One year on from his Red Devils debut, Bruno Fernandes is the face of Manchester United and one of Europe’s finest, but back in 2012 it was a lot different.
There were no camera crews when a baby-faced Fernandes packed his bags and left Portugal for Italy almost nine years ago – Novara was the destination for the unheralded midfielder.
Novara, a club based in the Piedmont region in northwest Italy, had been alerted to the 17-year-old. Scouted by former head of youth Mauro Borghetti, they opted to sign Fernandes from Boavista – investing for the future.
“The previous season our club was in Serie A but was being relegated in Serie B, so with the board we took the decision to invest some money on some foreign talents,” Borghetti – now sporting director of the Serie C side – told Stats Perform News.
“Bruno Fernandes was in this list and because of his technical skills and his value – we knew his value more or less – we decided to make a survey for this player and pay him a visit.
“On a Saturday morning I took a flight to Portugal to watch an Under-19 Boavista game. He struck me for the characteristics he is showing now, although he didn’t shine that much in that game. But I could see his skills and his personality on top of his creativity.”
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It is not often Portuguese talent leave their homeland for abroad, but Fernandes forged his own path en route to Old Trafford, having also played for Udinese, Sampdoria and Sporting CP.
“Bruno’s situation was peculiar,” Borghetti said. “He was not playing in one of the top Portuguese clubs that boast great visibility and can make young talents grow in the country. Bruno was playing in the U19 of Boavista, a club relegated in the third division at the time.
“He was waiting for his chance to shine. Novara, an Italian club, albeit in Serie B at the time, was what Bruno was waiting for. So it was not hard to find a deal and Bruno didn’t take long to give us the green light.”
Initially signed to Novara’s youth team, Fernandes made an immediate impact at Stadio Silvio Piola, where he learnt Italian language using post-it notes.
Fernandes scored four goals in 23 appearances as Novara finished fifth in the 2012-13 Serie B season before falling to Empoli in the promotion play-offs.
“Bruno is a very smart guy so he settled in right away at Novara,” Borghetti continued. “In one week, 10 days tops, he started communicating with the group in Italian, an example of his intelligence. This helped him a lot as much as the fact of being the only foreigner, the only Portuguese, in a full Italian squad. This helped him get involved faster, he was basically forced to speak Italian. He settled down so quickly and this helped him a lot.”
Borghetti added: “As a foreign kid who was supposed to take his time to settle in, he definitely was quick in doing it. We didn’t expect such a growth as we didn’t know him so well. When we started to know him better, then yes, we thought he could go straight to the first team.
“In fact, he stayed only six months in Novara U19 squad. He then played the second part of the season as a starter of the first squad, scoring and taking the team to the playoff for Serie A.”
Having exceeded expectations at Novara, Fernandes quickly made the step up to Serie A – firstly with Udinese before joining Sampdoria three years later in 2016.
But it was not until 2017, when he returned to his homeland, that Fernandes captured the attention of United and Europe’s elite.
Fernandes was a class above in Primeira Liga, scoring 64 goals in 137 appearances for Sporting, where he led the Portuguese giants to Taca da Liga (2018 and 2019) and Taca de Portugal (2019) glory.
There were rumours of interest from Real Madrid and Tottenham, but after months of speculation, United finally landed their talisman in deal worth an initial £47million last year.
Fernandes has not looked back – the Portugal international has been involved in 45 goals across all competitions, more than any other player for a Premier League club.
Only captain Harry Maguire (54) has made more competitive appearances for United than the Portuguese (53), but the former Sporting skipper has scored the most goals (28) and assisted his team-mates the most often (17).
Fernandes ended 2020 winning his fourth Premier League Player of the Month award, becoming the first to claim that many honours in a calendar year. For that award, he has already matched the tallies of United greats Paul Scholes and Ronaldo and is just one behind all-time leading goalscorer Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.
A transformative signing for the Red Devils, Fernandes has been directly involved in 33 goals in his first 35 appearances (19 goals, 14 assists) – a figure bettered only by Andrew Cole (41) in the history of the Premier League.
“For us he was a very important player,” Borghetti said. “He always proved he was a cut above the average footballers. But to be honest with Udinese and Sampdoria he was in Serie A but hadn’t impressed us all so much.
“His breakthrough came after his season in Portugal with Sporting. There he became a world-class player, playing the World Cup next to Cristiano Ronaldo, so you could expect a big move.
“Now he is at United, one of the most glorious clubs in Europe, and he fully deserves it. He epitomises the idea that a player can always improve throughout his career and achieve higher and higher results.”
Fernandes was crowned United’s Player of the Year in 2019-20, becoming the second Portuguese player to win the award after international team-mate Ronaldo. Since its inception in 1987-88, no player has won the award having played as few games in a season as Fernandes’ 22 in all competitions last term.
This season, Fernandes has scored 11 Premier League goals and supplied seven assists in 21 appearances as second-placed United dream of silverware. In total, he has managed 16 goals across all competitions.
Not since 2013 – Alex Ferguson’s final season at the Theatre of Dreams – have United won the Premier League but Fernandes’ presence has awoken a sleeping giant after years of mediocrity. While Maguire wears the armband, the 26-year-old Fernandes is a demanding figure on and off the pitch.
“He didn’t stay long in the youth team and then in the first squad because he moved to Serie A right away, so he didn’t have the chance to become a captain [at Novara],” Borghetti said. “But he is a soul captain, his personality makes him an example on the pitch and as a professional. He always proved this so I am not surprised at all that in his career and now he is so mature as a leader and could be shortlisted for being the captain.”
As Fernandes continues to take England by storm, Borghetti added: “When I watch him on TV, I feel satisfaction. I follow United more now because there is a kid I know who plays there. Whatever he achieved was done thanks to his skills, exclusively his merit. On the other hand, a glimpse of importance is mine because with one evaluation I gave him the chance to prove himself.
“Novara in his history, although short, was a chance to shine. Without Novara, maybe Bruno would have got to the highest level anyway through different paths, but since this cannot be proved, I can say Novara and I have been an important stepping-stone for him.”
“I think he is at a high level now,” he said. “To improve he should only win individual trophies or with his team domestically and in Europe. That is what he should do with Manchester United. On a personal level, it is the athlete’s constant aim to improving all the time, but now Bruno is at such a high level where improvements are now difficult.”
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