West Ham's Javier Hernandez seeking clean slate on Man United return
It was a look of utter disbelief and bemusement. Manchester United may have been winning 4-0 against Club Brugge (7-1 on aggregate) in the Champions League playoff on Aug. 26, 2015, but when Mexican striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez slipped as he was taking an 81st-minute penalty and screwed the ball wide, Louis van Gaal turned and gave assistant Ryan Giggs that look. Naturally, it went viral.
Van Gaal had loaned out Hernandez to Real Madrid the previous season and, with the transfer window winding down, the look as Van Gaal widened his eyes and fixated his stare at Giggs gave the message that Hernandez's time was up. His future had been up in the air with some fans believing Hernandez would be useful, but just five days later, the now 29-year-old was in Germany signing for Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen.
Hernandez touched the ball in a Manchester United shirt only a handful of times after that penalty miss, bringing a slightly vacuous end to a career at the club that had starting so brightly and with so much excitement.
When "Chicharito" signed for the Premier League club from Liga MX outfit Chivas, Hernandez's beaming face was on the front pages of newspapers back in his home town of Guadalajara. His grandfather, who played for Mexico at the 1954 World Cup, told journalists he had no idea the move was happening.
It was a shock to everyone. Yes, Hernandez had netted goals for Chivas and caused a stir in Mexico. Everyone saw the skinny and small, awkward kid's goal-scoring ability in Mexico's top division, but he was still better known for his family background. And there was collective disbelief when the story broke that Manchester United chief scout Jim Lawlor had been watching the striker and Sir Alex Ferguson had signed off on the deal to bring him to Old Trafford.
Few believed Hernandez could make the jump, with talk in Mexico about how he'd be starved of minutes facing competition from Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov. Yet just more than a year later, Hernandez had firmly made a name for himself, scoring 13 goals and starting a Champions League final for the Red Devils in his debut season.
It was almost make-believe but Mexico's highest-ever goal-scorer never got the chance to say farewell to the Old Trafford faithful, who almost instantly fell for Hernandez's vibrancy and enthusiasm. On Sunday, he'll step foot in the stadium for the first time since he left Manchester United, this time wearing West Ham's No. 17 shirt.
"I don't know if I will celebrate if I score at Old Trafford," Hernandez said Wednesday when asked what he would do if he scored. "It's my old club, my old fans, my old stadium, but it'll be my first goal for West Ham."
It would be a surprise if United fans didn't give Hernandez a warm welcome on his return. But make no mistake: West Ham are getting a different player and person from the one that made his Premier League debut almost seven years ago to the day. The baby face is still there but Hernandez is an established name now, a proven striker commanding high wages and expectations to deliver.
The Mexico striker is the face of the game in his nation and he isn't afraid to speak out now and become more of a leader. Current Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is certainly well aware of Hernandez's qualities, with the Portuguese manager praising the forward on multiple occasions this past summer without being prodded.
At 29, Hernandez has taken the challenge of leading the line for a London club with the third-highest attendance in the Premier League last season. The player could have gone elsewhere: Mexico teammates Jonathan dos Santos and Carlos Vela opted for MLS, where the level of play is easier and life near Mexico comfortable.
"I am a Hammer, a West Ham player. I want to do even better than I did in Manchester," Hernandez said Wednesday.
After a dark week for Mexican soccer in which the U.S. government has alleged that Rafa Marquez been sanctioned for alleged ties to drug trafficking, there will be something poignant about Hernandez stepping out on Sunday into one of the world's most emblematic stadiums in arguably the best league in the world.
Whichever way you look at it, Hernandez remains the beacon for Mexico players in Europe and beyond.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.