Mikael Silvestre arrived at Manchester United from Inter Milan in 1999, months after the club won the treble, as cover in defence at both left back and centre half. As one of the more dependable squad players in the Premier League era, Silvestre’s career at Old Trafford lasted 9 years, spanning 361 games in all competitions and earning him eleven winners medals.
Silvestre joined Arsenal in the early weeks of the 2008/9 season after a struggle with injuries towards the end of his time at the club, before he moved to Werder Bremen. With his contract freshly expired and a nice holiday to Florida just passed, 7Cantonas founder Yolkie caught up with Mikael to talk about his United career – where he was open about some of the most controversial subjects of his time at the club – and what lies next.
You enjoyed a successful career at Old Trafford but just months before you joined you played against us in our treble season; how was it facing Cole and Yorke at their peak, and suffering from that last gasp Scholes goal at the San Siro?
I was slightly injured for the first leg, but on the second leg I mainly faced Becks. It was a tight game. I remember Ze Elias missing the target 2 times and Paul Scholes scoring the winner. Not only Andy Cole or Dwight Yorke, but the entire squad was at his peak and the luck was on United side that night that’s all.
How did the move to United come about? You were linked with Liverpool at the same time…
While on international duty with the under 21 team. In Ukraine and Albania, I had a phone call conversation with Gerard Houiller, I’ve known him since we’ve won the under 18 European championship… and a few days later with Sir Alex Ferguson. At that time it was easy to choose between the two clubs!
You won many things at the club and played alongside many defenders; who was your favourite defender to play alongside, and did you prefer playing in the centre or at left back?
I played with so many good defenders at United it’s difficult to pick one out and to be honest I can’t because they were all different; I had a good understanding and relationship with all of them. Either position was a real pleasure! When you can start a game for Manchester United you don’t start moaning about which position on the field. My preference goes to centre half because you dictate the game, on the side you follow and cover your partners.
What do you look back on as your best season? If I’m allowed to give my opinion, I would probably say 2002/3, you were brilliant at left back…
Maybe, it’s difficult for me to say.
Other United fans I know think your best form was with Wes Brown, a player many rate as the best natural defender we’ve had at the club under Sir Alex… how good do you think he could have been if not for injury?
My partnership with Wes was good and I think we did a good job while Rio served his 8 months suspension. Focusing on pure defending, Wes was one of the best I played with at United alongside Jaap Stam and Ronie Johnsen. And without his major injuries he would have been even more present in the starting line and would have been a regular in England squad.
More controversy followed when Roy Keane left United following an interview with MUTV… What did you make of his departure ?
Roy never hid himself when it comes to say what he thinks about his team-mates and being a pundit hasn’t changed him. What he said that day was true but normally those critics don’t go public and it’s up to the manager to do it or not. Anyway, this was the rupture of the United/Keane adventure.
Both still love each other I’m sure.
With Keane being critical of the youngsters, did the other senior lads rally around the kids after he’d gone?
Roy could be really hard but fair in the sense that he was treating everybody the same way.
You had some good rivalries while you were there… which was the most fierce when you were at the club?
No doubt that Leeds and Liverpool are at the top of my list! I’ve learned quickly who were our best enemies …
How was scoring twice against Liverpool?
I still can’t comprehend that I’ve scored twice in such a massive game. I couldn’t get to sleep that night…. It’s really a special moment in my career that I’ll never forget.
You played in many fierce games against Arsenal, notably the clashes in 2004/5… surely enough time has passed to let us know what happened in the tunnel at Old Trafford?
You know how tiny the tunnel is? Well you can not fit 2 teams side by side…..
I don’t know how it started but some nice words were exchanged between the 2 teams, a big confusion started near the away dressing room, you couldn’t punch anybody because there was no space and some players from Arsenal launched pizza I guess towards us, it landed mostly on the Gaffer so imagine our reaction, it was absolute chaos for 5 minutes! Without the stewards and police it would have been a real street fight.
In the end everybody was sent back to their own dressing rooms.
In the return, you were sent off for headbutting Freddie Ljungberg… I’m pretty sure no United fan held it against you, but why did you do it??
