Javier Hernandez’s predatory instincts will always be remembered fondly at Manchester United

Had circumstances have been different and Sir Alex Ferguson had stayed at Old Trafford, Javier Hernandez could have been a Manchester United legend, an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the 2010s.

The Mexican striker scored 59 times in 157 games between 2010-2014, just below Dwight Yorke and Charlie Mitten and just above Robin van Persie in the all-time top scorers chart. Yet in 72 of those games he came off the bench. 

He scored 20 goals in his first season, an incredible achievement for a 21-year-old straight out of the Mexican league. He started in only 15 Premier League games and scored 13 goals. He’d never match that goal total, but 12 goals in 2011-12 and 18 in 2012-13 were credible before things started to go wrong after Ferguson left.

Chicharito, who returns to Old Trafford with West Ham on Sunday, managed only nine under David Moyes – and he can't complain that the Scot didn’t give him sufficient chances. His performance in a 1-0 win at Norwich in 2013 was one of the worst of the Moyes’ era.

Still, his stock remained high enough for Real Madrid to take him on loan for the 2014-15 season and Bayern Leverkusen last season. He was a success at both.

In his final season at Old Trafford he was considered moody. As you might be if you were getting picked for a failing team. But Chicharito was a success for United. Scouting players is an inexact science and the club’s overlooking of Malaga’s Isco didn’t look great after he was man of the match in Tuesday’s Super Cup in Skopje, but United’s recruitment of Chicharito was a masterstroke – even Chicharito’s agent didn’t know that United were targeting him.

The English club dealt directly with the Chivas president Rafael Lebrija and stressed the need for discretion. If negotiations could be kept under wraps, United promised to send a team to play in a friendly to mark the opening of the new Chivas stadium in July 2010.

Conveniently, United were already scheduled to be relatively nearby in Houston, Texas, a few days before in the final game of their North American pre-season tour.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill, United liked to conclude transfers quietly, to beat the press and leak nothing. They felt speculation could drive up the price of a player as agents or clubs would invite other clubs to bid. Gill and Ferguson were delighted with the conduct of Chivas over the transfer – Chivas would get their friendly – without the $1million match fee which United usually charge.

Ferguson had been watching the Little Pea since October 2009 when he started to come into the Chivas team on a regular basis. But how? Why would United’s manager be watching a Mexican team?

Since they had first spotted him playing for the Mexican U17 team five years earlier, United had kept an eye on Chicharito’s progress. After his success in Chivas’ first team, United became aware that the young prospect was starting to attract the attention of other giants of football. 

United’s chief scout Jim Lawlor had been tipped off about Hernandez by the former Mexican international footballer Marco Garces. He’d spent four years studying for a sports science degree at Liverpool John Moores University and became friends with Lawlor, who worked at the university before joining United.

Garces returned to Mexico to work for Pachuca’s academy where Lawlor asked him to recommend Mexican players. The name Javier Hernandez came back in September 2009.

“I told him that he was excellent,” said Garces. “And that there was still room for improvement. I also said that he had all the attributes to do well in English football. Not only that, but that he was from a very good family with the right values. I also said that he already spoke English.” 

Garces later said that Hernandez reminded him of the great Mexican striker Hugo Sanchez. United sent a scout to watch Hernandez in December 2009 and Lawlor himself visited Mexico for three weeks in February and March 2010 to make an in-depth assessment of the player.

Lawlor and Garces watched several games in Mexico. They also travelled to Los Angeles, which boasts a huge Mexican population, to watch Mexico’s 2-0 friendly win over fellow World Cup finalists New Zealand on March 3rd 2010. 

In the never-ending single-tiered stand of the Rose Bowl United saw their target come off the bench in the second half to score one goal and narrowly miss another in his first 10 minutes. His goal was outstanding.

United were sold, negotiations were tight and Ferguson was far more convinced by Chicharito than he’d ever been about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before he signed.

The Hernandez family were tight-lipped. They even told Chicharito’s grandfather Tomás Balcázar, who Javier spoke to every day, that they were travelling on a shopping trip to Atlanta in the United States.

The first United fans knew of the signing was when the news broke on April 8th 2010. It was a good day for it to happen for United had been knocked out of the Champions League the night before. United called it right and within a season of arriving in England the Mexican was starting in the Champions League final against Barcelona. 

Chicharito did take time to settle at Old Trafford, though. His first goal wasn’t until 29th September, a glorious late winner in Valencia. He got both goals in the team’s first away win at Stoke and ran away and celebrated by holding the United badge on his shirt up to the Stoke supporters who were far from impressed.

But he was impressing teammates with his work rate in training, while still playing second fiddle to Rooney and Berbatov in United’s attack. He’d come off the bench, get himself in good positions… and score super goals. A winner at West Brom was key, also a flick on against Stoke at home which was reminiscent of Lee Sharpe’s goal vs Barcelona.

He got better as United charged to a 19th title. In Europe, a crucial goal against Marseille saw United into the last 16. He was now in Ferguson’s best XI. A 4-2 win at Upton Park came after United had been 2-0 down… thanks to the introduction of Chicharito with what Ferguson called his ‘lightning pace’.

His most important goal was scored against title challengers Chelsea after 36 seconds, a result of the beautiful and balanced Rooney-Hernandez partnership.

“This was United at their best, moving with speed and skill, giving an opponent little chance to form a meaningful barricade,” wrote the Daily Telegraph.    

“The boy is a natural goalscorer,” said Ferguson. “He’s tremendously quick with two good feet. He’s very good in the air.”

Hernandez and Rooney linked up again to outclass Schalke 04 away in the European Cup semi-final. Most of the Mexican’s goals, however, came in the last 15 minutes of matches. Nine of the 20 in his first season were match-winning goals. Most of Chicharito’s goals were not spectacular either, but lethal, as he hit the ball low into either corner. His runs across the box were also deadly as he notched up several close range efforts. Half the goals came from inside the six-yard box, half outside.

Not a single one of his goals was scored from outside the penalty area. Chicharito was a pure predator, like Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Gary Lineker.

The Mexican will get a good reception at Old Trafford on Sunday, but the home fans hope they don't see a repeat of his devastating form of early 2011… unless he’s on the losing side.