Bruno Fernandes will soon be a Manchester United and Portugal icon.
However, it was in Northern Italy that he made his professional bow.
Despite a population of 100,000, only Turin has more inhabitants than Novara in the Piedmont region. Its architecture mixes breath-taking religious sites with historic art movement inspired squares and courts.
However, it is also noted for its geographical importance. Breaking the distance between Milan and Turin, it is cited as being a frequented stop over for those travelling between the two.
For Bruno Fernandes, it too was the place for him to bridge his own gap to footballing superstardom. Novara Calcio captain Daniele Buzzegoli spoke exclusively to First Time Finish about his time playing with Fernandes between 2012 and 2013.
Fernandes arrived at Novara’s academy in 2012 aged eighteen. Novara had been promoted to Serie A for the first time in fifty five years in 2011; the club’s most successful period in half a century.
That said, the Novara team were aware of the slight eighteen year old’s potential immediately.
‘From the first training [session] we saw that he had something inside and an incredible natural attitude. Both technically and for his vision of the game, he was the best of us. This immediately impressed us.’ recalls Buzzegoli, who at thirty-seven is now in his second stint at the club.
‘He was very shy as he moved quickly from [Giacomo] Gattuso’s youth team to the first team. But on the field he was a force.’
The club had enjoyed the unexpected high of a Serie A campaign the previous year. However, Novara found themselves bottom of Serie B at Christmas, and hopes of promotion never seeming further.
Enter a talented Portuguese teenager.
‘He immediately became an important player for us once he started playing in January. Bruno and [Haris] Seferović launched us off the bottom of the table with some positive results.’
Novara finished fifth, a remarkable turnaround. They would lose to Empoli in the promotion play-offs, but Fernandes (along with Benfica’s Haris Seferović) had fired them back into promotion contention.
Fernandes’ taste for turnarounds had been cultivated in Novara.
Building a Leader
Fernandes’ role in rejuvenating Novara would catch illustrious eyes. Udinese would swoop for the-then-nineteen year old, retaining his services for a further three years. A stint at Sampdoria would then precede a return to Portugal with Sporting Lisbon. It was here that Fernandes not only exploded into the limelight as a generational goal scoring midfielder, but also as a leader.
To Daniele Buzzegoli, those leadership credentials were visible many years previous.
‘He was shy and young, so in the changing room he was not so much a leader. But on the field he was incisive, not afraid to ask for the ball. He always had the situation under control both emotional and technically, which made him a leader on the pitch.’
An eighteen year old Fernandes, having spent mere weeks in the academy, threw out any notion of inexperience.
‘I will always remember his peace of mind before a game. We were a team of 25-28 year olds, all experienced players. Yet he would get ready with serenity and would reassure us. This is a champions gift’ recalls Buzzegoli.
A Footballing Education
The Manchester United and Sporting Lisbon iteration of Bruno Fernandes is a unique entity. Unprecedented goal scoring talents for a midfielder (as we will discuss later). A ferocious long range shot capacity. An eye for the delicate, most acute of through passes. Few can match his skillset in his position.
Yet in his formative years in Italy, this was not always the case. Traditionally it is rare for traditional number ‘tens’ to thrive in Italy. The old school, defensive catenaccio systems have largely faded out, but there remains a reluctance to field a creative midfielder. The Bruno Fernandes of today therefore isn’t the ideal Italian midfielder. Nevertheless even from a deeper position to the one he holds now, Fernandes always had an attacking instinct.
‘The team played in a 4-3-3 in that season (2012-13). He played as a midfielder but would reach the attacking conclusion (sic) through his skill and passing. I see he still has this characteristic today’ says Buzzegoli, who has appeared over one hundred times for Novara.
When asked about the resemblance between the Fernandes he remembers, and the one captaining Manchester United today, Buzzegoli said:
‘He has refined his potential and character, and has become a leader. His experience and professionalism have driven the best out of him. He was always an incredible player, decisive in how he plays but also in his actions.’
Footage of a young mop haired Fernandes bare many of his hallmarks. The ambitious shot from range, the quick turn of pace away from a marker, and the will to finish off crosses himself. His game is not manufactured or replicated. It is cultivated and nurtured through a varied footballing education across three countries. This is what makes him such a special talent.
A Saviour from Sporting
28th January 2020. Manchester United make their move for Fernandes.
The previous year he had broken Frank Lampard’s record for most midfield goals in a European domestic campaign. Thirty nine league goals, and twenty eight assists for Sporting in just eighty three appearances. An attacking phenomenon.
A fee of over £50 million set pulses racing. Of those excited to see such a talent at the Theatre of Dreams. Also from those dubious of the credentials of a Primeira Liga export.
His effect on the club in the preceding ten months has been staggering. On the field, he has contributed to twenty goals in just nineteen league matches. No team took more than United’s thirty-two points between his arrival and the end of the 2019/20 season.
A club of United’s stature will never be without dramatic undercurrents. However brilliant Fernandes is, he cannot lift the gloom and hatred felt by fans towards those at the top on his own. Undoubtedly however he has sparked a flame amongst supporters. A player of supreme quality but also of a passionate and angry disposition.
Fury and gesturing at errors. Emotionally named captain for the first time in their Champions League tie against PSG. A drive to try the unthinkable and shoot from range. These are characteristics that United of all clubs crave in a talisman. Fernandes has endeared himself to the Stretford End more than any import since the Alex Ferguson era.
Less than a year since his arrival, he is already a leader at the club. He is already repaying the fans’ faith.
Leaving a Fernandes Legacy
Novara now play in Serie C. The year after Fernandes left they finished nineteenth in Serie B and were relegated from the second tier.
Remarkably they are one of only sixteen teams across Italy to have retained professional status since its introduction in 1926. That in itself places them at the heart of football history in Italy, beyond the money based pessimism at the top table.
This is a vastly different world to Manchester United’s. Historically one of England and Europe’s most successful clubs, their aim is to get back to their perch. The post Alex Ferguson years have shown just how far away they have been, and how lustful the thirst for dominance is at Old Trafford.
These two entities operate at opposite ends of every scale. Yet at both, Bruno Fernandes has sought to leave a legacy. Not left through talent and ability alone, they require heart and emotional connection to blossom and endure.
Manchester United is a legacy club. Honouring the attacking traditions of the past. Nurturing youth. Attracting the brightest talents and the boldest personalities. Little could they have imagined just how perfectly Fernandes would embody their principles. Equally neither could Novara have known how special he would become, both technically and personally.
‘He is remembered with so much affection. He was always an exceptional boy, but also respectful of the environment he grew up in. It is a matter of pride to see a boy from our youth become a protagonist of the Premier League.’
Fernandes shows that for all the scrutiny in the modern game on technical prowess, it is the heart and personality that separate the good from the great.
Daniele Buzzegoli spoke exclusively to First Time Finish for this feature. We would like to thank Daniele, Alessandra Stefanini and the club for granting us this access and for your exclusive images.