup semi-final. And the young prospect? Paul Scholes.
In the spotlight
The fact the aforementioned chat took place on a media training course that has since found its way onto YouTube, rather than on national television, perhaps tells its own story. In the 20 years that followed that 1993 fixture, Scholes played 718 games for United, winning 11 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues – but never quite seemed comfortable under the media spotlight.
Playing for Manchester United’s all-conquering side of the 1990s came with an unprecedented degree of attention from sponsors and the media. Fortunately for Scholes, David Beckham – a cultural icon as much as a football one – was on hand to draw much of the focus. Scholes was free to do his thing on the pitch, while Beckham – also a fine footballer, of course – helped to develop his own global ‘brand’ and that of his football club.
On the pitch, both players were self-assured and headstrong, attributes that were honed under the guidance of talismanic Frenchman Eric Cantona; the key figure in the United side they broke into during the first half of the ’90s – the man who dragged the club back to the top.
Scholes the match-winning midfielder, Beckham the commercial entity and Cantona the charismatic leader; all three of them played very different, but very important roles in sealing Manchester United’s status as the biggest football club in the world.
Now just one man is being asked to combine all three of those roles for the Red Devils. And it’s no easy task.
At school with Scholes
Jonny Evans still vividly remembers Paul Pogba’s promotion to train with the Manchester United first team in 2011.
I was amazed someone of his age looked so at ease with players of the quality of Giggs and Scholes
“I was amazed someone of his age looked so at ease with players of the quality of Giggs and Scholes,” the ex-United defender tells FFT. “He had power, skill and complete control of the football. His skill and technique for such a big player meant he could manipulate the ball, yet he was also so strong he could hold people off. Scholes would kick him every day to try to get the ball off him.”
Pogba may have only been 17, but Manchester United’s senior players already knew all about this French prodigy. He was a star of the club’s youth team, at the time on a run towards lifting the 2011 FA Youth Cup. He’d been promoted above his age group, and Evans’s younger brother Corry had been in the same reserve side.
“I used to kick him a lot,” Corry, now at Blackburn, admits. “Paul was technically excellent and I tried to toughen him up. He could handle it.”
The pair’s former coach, Paul McGuinness, could instantly tell that the young Pogba had the respect of his peers.
“Paul was a very popular lad,” McGuinness says. “He was just like a Pied Piper with the younger lads, who really looked up to him. His background as a street footballer was clear. He’d played in cages in France, which hone your skill. We let him develop at United by letting him play freely, like he was in a playground.
“Rather than having a coach barking orders, it relaxed the players who weren’t afraid of making mistakes, so Paul carried on practicing that flick he does over the head of a rival.”
At every level Pogba’s promise was clear, but United had a recent history of young prodigies failing to make the expected impact in the first team and leaving in search of regular football – Gerard Pique and Giuseppe Rossi among them. Both players departed for Spain with the reluctant acceptance of Alex Ferguson, who knew they both deserved to play first-team football.
He was just like a Pied Piper with the younger lads, who really looked up to him. His background as a street footballer was clear
Ferguson tried very hard to keep hold of the lad who had arrived in controversial circumstances from Le Havre in 2009. He offered Pogba the best-ever contract for a reserve player, around £20,000 a week. It was declined. United’s players encouraged him to stay. Club legend Paddy Crerand even visited Pogba at his home.
“I told him he would be mad to leave,” says Crerand. “Paul was a nice kid, but from what I saw, the decision had already been made for him to sign for Juventus. I told him he was crazy, that United was the best place for him.”
Relations between Ferguson and Pogba’s representative Mino Raiola soured. The pair were like oil and water, but Raiola felt justified. If his client was so highly rated, why wasn’t he picked to play against bottom-of-the-table Blackburn at Old Trafford on December 31, 2011, despite there being a midfield injury crisis? Ferguson preferred to start right-back Rafael and wideman Park Ji-sung in central midfield. Blackburn won 3-2. A draw, it turned out five months later, would have been enough to give United the title.
“It was a very, very difficult moment for me because I was in love with Manchester and I was a Mancunian,” Pogba later said of his United departure.
“I wasn’t involved in the deal,” United’s chief executive Ed Woodward later explained, “but from what I’ve heard a situation was cooked up and I’m not sure that we could have done anything different to how we played our cards. It was a stacked deck.”
Pogba’s contract ran down and in 2012 he joined Juventus on a free transfer, enjoying four exceptional campaigns, winning four successive Serie A crowns as well as reaching the 2015 Champions League Final.
