Greatest Transfers – Antonio Valencia, Rags to Riches

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: Wigan Athletic, 2009 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Right Winger, Right Back.
Appearances (Goals): 291 (22) Since June 2009.
Team Honours: Premier League (2010, 2012), FA Cup (2015), EFL Cup (2009, 2016), UEFA Europa League (2016), FA Community Shield (2010, 2013, 2016).
Individual Honours: PFA Team of the Year (2009), UEFA Europa League Team of the Year (2016), Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year (2011, 2016).

Antonio Valencia’s journey from crippling poverty to one of Manchester United’s most beloved players is one of determination, desire and resilience. Born in Lago Agrio (a town carved out of the Amazon Rainforest as a home for oil-workers) in 1985, Antonio worked from a young age selling drinks outside the local stadium with his mother on matchdays. During the week, he would collect empty bottles for his father to sell to a bottle deposit in nearby Quita. Football offered Antonio a sense of freedom away from his overcrowded shack and working life; it allowed him to express himself.

At the age of sixteen, after years of playing barefoot on a patch of grass in by the side of his family home, and then for a local academy, Valencia made one decision which would change his life forever. El Nacional hosted trials in the capital Quita, and he saw his opportunity. He told only his mother and older brother, who paid for his eight-hour bus journey. This was his chance and nothing was going to stand in his way. Antonio got on the bus to Quita not knowing where he would sleep or what he would eat that night and never returned.

El Nacional is a military-run club, and Valencia recalls being subject to harsh military training, which he remains thankful for to this day. Players were treated as soldiers and were expected to be disciplined as such. Alongside the late Christian “Chucho” Benitez, whose shirt number Valencia had tattooed on his arm after his sudden death in 2013, the pair moved rapidly through the youth ranks, eventually making their way up to the under-20s in just two years. After two years In the starting lineup, Valencia’s journey to Europe began.

First stop was Villareal, where he went on to make just two appearances before being loaned out to Recreativo and aiding in their fight for promotion to La Liga. An impressive 2006 World Cup which saw the Ecuadorian winger nominated for the Team of the Tournament and Best Player awards caught the attention of Wigan Athletic manager Paul Jewell. Two imposing loan spells at the club later, he signed for the Latics in January 2008. Eighteen months later, he made his competitive debut for Manchester United in the 2009 Community Shield and went on to be the first Ecuadorian player to win a Premier League medal in 2010. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s important to understand Antonio Valencia’s story because it’s what drives him on the football pitch. He risked what little he had for an opportunity at El Nacional and has never looked back. The memory of his time at the club reminds him why he strives to better himself every game. Again, it’s his determination, desire and resilience which have allowed him to become so successful. He is a man who will not allow himself to be defeated, if he gets knocked back, he will come back better and better. A feared career-ending broken leg against Rangers in 2010 and a more recent broken arm, which he spent just three weeks on the sideline for, show Antonio’s true spirit and devotion to the sport he loves, nothing will stand in his way.

Despite being regarded by José Mourinho as the best Right-Back in the world, Valencia remains humble. After spending the majority of his career on the Right-Wing, Van Gaal chose to play Valencia as a Wing-Back in a 5-3-2 during his tenure as Manchester United manager. Though he clearly struggled at first, Valencia has come into his own in the position. While remaining a potent attacking force, he now brings a defensive stability to the right side of United’s defence, which has been lacking honestly since the days of Gary Neville. The switch to Right-Back came after the introduction of Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria, whom Valencia feared would keep him out of the starting line-up. True to himself, Valencia saw this as an opportunity to improve his game and worked on every aspect of his positioning and concentration.

Valencia has brought a level of discipline to United seldom seen before. Outside of the game, he is a shy, quiet, family-oriented man who is “completely focused” on providing his daughter Domenica with the tools to succeed in life. He keeps his private life strictly out of the media spotlight and simply works hard for the club he still dreams about at night. His charity work allows his generosity to speak for itself, working closely with the Manchester United Fund and a charity he set up in Ecuador for children in his hometown who have endured a similar upbringing to the star himself. It’s that generosity, that thankfulness paired with his incredible work rate and desire to improve which has seen Antonio Valencia become a role model for people all over the world. He is widely regarded as Ecuador’s best ever football player and he remains grateful for those who gave him the opportunity to reach that status.

On the pitch, he is a fighter. There a few things in life more satisfying than watching Antonio Valencia bomb down the Right Wing leaving defenders and midfielders on their heels, to deliver a perfect ball into the box. Nor are there many things greater than watching him put everything on the line to defend his goal, often meaning he’s sprinting back the same distance to recover ground. He isn’t flashy, nor is he egotistic. You won’t catch him dancing between three or four defenders with elaborate skills and fakes. His strengths don’t lie in his footwork, they lie in his speed and persistence. He may not beat his man the first time, but he’ll protect the ball and keep persevering until does. After all, with a right foot like that, all he needs is one opportunity.

In times of confusion and upheaval for United fans, Antonio Valencia has been a player which they can rely on to perform. His consistency is exceptional and he rarely has a bad game. Even when he does it is forgiven because, well, he’s Antonio Valencia. He’s a breath of fresh air who provides United with much-needed width and pace in wide areas. He spreads the play and forces defenders to stay honest, he’s a threat they can’t ignore which makes him invaluable on the field. Off the field, it’s his generosity, resilience and down-to-earth attitude which makes him invaluable to Manchester United Football Club. He brings balance to a number of big personalities at the club, he’s a reminder that footballers are human, and we love him for it.