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Marouane Fellaini has spent the morning defending himself. It’s nothing unusual. Fending off criticism has become an almost daily task for the Manchester United midfielder in recent months. But this time, the slurs are different. They’re not aimed at his footballing ability or performances on the pitch, but at his character.
The previous evening, the 28-year-old was labelled a “thug” on national television for the second time in the space of a week by former Premier League referee Howard Webb. Summarising the second leg of Manchester United’s Europa League tie against Liverpool for BT Sport, Webb accused Fellaini of deliberately throwing an elbow at the head of Reds midfielder Emre Can. “It’s one thing imposing yourself on the game, but another thing being a thug on the pitch,” pronounced Webb.
“In football you will always have some people with you and some against you… this is football,” shrugs Fellaini when we meet him at a Manchester hotel. He’s softly spoken and shy in his manner, making it difficult to tally the man in front of us with the one accused of “violently throwing his arms into people’s faces” (another Webb line) on a weekly basis.
He appears unaffected by the furore swirling around him, smiling as he poses for our shoot and laughing sheepishly when a yawn escapes in front of the camera. But when we start to discuss a season during which he has so often borne the brunt of fans’ frustrations with an underperforming United team, the happy exterior fades.
“Not all the fans can love you,” he says. “But I do my job. I try to do my best on the pitch, I work hard, I give everything for more than 90 minutes, and for me these are the most important things. I try to do everything for the manager and for the club. And the rest? I don’t listen. I don’t look. I just try to do my job.”
There’s no sense of anger from Fellaini, just a touch of prickliness about the sections of the United crowd who react to his place in any Louis van Gaal starting XI with outrage. Take a look at his Twitter mentions the next time he steps on the pitch and you’ll find an ugly stream of close-to-the-bone ‘banter’ and venom.
“It’s difficult for my family because they read what people write and hear what’s said,” says Fellaini, whose brother is alongside him when we speak, rocking the same haircut and a similarly long and lean physique. “But for me, it’s not hard because I’m a professional and I love my job. I do everything for my job.
“And it’s not all of the fans. I go out around Manchester; I go to dinner and to work and the supporters are always great towards me. I don’t know, maybe some, they don’t watch all the games? So I don’t read [what’s written] and I don’t listen to it.”
When the team as a whole has so often failed to deliver on the pitch this season, why is it Fellaini who is singled out for such criticism?
“Sometimes I don’t understand it,” he says. “But I have to deal with it. I have to get past it and do my job. If the manager puts me in the team, he knows why – it’s for a reason.
“Yes, this is the first time I have been through a time like this, but it’s also an important experience to have because it’s not every year you can have good times, you know? And the most important things are that I am happy, my health is good, my family is good and I enjoy playing football.”
Asked whether he believes he can win over those fans for whom he has become a symbol of United’s troubled campaign, Fellaini lets out a long breath: “What can I do? Just play my game, work hard and that’s it. I don’t cheat, you know? I work hard on the pitch and give everything to try and win the game. The rest? It’s not important. That’s it.”
It’s all so far removed from Fellaini’s experiences at Everton, where his hardworking, fiery persona won the respect of the fans, his teammates and even the press. In a Daily Mail article written ahead of an England v Belgium friendly in 2012, Fellaini is described as “the perfect modern midfielder” – one who brings “athleticism and power to Everton’s engine room, versatility and, as a record of 20 goals in 137 appearances shows, an attacking threat”.
Asked now what he feels he brings to United, it’s clear that Fellaini doesn’t consider himself any different to the player who won these plaudits just four years ago: “My mentality and my hard work. And I know I can be dangerous. I try to do everything to win the game.”
But away from the club that gave him his first home in England, those qualities aren’t winning him anything apart from insults, abuse and the occasional bout of booing from his own team’s fans.
Fellaini’s move across the Pennines was difficult from the start. Joining a club reeling from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, he was under pressure to prove David Moyes’ faith in him was founded on more than familiarity. “He said they needed someone like me, but he only did nine months and after that he was sacked,” says Fellaini of Ferguson’s successor, who he played under for five years at Everton.