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Dublin: 14 °C Tuesday 11 August, 2020

'I was a young kid then and now I'm a man - I understand it a lot more than I used to'

It was 10 years ago when Federico Macheda burst on the scene at Old Trafford but it’s been a rocky road since.

Image: Martin Rickett

FEDERICO MACHEDA WAS at home in Athens watching Manchester United conjure their superb Champions League victory over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month.

“Every United fan probably jumped off their sofas celebrating that goal, including me,” he tells The42

“It was a tough game because United had a lot of injuries and nobody expected them to win but I had a feeling they could make it through. Because the United spirit has always been the same. You know they’re going to give everything in that kind of game. And with that win, United are a dangerous team in the Champions League now. Because with that mentality and passion, you can go far.”

The Italian, who burst on the scene by scoring a famous winner for United against Aston Villa as a 17-year-old back in 2009, has been in the Greek capital since last September, having signed a three-year deal with Giorgos Donis’ young Panathinaikos side.

After a two-year stint with Serie B side Novara, he made an instant impact in his new surroundings, assisting on a goal in a 15-minute cameo in his first appearance and then scoring in back-to-back Super League games. In total, he’s managed six this season but after an early burst, there’s only been one since the turn of the year. Still, he gives an honest appraisal of his debut campaign and insists there’s more to come from him.

“I came here with high hopes after not having the best season in Italy and I have an important role in this team,” Macheda says. 

“That makes me happy. I have the trust from the club, the manager and my team-mates. I’m enjoying the moment. I’ve scored a few goals and I should probably score a little bit more but my confidence is coming back. And hopefully I can grab one in the biggest game of the season and that will make everyone happy. Panathinaikos is a big club so I’m really enjoying it here.”

The fixture he’s referring to is the Derby of Eternal Enemies, one of the most intense rivalries in football. It pits Panathinaikos against Olympiacos, two teams separated by just eight miles but a huge societal, cultural and historical chasm. Panathinaikos is the older and more upper class club while their neighbours originated in the immigrant-heavy port area of Piraeus. At a basic level, the supposed differences are clear: on one side there’s big city bourgeois while on the other is runt-of-the-litter realness.                

It’s Olympiacos who’ve held the upper hand for a long time. They’re the most successful Greek team in history with 44 league titles compared to Panathinaikos’ 20. In the last two decades, the Piraeus side have claimed 17 championships. So, the battle for bragging rights has been pretty one-sided. 

Tottenham Hotspur v APOEL Nicosia - UEFA Champions League - Group H - Wembley Stadium Macheda is enjoying his football at Panathinaikos under boss Giorgos Donis. Source: Adam Davy

Panathinaikos have been off the pace for a while and haven’t won a league since 2010. Last season was the worst in their history as they slumped to an 11th-place finish. Huge financial instability played its part and led to Marinos Ouzounidis’ departure as boss. Donis, who was part of the Panathinaikos side that famously reached the Champions League semi-finals in 1996, was brought in as his replacement and with a litany of young players handed their chance, they currently lie in seventh. 

Still, despite their recent struggles, the derby carries plenty of electricity and, later tonight, the teams meet for the second time this season, the reverse fixture back in November having ended 1-1.  

“It’s an amazing game to play in,” Macheda says. 

“It’s a big fixture in Greek football, the atmosphere is incredible and there’s always a big expectation. Playing at home this weekend, we want to give something good to our fans. We know it’s going to be a difficult one but we’re going to make sure we win because we know how important it is for us, for our fans and for the city.”          

When we played them at their place, I knew it was going to be bouncing but it was better than I expected. It was amazing. There was a 15-minute delay because there were fires all over the stadium. You could see how much it means to both clubs and it’s an incredible experience. They drew with us after an equaliser in the 95th-minute. So, we have a chance at home now to make up for that and we’re fully focused, in good shape and working as a team.” 

“It’s a game where you know you have to give that extra bit more in terms of a fighting spirit. You need to put more of a shift in to make sure you come off the pitch and feel satisfied with how you’ve done in the game. Some of the younger players in the team weren’t used to it because it’s their first season as pros. But now the season is going really well for them so I think we’ll will be ready for this. The season has been better than expected so far. We’ve had some difficulties but stuck together and, though the last few games haven’t been good for us, we can rise up.”

Macheda is the first to admit that he’s struggled for consistency over the last few years.

He remained a registered Manchester United player until the summer of 2014 but his last appearance came as a substitute in a Champions League defeat to CFR Cluj in December 2012. Previous loan spells at Sampdoria and QPR didn’t work out and subsequent temporary arrangements in the Bundesliga (Stuttgart) and the Championship (Doncaster) were similarly underwhelming. But, a stint at Birmingham saw him finish as the club’s top scorer in the division with 10 goals in just 18 appearances in the latter half of 2014 and Cardiff snapped him up on a permanent deal, with his former United reserve boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signing him. However, the Norwegian didn’t last long. As it turned out, neither did Macheda. In 2016, after another disappointing loan at Nottingham Forest, he returned to Italy.    

“I had a bad injury at Cardiff and things were going up and down for me,” he says. 

Soccer - Sky Bet Championship - Brentford v Cardiff City - Griffin Park Macheda was brought to Cardiff by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but his time at the club was underwhelming. Source: Julian Herbert

“But that’s part of the game and you’re going to get knocks. I’ve been working on my body much, much better than in the past. I look after myself more and for the last two seasons I didn’t have any injuries so I’m very happy with my physical condition and it’s something I’ve improved on and it’s given me more time on the pitch. So I’m heading in the right direction to get back to where I want to be.