I never picked up 5 yellow cards in a season and that was my first and only sending off in England. I’m not proud of it and I got lucky we won that game. What happened is that Dennis Bergkamp was playing dirty with me, pulling my shirt and using his elbow. At one point I had too much of it I lost my temper so when Freddie Ljungberg came to me to say whatever he had to say, I was already gone in another world and I replied with throwing my “big head” at him then I didn’t look at the referee and walked straight to the dressing room.
Gabriel Heinze looked for a while like he would overtake you at left back but he agitated for a move while you remained dependable; were you disappointed when Evra came to the club? It coincided with a time that you seemed to really up your game but then kept getting injured…
Pat and Vida came at the same time so there was more challenge for a place at the back. My cruciate ligament came when I was playing left back and Patrice was left wing, I guess we would have seen a lot more of these combinations if it wasn’t for my injury.
While you were at the club, Steve McClaren, Jim Ryan, Carlos Queiroz, Walter Smith and – very briefly – Mike Phelan all served as assistant.. who was the most effective for you? Do you think that United perhaps need a fresh face in there in order to succeed in Europe?
I really think that all those coaches had an impact on United’s success while I was there. I think one of the strong points of the boss is to be open and by having this attitude, he allowed each coaches to have a real input and bring their own ideas into the training program. If you keep the same staff with the same ideas for 20 years you stay still.
Put it into context; you’ve played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, how does playing for, and then leaving, United, compare?
Inter and Arsenal are in the same category. Big history, big success, big money. United has a unique place with my family because I spent 9 seasons there, and it’s a long time in a football career and in life. We won a lot of trophies but the most important is that I gained the winning mentality, and that remains with you forever.
You left Werder Bremen after an injury hit time there; where do you currently reside, what offers do you have, and will you be returning to the Premier League?
I’m a free agent today actually so I expect to receive some offers during the transfer window. I came back in January after my injury but spent most games on the bench, so I’m really fresh and hungry for what will be my last challenge.
The Premier League would be a good option and I’m actually expecting an offer in the next few days…
France and England both suffered exits from the European Championship this summer; what do you think both teams need to do in order to progress?
For France I would say a better team spirit, which comes from each individual. The 1998 world cup winners were not favourites but the team spirit made a big difference. The same again in 2006 when we lost in final against Italy. England – well next time it would be wise to keep the manager for a longer period, RH did well with such short notice and with the few players missing out due to injuries. I just regret that Rio wasn’t part the squad.
You’ve kept busy – establishing a rum business, and running your “Schools for Hope” charity. Tell us a little bit more about both?
My charity, Schools for Hope, actually came about while I was at United. United was working with UNICEF, and it was through that partnership that I got my first look into charity work. We travelled to Africa to meet and work with children. It’s hard not to be affected by life there, and being a father myself, you always have that feeling that you can do more.
So, in partnership with UNESCO, I founded my own charity, Schools for Hope. UNESCO identifies some of the most vulnerable children, and takes them off the streets and into the program. The charity builds orphanages and schools, and provides a program for children to learn to read, write, and learn a vocational skill so that they can have a skills and a way of developing a life for themselves.
The charity uses sport as a medium to break down social barriers, teach social skills and interaction and build relationships, Schools for Hope does not focus on religious differences in students, rather the right to an education and a childhood. We have schools in Laos, Niger, Guinea and Haiti. It’s a lifetime commitment, and we are always looking for ways of fundraising and ways to bring attention to the projects. The recession has been particularly harsh on charitable donations, so we are always trying to get the word out there that there are children in need. Donations are welcomed!
The rhum is something that I also have a passion for. My family heritage is from Guadeloupe, and I’ve been bought up around rhum and the Caribbean way of life during family holidays, so in some ways it seemed a natural choice to go into.
The company is called R. St Barth, and has been going for just over a year now. We have cracked the US market, the Caribbean, Sweden, France, UK…it’s an ongoing project, but its great to be involved in. I am making daily decisions on design, tastes, product development, exhibitions, marketing – it’s a great challenge.
The brand is global and expanding, we won an award for the quality of our rhum, and I couldn’t be more proud of our work so far.
You can find out more information about Mikael’s projects here –
Thanks to Mikael for his time.
Thanks to Daniel Burdett who helped conduct this interview.