Following Manchester United’s first dropped points of the season against Wolves on Monday night, American Gambler spoke to former Manchester United midfielder and Cameroon international Eric Djemba Djemba.
The former midfielder stated that Rashford should now be the only player taking penalties for Manchester United, but that there is simply no place for the racist backlash that Pogba has received in the wake of the missed spot kick. The holding midfielder also spoke at large about Cristiano Ronaldo, his best friend who he spent every day with during his time at Manchester United.
What did you make of the game against Wolves?
We need to win those games. I’m not taking the piss out of Wolves, as they’re a good team, but back in the day when I was playing we knew we would win 3-0 or 4-0. We would punish them.
Are people making too much of the decision to let Paul Pogba take the penalty?
I’m not the manager and I can’t know what Ole said to Paul and Marcus. I think that Paul was unlucky – it was a good save. When I played it was one penalty taker, it was Van Nistelrooy and then Rooney after that. For me, Rashford had the confidence as he had already scored a penalty, so he should have taken the penalty against Wolves. Moving forward, he should be the only one to take the penalties.
Does Pogba need to work harder? Is the real problem that he doesn’t look like he is trying on the pitch?
Pogba has his style and he can’t do anything about that, he has always played like that since he played back in Italy. But English football is different; you need to work hard, tackle and more. Italian football is more tactical, but you need to be box-to-box in England, to tackle and work hard in England. If you watched Rooney playing as a striker, he would still come back and tackle hard.
Pogba has his style and he is a very good player. When you put Paul Pogba in the right position and he has the confidence, he is absolutely amazing.
It’s like Arsenal fans with Mesut Ozil. They think he is not trying but of course he is trying. It’s crazy!
Paul Pogba received racist abuse from people on social media for missing the penalty against Wolves. How appalling is it that this still happens in football?
For me it’s awful to see, its just football and there’s no need for it. Imagine how Paul’s child or family feel about seeing that abuse. Racism has no place in either football or this world, and it’s a real shame to see.
Do you remember when you found out that Manchester United were interested in signing you? What was your reaction?
I remember it was in 2002 when United started to look at me, and they took 6-8 months watching me play. Then at the end of the season I played in The Confederations Cup in France, and it was at that moment that I found out that United were looking at me. For me it was a dream – a dream come true.
When I was a kid in Cameroon, the first shirt my dad bought me was a Cantona shirt with number 7 on the front and Sharp on the front. My nickname was Cantona because of the shirt!
Were you a Man United fan as a child?
Yeh I was a Man U fan when I was a kid, watching Cantona play, watching a young Giggs play. It was a dream come true because I was a Man U fan when I was young.
Do you remember your first day of training with United?
I remember the first day when I came to Carrington, to the training ground. Before my first training session, Mikael Silvestre picked me up at the hotel and brought me to training. When I got to training I went into the dressing room, and Rio Ferdinand said ‘Eric, calm down! Sit here with me!’
We travelled to Portugal for pre-season, to Lisbon and it was amazing. We played a game against Sporting Lisbon, where we played against Cristiano Ronaldo. That game he was like ‘WOAH!’ It was a good game, but Cristiano was on fire, that game he was flying against us.
Was all the talk in the changing room about Ronaldo after that match?
Yeh, the talk in the changing room after was totally about Cristiano. Everybody was saying he had a good game, he’s a good player, everything; and after that Fergie went for him!
It’s true that some of the players said to Ferguson that we needed to sign him, that he would be good in our team.
You and Ronaldo made your debuts together against Bolton in a 4-0 win; what are your memories of that day?
We came on together, and I thought everything is amazing! It was my debut for my team, and I was a Man U fan as a kid so it was my dream come true. It was some achievement. An achievement for my family, for all of Cameroon and to this day I am the only player from Cameroon to play for United!
I’m not surprised because United is a big team, and you need to have heart, skills and be a good player. All the football players who have played for United I have massive respect for. To be picked to play for that team, it means you are something special.
Was Ronaldo a frustrating player to play with when he was young?
The players didn’t find Ronaldo frustrating, he was just young. If you look at Ronaldo now versus playing 15 years ago, you can see the difference. He was young and that was his game. Sometimes it was hard for Van Nistelrooy, Saha and Rooney because they didn’t know if he would cross the ball, when you’re waiting for the cross and it doesn’t come. But they knew that was Cristiano’s game, and they new that he wouldn’t cross the ball so they waited for the cross, for Ronaldo to dribble past the defender before he would cross.
He wasn’t like David Beckham, he would take one touch and whip it in. Cristiano loved the tricks!
Apparently Ferguson would never give Ronaldo the hairdryer treatment?
Sometimes Ferguson would tell Ronaldo ‘no’, but I never saw Fergie angry or unhappy at Cristiano. For Ferguson to be unhappy was very hard for him; he was like a dad with his kids! He could be unhappy if we were drawing a game or not playing well. He was like everyone, you can be unhappy because you’re not playing well.