When things are going down for you, you’re willing to work harder to make sure things will go your way again. I’m in the best shape I could be in at the moment and I’m enjoying my football. I think I’ve improved both as a person and a footballer and I think I’ll end up with a good run of performances this season because I can see myself rising up again. Something is working for me. I want to push on even more and make sure I can play on a bigger stage.”   

Macheda’s career has always been defined by an Old Trafford moment that’s quickly coming up on its ten-year anniversary.

Having suffered back-to-back Premier League defeats, including a 4-1 thumping at home to title rivals Liverpool, United hosted Aston Villa in early April and were desperate to rediscover some momentum that could drive them to another championship. Victory would see them move ahead of Rafa Benitez’s pretenders at the top of the table but with 10 minutes of normal time remaining, they were 2-1 down.

Macheda, who had only signed pro terms with United at the start of the campaign, scored a hat-trick for Solskjaer’s reserves earlier that week, a feat considered good enough for Alex Ferguson to include him in the first-team squad. When Villa grabbed their second goal to go ahead just shy of the hour mark, Macheda was summoned from the bench and handed his chance.   

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Cristiano Ronaldo equalised with a low left-footed strike to the bottom corner and Villa braced themselves for the onslaught. But, for a long time, they held firm. Until, Macheda – in the second minute of injury time – turned beautifully after being picked out by Ryan Giggs and curled a magnificent shot to the far corner. In the pantheon of United’s late, late comebacks, it can be filed alongside Steve Bruce’s winner against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993.

“It’s a crazy feeling,” Macheda says, looking back. 

“Even now it’s hard to explain. It wasn’t something I was expecting but I was working very hard to make the moment happen – just to make a first-team appearance and to play for a big club, even for one game. It’s why I went to Manchester when I was very young. To score the winning goal was an amazing moment, my most important moment. And having my family there was extra special.”          

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Aston Villa - Old Trafford Macheda's career will forever be defined by his winner for Manchester United against Aston Villa when he was just 17. Source: Martin Rickett

“When you do good things, you always look back on them and it’s almost 10 years now. Of course I enjoyed that moment. There have been ups and downs over the rest of the decade but the downs make you think a lot, they make you grow and work harder. You have to look to your future and when the future is working out you renew yourself as a player and improve as a person.”  

I was a part of the club for a few years. I consider Manchester to be my second home. Obviously there’s a connection. I love this club. For my entire life, I’ll carry the club with me. I have great memories and I always watch the games when I can. I wish they go as far as they can.”  

Macheda has been seriously impressed with his old gaffer too and watched with interest as Solskjaer’s interim spell as United manager has gone from strength to strength.  

“When Ole came to the reserves, my football improved a lot,” he says. 

“He wanted to improve you. If you were a good player, he wanted to make you better. He played a big part in my career. He always wanted the best for you. He was always there for you. When I made my first team debut and established myself with the side, he was always the one to offer advice. At Cardiff, he signed me and unfortunately it didn’t go that well for him but we always had a good relationship and I’m very, very happy for him. I know what it’s like to work with him. He gives you the time to play, even on a big stage. He knows what you need and I can see the Man United players enjoying their football, probably for the first time this season. And I can understand why the team is doing so well under him.”

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Sunderland v Manchester United - Stadium of Light After grabbing the winner against Aston Villa, Macheda repeated the trick against Sunderland the following week. Source: Mike Egerton

“He’s done an amazing job and nobody expected him to come in and do so well. As a fan, I would want him there. But, knowing him, I think he’ll want to win something this season. They’re through in the Champions League with an amazing performance in Paris so I think he’s fully focused on the end of the season. As a fan, I’d like him to stay because you can see he’s changed everything in the team – mentality, freshness and guys like Pogba, Rashford, Lukaku, Martial have been performing like the proper players they are. I’d like to see him get the job permanently.”

When United needed something late on against PSG, Solskjaer turned to his bench and brought on Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood – a couple of teenagers. It seemed a throwback of sorts and for Macheda, it was reminiscent of the Ferguson era.   

“It’s amazing to watch those kinds of things,” he says. 

“This is the mentality of United. Ole worked under Sir Alex and alongside him there’s Mike Phelan now so there’s still that connection with having a young team. Giving young players a chance is always a part of Man United. When you see them come on in big games, it can only make you happy. It shows to every club that it’s not only about the money. It’s about sending those young players in, whatever age they are, and making them improve.

Ole has been brought up with this mentality. He knows all the good things about the club. And he’s giving younger players opportunities, like Sir Alex did. Also, Mike knows the club so well because he’s been there so long. It’s like having somebody from the family back at Old Trafford. That’s why United keep winning, I think.”       

France Soccer Champions League Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been a big influence in Federico Macheda's career. Source: Francois Mori

Macheda is 27 now.

There’s no bitterness or whingeing about how things have played out. He’s thankful for the experiences and at ease with where his career has taken him. He’s quick to acknowledge how the circumstances of his United start meant everything that followed always seemed anticlimactic.

He feels there’s still plenty of unfinished business and remains optimistic for what the future holds. 

“In football you’re always going to have ups and downs,” he says. 

“It’s not easy to make that kind of debut at such a big club. I was a young kid then and now I’m a man. I understand it a lot more than I used to. I have some regrets but in life you’re always going to have them. The most important thing is to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, that you can be the best player you can be. I’ll always be grateful for the memories I made at Man United. It wasn’t easy but that’s football. I’m enjoying my football here and I want to do the best I can to get back to the biggest stage – with this club or with another one.”   

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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