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Cult Icons: The Little Pea who left a big impression

One of my favourite Manchester United icons was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, so it’s no surprise that when I was casting about for a cult icon Chicharito came to mind. Or to give him his proper name; Javier Hernandez Balcazar (I hated the fact he had a nickname on the back of his shirt). The parallels between the two were there right from the start, diminutive strikers from random leagues being signed by Alex Ferguson, seemingly out of nowhere. Baby-faced looks that belied the deadly footballing prowess lurking beneath and a smile that never left their face, and only grew wider when the ball hit the back of the net.

Towards the end of the 2009/10 season, it was revealed that Sir Alex Ferguson had signed a striker from Mexican side Club Deportivo Guadalajara. After losing Ronaldo and bringing in Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia to replace his goals the season previous, it was obvious more firepower was needed, but who was this tiny Mexican who looked like he should be getting ready for school, not Premier League football? Surely this little fella was not going to cut it in the Premier League?

He showed what he could do in pre-season, scoring in each of the games against the MLS All-Stars and Manchester United (after playing a half for his former team in an exhibition game against United) and then against the League of Ireland XI. But that was just pre-season, he couldn’t do it in real life, could he?

Yes, he could. But not in the most impressive way. After coming on as a second-half sub in the Community Shield game against Chelsea. With United defending a 1-0 lead Hernandez got onto the end of an Antonio Valencia cross and struck the ball…right into his own face. The ball ricocheted off his face and into the goal. To this day I’m not sure if his initial shot would have gone in if it wasn’t for that deflection! But this was the community Shield, surely he wasn’t good enough to do it in actual Premier League games?

Yes. Yes, he could. 20 goals in 45 appearances across all competitions for the little Mexican cemented him as the real deal. He had a knack for coming on and scoring the winning goal when United were struggling for three points or getting the equaliser that would eventually lead to a win. This was the baby-faced Assassin Mark II! I remember travelling back from a tour of Old Trafford on the weekend that United played Liverpool and stopping off to watch the game. Chicharito came on in the second half to try and turn around a 2-0 deficit and it seemed like the burden was resting solely on him. He tried, and he tried and he tried, each time growing more frustrated with missed opportunities. 65 minutes in Kuyt made it 3-0 and things were not looking good. Finally, in the 92nd minute, he scored. A simple tap-in and, for once, the smile was not there. He scored a goal, as was his job but he wasn’t happy that he hadn’t been able to bring in a win. That’s when I knew he was a United player.

The following seasons were the same, Hernandez played his part, whether from the beginning of a match or as a substitute and the goals kept on coming. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision was looking better and better with each passing game, how could we ever have doubted him?

Then it happened, that fateful day when Ferguson stood in front of the crowd and confirmed what we all dreaded. It was time for him to step down. The new era was beginning and the future was uncertain. Unfortunately what nobody could have predicted was that for Hernandez, just like many other United players, this was the beginning of the end. Mismanagement by David Moyes and Louis van Gaal just meant that they could not get the best out of him, or fit him into their new way of playing and Hernandez became a poster boy for failing United. A semi-successful loan at Real Madrid did nothing to convince he could turn things around and in August 2015, he left Old Trafford for the final time for Bayer Leverkusen.

Hindsight has shown that Hernandez still had plenty to offer. 26 goals and three Bundesliga player of the month awards in his first season showed that he still knew where the goal was but by then it was too late.

157 appearances and 59 goals, a rate many strikers would be proud of (and a similar ratio of a few, highly regarded United strikers over time) but it all ended on a sour note for Chicharito. For me though, I’ll always look fondly on the memories of the Little Pea.

Written by Marvyn Wilson

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