Times: ON HIS FIRST DAY AS A Manchester United player, Patrice Evra asked Gary Neville for directions to the nearest church.
His captain was racking his brain, trying to recall whether he had seen one near the club’s training ground in Carrington, when the new signing smiled and said that he simply needed somewhere where he could “thank God for letting me join the biggest club in the world”.
Evra has thanked God every day since arriving in Manchester in January 2006 and, while that does not make him unique among footballers, the 26-year-old France international has no doubt that he has been blessed, even if, as one of 26 siblings in his native Senegal, his rags-to-riches tale, taking him from Dakar to the deprived suburbs of Paris and finally via Sicily and Monaco to Old Trafford, appears to be one of battling against overwhelming odds.
“Every day in my life is a dream,” the full back said last week. “Manchester United is not just a big club. It’s a big family. I’m so happy to travel the world with this club. Last year in South Africa was the same. Now we’re in Asia, it’s just a dream every day.” On this particular day, he was surrounded by children at an orphanage in Seoul. All of United’s players have undertaken such community visits during their preseason tour of Asia, as indeed they do at home to little fanfare, but few can have done so with quite as much zest as Evra, who, in addition to having approached Park Ji Sung to teach him a few friendly phrases in Korean, could be found wrestling with four or five laughing children while Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson politely signed autographs.
“Children are the most important thing in life,” he said. “The most important thing you can do is bring joy to children. I was one of 26 brothers and sisters when I was growing up. Sadly, two of them died and so now we’re 24. When you play for Manchester United, you have the possibility to meet children in other countries. Last year it was South Africa. This time it’s Asia. This is another reason why I’m so happy to to play for United.
“Things were not easy when I was growing up. It is not easy for a mother to find education for 24 children. I think about this when I have difficult moments in life. If I’m having problems or I’m not enjoying life, I say to myself: ‘Pat, remember how things were when you were growing up’. That makes it easier.”
There were such moments of adversity in his early days at United. Having indicated that he did not see how he could fail at such a club, he endured a disastrous debut away to Manchester City, when he was substituted after only 45 minutes with his new team trailing 2-0, but things improved considerably last season, when there was a place in the PFA’s select XI to go alongside his Premier League winner’s medal.
“The first six months were difficult for me because I needed time to adapt,” he said. “It was a big challenge for me, but everybody helped me — the boss, the teammates, everyone around me. This is why I have a lot of confidence to work at this club.”
After that difficult start, he has become a fixture in the United team, supplanting Gabriel Heinze at left back, even if Evra’s perceived lack of fitness, after an injury, meant that the Argentina defender was preferred against Chelsea in the FA Cup final. Some players in such circumstances would spend their entire summer stewing on such an injustice, but that is not exactly Evra’s style. Instead he has been counting his blessings, thanking his luck and no doubt telling each of his 23 siblings that he is the happiest man in the world.