He never had a go at me; he was like my dad! He was a dad for Cristiano, John O’Shea, Fletcher, Bellion, even Rio Ferdinand!
There are a lot of stories about Ronaldo; who is the real Ronaldo?
People can watch Ronaldo on the television, but they don’t know the real Cristiano. Cristiano is a man, who had a difficult time as a kid in football. People see him on the television and think he is arrogant or takes the piss out of people, but Cristiano is an emotional man. You need to talk to him to see who he really is. My mum passed away and he said Eric if you need me, you can call me, you can visit me, don’t worry I am here for you.
Every day when we were together at United, we drove to training together. Sometimes we would drive in my car; sometimes we would drive in his car. After training we went to eat at Nandos in Manchester; he helped me discover Nandos!
When we went to away games, we were roommates. He was my best friend. We were together every single day for training; sometimes I would go to his house to eat as his house as his mother was there with him when Cristiano was young. Sometimes he would come to my house to eat, as I was living alone in Rio Ferdinand’s old house!
Are you still in touch with Ronaldo now?
We are still in touch, but Cristiano changes his number like a flip-flop! If I want to get in touch with him, it’s no trouble and I know how to.
Is Cristiano someone who would do anyting for his friends?
Cristiano is a man. When you talk with him, you can see that he is a man who is there for his family, there for his friends, makes a lot of donations. And people don’t know about that, because he goes with his heart to help countries, to help kids. He is a great guy.
Were you good mates with Rio Ferdinand at United as well?
I was very good friends with him, Rio was a funny guy. I was the biggest joker in the dressing room, I had an imitation for everybody in the dressing room, the best impression I did was Rob (Swire), the physiotherapist. No, I never did an impression of Fergie!
You were supposedly the man to replace Roy Keane; was that a lot of pressure on you?
Of course, I was young coming from the league in France and back in the day it was not like the Premier League, which was the hardest pressing league in the world. It was a lot of pressure – we’re talking about Roy Keane – the man, the captain, he was hard. It was difficult for me. I did my best and I played some good games, but it was hard for me. My teammates helped me and Sir Alex Ferguson helped me. To be there was everything, and I have no regrets. Today I’m happy as I can look back as I won the FA Cup and The Charity Shield and it is the trophies that people remember. If people recognise me around the world, it’s because I was part of that team.
I have no regrets and I will never ever forget Sir Alex Ferguson because he changed my life. He took me from Nantes and brought me to England and everyone knows Djemba Djemba because of him.
What was it like to play with Paul Scholes in midfield?
Oh my god, Paul Scholes was like a magician. Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, when you played with those two guys in the middle, you could just feel the class of player. They’d know where to give the ball, they’d just know where you were and then they’d even press so high!
Giggsy, Scholes, Butt, Roy Keane; I have a massive respect for them. They spoke football!
Do you think that you were judged harshly as a signing for Manchester United?
Sometimes you can’t do anything when people judge you; what can you do? It can be hard to adjust to playing in a new country, but that’s football and there’s nothing you can do. You just need to work hard to try and get your place in the team and there’s nothing that you can do about the criticism other than work hard.
Arsene Wenger once described one of your tackles on Sol Campbell as ‘Obscene’; did Sir Alex want the Man Utd players to be more physical than normal against Arsenal?
No, Fergie would never give us advice before the game to tell us that we needed to be physical with Arsenal. The rivalry was on the inside, and it was a passion burning to win.
I remember that game when I went hard on Sol Campbell, but it wasn’t my intention to kick him or injure him. I tried to go hard for the ball, and I just missed the ball! I remember meeting Sol Campbell in Australia and Hong Kong and every time we meet, I laugh again about the tackle. Sol said to me ‘Eric, I will get you back!’. I said to him ‘When? It’s done now!’, but he told me ‘When we have a tournament, I will get you back!’
Did you know all know in the dressing room that Arsenal weren’t mentally the toughest side if you got physical against them? Would Roy Keane be telling you to get stuck in?
Yes, Roy Keane was a hard man. He was the same in training, tackling hard and he was the same in the dressing room. When we were out, he was a nice guy and we could talk and laugh.
If we drew or lost a game, Roy Keane was the first one in the dressing room to shout. Sometimes Fergie wouldn’t even say anything until the next day, but Roy Keane, no way. He would go on at everyone, he would shout at everyone!
Eric Djemba Djemba – so good that they named him twice. Do you know the origins of your nickname?
I love it! It was a United fan who came up with it. It was against Leeds United when I scored the winning goal in the Carling Cup, and the United fans starting chanting ‘Eric Djemba Djemba, so good they named him twice!’ I really enjoyed that nickname!