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Manchester United shelling out their thanks to Little Pea Hernandez


Manchester United's Javier Hernandez

Manchester United's Javier Hernandez

Anna Gowthorpe

Manchester United's Javier Hernandez

It's only the name that Manchester United are still getting to grips with. “Chick-a-ree-to” didn't quite roll off Sir Alex Ferguson's tongue in the early days and exactly how are you supposed to abbreviate it?

“It's Chicharito,” explains Javier Hernandez. “Sometimes Chico. My team-mates are trying to do their best but it is strange. They call me Chich, Chico or Chicha sometimes....”

The acclimatisation of the player whose nickname, as the entire world now seems to know translates as “Little Pea”, has otherwise been as natural as shelling peas, to quote his manager's delicious description of his first competitive goal for United against Valencia in the Mestalla last September.

All Mexico seems to be appropriating the name of the 22-year-old, whose goal celebration — arms outstretched and mouth agape — beams out from billboards and bakery trucks in the capital city.

“He's the only thing Mexicans believe in right now,” the Mexican writer and cultural commentator Guadalupe Loaeza intoned this week, as the death toll from the drug-related violence that has killed 35,000 since late 2006 continued to rack up.

“We don't believe the government, the institutions, the political parties. But through months and months of this crisis, Chicharito has brought us good news in front of the whole world.”

If the subject of this acclaim is finding it rather hard to take all this in, then imagine the thoughts of his maternal grandfather Tomas Balcazar, the first of the three generations of this family to play for Mexico, who remembers his grandson's sliding tackles during knockabouts near the airport.

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Such was the cloak of secrecy surrounding United's pursuit of the striker that the old man was spun a story about the family holidaying in Atlanta, over the border in Georgia, last April, when they were actually ensconsed in the Old Trafford executive box for the Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich.

“We didn't tell my grandparents or my mother, for a while,” admits Hernandez. “Yes... that was difficult.”

United, Hernandez reveals, had done their work in the deep of that winter. The first approach had come from an individual whose business card he thought might be a fake, but whom he soon dicovered was Ferguson's chief scout, Jim Lawlor, “about two to three months” before he signed.

“The first I heard about it was when my father said, ‘There's a person interested in you; he wants to talk with you,'“ says Hernandez.

“And he gave me Jim Lawlor's card with the ‘MU' badge on it. I didn't know if it was genuine or not, because some agents in Mexico have cards on which they put the badges of all the big teams of the world. ‘Okay,' I thought. ‘It's one more of them. ‘Okay'. My father said, ‘No, it's really Manchester United.' I said to him ‘don't joke with me about that'.”

It was when he saw the tear in the eye of his father, Javier snr, that the penny dropped. His mother was let in on the secret and accompanied them to Manchester for his £6m signing.

“We flew to Atlanta, then on to Manchester, but we told the rest of the family that we would stay in Atlanta to get a hotel and get to know the city,” Hernandez says of the necesary deceit.

This had been some journey for Hernandez's father — whose own green eyes gave him the name Chicaro (“the pea”).

Barely two years before Lawlor left his calling card, the young striker was sitting across the breakfast table from him, discussing his thoughts of giving up the game and returning to his business studies, after two years without a senior goal for Chivas.

Everything dried up after he had scored in a 4-0 romp over Necaxa and he had been drifting through the Mexican second division, with the reserves.

“The coach wasn't playing me,” Hernandez remembers. “I don't know why that was. I just wanted to play, but I was training with the squad all week and wouldn't play in the games. I would always go to the reserves. My confidence started to go and I asked my father whether I was still right to play football.”

He would have quit without his father, he believes, but was told to appreciate what he had got. “My parents told me: ‘People all over the world want to be football players and I am very lucky [just] to be there, even if I'm not in the first-team,'“ says Hernandez.

“I decided I had to enjoy [football]. I was obsessed with thinking that I had to play at the weekend to enjoy my football. I

started enjoying myself in training and my face started to look different.”

His father also implored him to relax; have patience. (Others agreed. “Restless” and “easily exasperated” are how Hernandez's former Chivas youth team coach has described him.)

It was at this time, too, that Hernandez started putting his faith in a higher order and that now familiar sight of him on his knees in the centre circle was first seen.

The prayers, we learn, are offered in thanks for his selection, rather than in supplication for goals. “When I started a bit more, I started to do that only to say thank you [to God] for letting me be part of another game. That's the thing for me. I want to play every game, I want to play a lot and I [pray] because I'm thankful.”

The United fans' player of the year certainly looks at home, 5,000 miles from home. One of the urban myths doing the rounds of Manchester — about a disorintated Hernandez trying to give a supermarket worker a £5 tip for finding him a bag of tagliatelle and, fearing he had offended her, returning with a signed shirt the next day — is no more than that.

“That wasn't true! he says, laughing out loud. It is his native Guadlajara that he would find a more alien place this weekend, with national television delaying a broadcast of Mexico’s game against Ecuador in a friendly at Seattle to ensure Chicarito gets top billing.

The Wembley match will be shown on a giant screen on the esplanade outside Mexico City's 100,000 Aztec Stadium. Mexico hasn't known fervour like it since the rookie Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernano Valenzuela gave the nation a way of forgetting the 1980s peso crash.

The challenge is to ignore the background noise, though Hernandez can at least call on a higher authority.

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