Manchester United’s achievements in the same period didn’t come close, and by the time David Moyes took over at Old Trafford in 2013, the club realized that they wanted Pogba back. It would take more than three years for that to be achieved.
Getting their way
Jose Mourinho was vexed as he faced the media in a windowless room in the Shanghai Stadium, where Manchester United were due to play Borussia Dortmund in a July 2016 friendly.
Mourinho put on a positive show for the cameras, but behind the scenes United’s pre-season tour was agitating him
The Portuguese boss put on a positive show for the cameras, but behind the scenes United’s pre-season tour was agitating him. The playing surface for a planned Manchester derby in Beijing was unplayable after floods, the summer heat unbearable and the commercial demands from club sponsors uncompromising.
Half of Mourinho’s squad flying in on a separate plane were delayed by a storm. And all this in the knowledge that he had to hit the ground running, as well as re-coach his players after two seasons of being told to play the Louis van Gaal way.
But Jose was also getting what he wanted from his new employers.
“I asked for four profiles of players,” Mourinho told the assembled media. I gave them a few options and they did for me 75 per cent in [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan and [Eric] Bailly. We have just 25 per cent to do before August 13.”
The 25 per cent was Pogba, but first they needed to wrap up dealings with Pogba’s ‘Mr 10 per cent’, Raiola. Despite sterling sliding after Brexit, Mourinho knew that talks to sign Pogba for a world record transfer fee from Juventus were at an advanced stage. He also knew that Woodward was working on the deal so much that he’d delayed his arrival in China, cancelling a press briefing with British journalists in Beijing that meant he ended up flying to China for one night.
Woodward was shattered and tripped in the lobby of United’s hotel
Woodward was shattered and tripped in the lobby of United’s hotel, as the players rested after their derby date with City was postponed. “Penalty!” shouted the watching Crerand, a smirk on his face.
Inside the Juventus dressing room, there was surprise. The players, who had been part of a far more trophy-laden team than Manchester United, believed Pogba was staying put in Turin in an attempt to win the Champions League in 2016/17.
But others at the club were more circumspect. They knew Barcelona, Real Madrid and both of the Manchester clubs had displayed serious interest in the past 12 months, and senior officials felt he was set to choose Real. United felt the same thing. Pogba went to friend and Juve team-mate, Patrice Evra.
“I told him that if he was going to leave then he should join United,” the left-back tells FFT. “Juve is a great club and I would have been happy if he’d stayed with us, but I said that Manchester United is a massive opportunity for him. Paul is like a brother to me and I want the best for him. I will kill people who want to take advantage of him or try to do something bad. Paul’s got a really good heart.”
Act of persuasion
United were wary of Real’s interest, but felt they had their own trump cards – and not only more money from burgeoning revenue streams.
I will kill people who want to take advantage of Paul or try to do something bad. He's got a really good heart
Players often have bigger social media followings than the clubs they play for, and Pogba’s grew by 25 per cent after he was strongly linked with a move back to Old Trafford. The Premier League club used this as a negotiating tool. They knew Madrid, the reigning European champions, had a stronger team than their own – one that wasn’t even playing in the Champions League – but they turned that negative on its head.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) August 18, 2017
United stressed to Pogba that if he went to Madrid then he would be the third- or fourth-ranked player behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. Neither would be surpassed by a midfielder. United pitched that if Pogba returned to where he still had a lot of friends, they’d make him the main man.
Under their new boss, the team would be built around Pogba and his profile would explode – something he’d already seen evidence of in his own social media following.
United pitched that if Pogba returned to where he still had a lot of friends, they’d make him the main man
Madrid weren’t quite as desperate to sign Pogba as their rivals. After all, the immediate aftermath of a Champions League win is one of the few times their famously demanding fanbase is sated – albeit briefly. Barcelona’s interest had long since diminished once they realized how much cash Juventus wanted for their star man.
The road was clear for United, who busily worked up slogans and memes ahead of a huge transfer splash. The word ‘Reunited’ was a logical theme, while #Pogback was the hashtag of choice. In real life, meanwhile, Pogba arrived at Carrington in a flashy red car from club sponsors Chevrolet. South London grime artist and Manchester United supporter Stormzy also penned a track in collaboration with the club, the player and adidas.
A penny for the thoughts of Ferguson, who would have signings picked up at the back gate of Manchester Airport by anonymous members of staff in the hope that they wouldn’t get recognized.