Erik ten Hag has set high standards at Manchester United this season, but Bruno Fernandes might be even more demanding. After watching his team beat Chelsea 4-1 to add a top-four finish to the Carabao Cup, Ten Hag declared his first year at Old Trafford as a success. Fernandes, though, disagrees. And he won’t change his mind even if United beat Manchester City at Wembley on Saturday and lift the FA Cup (10 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).
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“For this club, a successful season is winning the league, winning the Champions League, winning big trophies because the past of this club, the history of this club, is big,” says Fernandes in an interview with ESPN. “The big target in the league is winning it. It was a good season but not a successful one because success is winning. We are now building something we see can be special in the future.”
The target, ultimately, is City. They have won the Premier League title in five of the past six years and reached two of the past three Champions League finals. It’s a level of dominance United used to enjoy under Sir Alex Ferguson and hope, one day, to achieve again. There are some at Old Trafford who choose to shy away from the comparisons with their city rivals, but not Fernandes. “We want to win the league and that’s what they did this season,” he says.
“City has done this so, yeah, they are the team to beat, we can say that because they won. City are probably the team that is playing the best football for so many years. They’ve been consistent with that and they deserve to be in this place because they’ve been really good.”
This season, City have been too good. The title is already in the bag, and if they win against United in the FA Cup and then Inter Milan in the Champions League, they will complete the treble — a feat only achieved once before in English football by Ferguson’s United in 1999. Ahead of the FA Cup final Saturday, United fans are split on the biggest motivation for winning the game. Is it simply to win the trophy, or would there be more joy in stopping City from winning it and ruining any chance of the treble?
“We are aware of this,” says Fernandes with a smile. “We know the story of our club and that the fans don’t want City to do that. But for ourselves it is about lifting a trophy. The importance of this for us is winning another trophy, making sure we end the season in the best way possible. We know if we win the trophy, the consequence of that is Man City cannot do the treble any more. But from the players’ side, it is just about winning the game because we want to win a trophy for ourselves, the club, the fans. That is it.”
The anticipation in Manchester ahead of a first ever FA Cup final between United and City has reached fever pitch this week, but Fernandes’ phone has been quieter than usual. He’s part of a Portuguese enclave in Manchester that also includes City’s Bernardo Silva and Ruben Dias. Fernandes has been friends with Bernardo since the pair made their debuts together for Portugal’s under-18s, but as they prepare to face off at Wembley, the regular WhatsApp messages have dried up. For now, their friendship is on hold but there will be a cup final debrief when they join up with the Portugal squad.
“Now, going to the game, we normally don’t speak,” says Fernandes. “We will speak after the game. The time we discuss more these types of games is when we go away with the national team and we talk about the way he plays, or I play, or the way City play, the way United play. What he sees as our strengths and our weaknesses. It is a normal chat between fans of football. I have a great relationship with Bernardo.
“When we won the game [against City] at home, he came in and shook my hand. He said, ‘When you lost at our home [6-3] and it was a bad game, you shook the hand of everyone else, so I have to do it, even when I lose.'” United’s defeat at the Etihad in October was a low point in United’s season, and there was another against Liverpool in March when Ten Hag’s team were thrashed 7-0.
Fernandes was heavily criticised in the aftermath of the result at Anfield, with his behaviour during the second half labelled “embarrassing” by former United defender and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville. Ten Hag, though, used a news conference three days later to hit back by insisting that Fernandes would remain his captain when Harry Maguire was not in the team. It went down well with Fernandes, although he admits he has been called into the manager’s office more than once this season when the Dutchman has felt the need to put his foot down. Crucially for the players, discipline has been dished out in private and not in public.
“He knows I care,” said Fernandes. “That’s why sometimes it makes you do some things that you should not do. But he knows that I will never do anything to make the team look bad, my teammates look bad, or do something that is not good for the team. He knows that, so that’s why it protects me. That’s why he did that in that interview and many other times.
“Whenever he thinks that he has to say something that he didn’t like to me, he has called me two or three times in his office and he said, ‘Look, we have to change this, we have to change this, I think you could do it in a different way.’ He shows you the respect, he shows you the protection, but always with demands behind that because when you protect someone, you want him to give you some back.”
Fernandes has done his best to repay Ten Hag’s trust. He was left wearing a protective boot after suffering an injury during the FA Cup semifinal against Brighton, but four days later he was in the team for a game at Tottenham. The FA Cup final will be Fernandes’ 68th appearance for club and country this season, more than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues. His commitment to the cause cannot be faulted.
“I think it’s good for everyone to see that even when you’re not 100 percent but the team needs you that you try your best to be there,” he says. “Sometimes it’s not possible. Obviously, in the Tottenham game and the games after that, I was still a little bit painful but I could deal with the pain so I try to carry on. It was not the best shape to play but I could still help the team and the manager thought it was better for me to help the team than not so I did everything that I could.”
He says he also owes a debt of gratitude to his wife, Ana, and his mum and dad for his impressive fitness record. “I like to get my nap time and my wife respects that and takes care of the kids for that hour and a half, an hour, so I can have that more rest,” he says. “Because I think that’s important for me to keep me fit, in the best shape possible. I think it’s all those bits together, and obviously the way my mum and dad made me. They made sure that I was always fit and fit enough to play football.
“Sometimes even Casemiro is joking with me and says, ‘You know, you just run for every game and you can play every game because your weight is nothing, that’s why.'”
Fernandes’ relentless energy in midfield will be key if United are going to upset the odds and beat City on Saturday. But even if he gets his hands on the FA Cup at Wembley, you still won’t get him to say that the season has been a success. A step forward, yes. But not a success. “We understand that we’re still not at that level to go for more this season,” he concludes. “That’s why we didn’t go further in the league with more points, winning more games.
“But we did understand that we did the right steps, we’re still learning. We can be successful in the future. I think if we win the FA Cup, it will give us a little bit more belief that we can go into the next season and aim for bigger targets. Next season we will have learned so we need to do it better.”
Fernandes, like Ten Hag, will always want more.