That is the most popular way of interpreting his career at Old Trafford. But there is another, one that has Fellaini not as a symptom of United’s faded dominance, but as a survivor of it. “It is not easy when you change managers,” Fellaini said. “When players change, when players leave, that is not easy. To be a team, you need time.”
In the last five years, United has had precious little of that. Fellaini has been a rare fixed point amid the tumult. No other signing in the period after Alex Ferguson’s departure has proved quite so enduring. “I think he was underappreciated,” Holden, his former coach and still a friend, said. “I hope that he isn’t anymore.”
Fellaini himself gives little thought to how he is perceived outside Old Trafford, beyond admitting that hearing opposing fans “whistle and boo” him tends to act as inspiration, rather than discouragement. “You want to show how good you are,” he said.
That he is not quite afforded the respect others with his record might command could, of course, be seen as a compliment. As Gerrard said, he is horrible to play against. But perhaps here, too, more lies beneath: Perhaps he is a manifestation of values English soccer has convinced itself are antiquated, relics of a hurriedly forgotten past.
Gerrard, in the same breath as he confessed to his admiration of his former rival, described Fellaini as an “effective Plan B,” the player a team could turn to when it needed to be “ugly.” Even Holden admits that he is not always “easy on the eye.” At a time when aesthetics are king, that is enough to attract scorn.
Fellaini bristles at the description. Not because of the slight sneer inherent in the phrase, but because he sees it as a misunderstanding of the nature of his job. “If the manager puts me on the bench, and says play 30 minutes, I will do it,” he said. “I fight to play every game, but I work for the manager.”
It does not matter to him if he is seen as artful, subtle: The goals he scores might not always be pretty, but they are not worth any less. “From a corner, from a free kick, from a penalty, a goal is a goal,” he said.
For a long time, England would have been seen as his natural home. For all the doubts, for all the criticism, for all that the country might want to think it has changed, he has spent a decade here proving that it still is.