Fortune: 'I felt like Charlie, the boy in the chocolate factory'

"It was beyond a dream, but even now, I’m honoured I got to represent my country in this way, playing for the greatest football club in the world," says the former Manchester United star.

"We (Manchester United) have 35 million followers in India, which is a very impressive figure," says Quinton Fortune.   -  G. P. Sampath Kumar

Quinton Fortune spent seven years at Manchester United, making 76 appearances in all competitions and demonstrating his worth as a versatile footballer. He joined the club in 1999, the season after United had famously done the 'treble', and went on to feature in three Premier League-winning seasons. Fortune is in Kolkata, alongside former Manchester United players Dwight Yorke and Bojan Djordjic, for ILOVEUNITEDINDIA, a fan event scheduled for Sunday (Dec. 11). In an interview with Sportstar, the 39-year-old insists United has not lost its aura despite recent struggles, hails Sir Alex Ferguson's qualities, discusses the team's performances under Jose Mourinho, and says what it meant to him to represent South Africa.

The excerpts:

Question: Are you surprised by the level of support United enjoys in India?

Answer: We have 35 million followers in India, which is a very impressive figure. But having been to India on many occasions this scale of support for United is not a surprise to me. I was in Bangalore in January which was an experience I will never forget. A few weeks later Denis Irwin, David May and Louis Saha were in Mumbai and told me they couldn’t believe the buzz they’d experienced there.

The years since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement have been difficult for Manchester United. Do you think the aura of invincibility that Sir Alex had built can return?

Of course everyone talks about the success we enjoyed under Sir Alex, one of the most successful managers of all time. But Manchester United has a 138-year history and there have been ups and downs throughout this period. Sir Alex told us many times that no one player or one individual makes this club what it is. Every time we played, we were continuing traditions that go back over many generations. In that sense, nothing has changed; United always comes back, it’s in our DNA.

We’re still developing young players such as Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, and recruiting the best players from around the world. If you look at the current team, we’ve got enough quality players and one of the best managers who is working out his best team. We’re playing attacking football in the club’s traditions. We won the FA Cup in May. If we look back to Sir Alex when he started his United career, it wasn’t an overnight success for him. So we need to be patient that our form will improve.

Are you worried about United's lack of success — except the FA Cup — in the three and a half years since Sir Alex's exit? Do you feel it could affect the club's popularity?

A lot of people have a lot to say about the past three and a half years, but when I come to games at Old Trafford or travel around the world to meet United fans, I honestly don’t think our popularity has gone down. I think United fans appreciate what I said before, and tend to take the longer term view that this is a 140-year journey, and probably pay less attention to pundits or columnists.

What was Sir Alex like as a manager? What was it that made him special?

Sir Alex was the best manager I ever worked with. He was a good man-manager and knew how to speak to people individually; I experienced that quality first-hand then saw it later with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo when they arrived at the club. I remember that his team-talks set us up perfectly for the game. He knew what to say to certain players to make them tick. He was a student of the game, a great psychologist, knew everything about football. Something else that sticks in my mind is that when he came in to the Aon Training Complex, he spoke to everyone, he knew the names of the catering and kit staff; he made everyone feel part of the team.

How do you assess United's performances under Jose Mourinho this season?

We’re all disappointed with some of the results but if you look at all of our performances, the team is going in the right direction. While it’s really disappointing we conceded late against Stoke and Arsenal, we should have been more than one goal up in those matches. We also should have comfortably beaten Burnley and West Ham in the League. Of course against Chelsea and Manchester City we were second best but I honestly think United are capable of going on a winning run of matches. With new signings and a new manager it’s normal for a team to take time to gel.

Where do you think the club can finish, given that there are at least five other serious contenders for Champions League spots?

It’s true that the competition is high, which makes it a very interesting season for football fans, but we won’t give up on the goal we’ve set of winning the League; we’re still focused on that objective. While there are a number of teams ahead of us by some points, we’ve also seen every top team lose matches. When teams are taking points off each other like this, all you need to do is focus on your own game. The manager and the players will definitely be doing that.

You joined United just after they had won the treble in 1998-99. What was that team like? What was it like for you on the first day of training?

That team of 1999 was unbelievable, strong in every single position. The forwardline had Cole, Yorke, Solskjaer and Sheringham; in midfield it was Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Giggs, and in defence it was Irwin, Stam, Johnsen and Neville. All of these guys were the best in their position in the League. So when I arrived, my approach was that I would be ready to play in any role, wherever the manager wanted me to play. On the first day of training, I had to remind myself I was there to play football; some of these players, like Keane and Giggs, were on my wall as a kid! So it was important to work hard and not to get too star struck.

Not many South African players get to represent Manchester United. What does that mean to you?

At the time I felt like Charlie; the boy who got the golden ticket to the chocolate factory! It was beyond a dream, but even now, I’m honoured I got to represent my country in this way, playing for the greatest football club in the world. I hope that my story can inspire kids. When I was growing up, local players inspired me. But I hope what happened to me inspires children that if they work hard their dreams can come true.

Despite the popularity of football in South Africa, why has the national team failed to make an impact on the world stage, in the same way that other African nations have?

First of all I think that Mamelodi Sundowns recently winning the African Champions League is an important sign of progress, but I accept you always look first at your national team, and we are still behind. We have some players playing abroad, but I do believe some more needs to happen at a national team level; that includes simple things like improving the organisation, preparation and professionalism.

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