Onana: What got me through harsh criticism of tough Man Utd start


During the savage criticism that coloured the first six months of his Manchester United career, Andre Onana’s head never dropped, his spirit remained unbroken.

The goalkeeper refused to hide and insisted on taking responsibility.

He wanted to front up every error, and admit he was not yet operating to his own standards, rather than having his team-mates or Erik ten Hag explain that on his behalf.

Bruno Fernandes felt Onana was shouldering too much of the blame for what was ultimately collective failings, and as captain, stepped in to stop him from becoming a shield.


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The team wanted to protect the Cameroon international, but he was refusing to allow some bad moments to reframe his entire journey.

Onana left his village in Mefou-et-Akono at 10, moving four hours away to join the Samuel Eto’o Academy. At 14, he was exposed to a new continent, language, culture, and way of life in Barcelona. He’d have to adjust again aged 18 when Ajax signed him.

Onana became an international at 20, a Europa League finalist the following year, and a Champions League semi-finalist aged 23.

At 24, he fought a doping ban which still robbed him of football for nine months – despite the Court of Arbitration for Sport finding “no significant fault” against him.

Chelsea are lining up a move for Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana

Onana hurdled that with poise, delivering the Supercoppa and Coppa Italia for Inter, whom he helped steer to last year’s Champions League final against victors Manchester City.

The struggles, sacrifices, and successes since his formative years have offered a healthy dose of perspective.

In life, everything is temporary and so you have to find a good balance,” Onana tells Sky Sports ahead of United’s Saturday Night Football clash with Bournemouth.

“Not too high, not too low… I knew six months before, I was seen as the best. Then it can be that in six months, everything changes and you just have to deal with the situation.”

Staff at Carrington who would ordinarily be concerned by a new player making mistakes and being met with widespread abuse, were instead marvelling at Onana’s strength of character.

The 28-year-old has been described as “the biggest positive influence at the club,” but his humility sees him redirect the compliment to the goalkeeping department.

“We are in this together,” Onana, United’s reigning player of the month, says. “I want to thank Tom [Heaton], Altay [Bayındır], Richard [Hartis] and Craig [Mawson]. It’s been a difficult time, a difficult situation, a difficult start for me.

Tom Heaton came on for his debut for Man Utd at the age of 35
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Tom Heaton has been at Man Utd since 2021 as their third-choice goalkeeper

“We have to protect each other, especially when things are not going good.

“They were there with me. They told me, ‘Andre, listen, we know who you are. We were sitting in front of the TV, we were watching you playing the Champions League semi-final. You were almost close to winning against City in the final.

“‘So we all know who you are. Take your time. Most of the keepers who have been here at Manchester United had difficulty in the beginning.’

“These are the kind of messages they were giving me, and the players also helped me so much.”

Onana didn’t mind the scathing takes in the final months of 2023. “Critics are a part of life, especially when you reach this kind of level,” he shrugs.

“And especially being United goalkeeper after coming from Inter as the best. When you are new at a club, the expectation is high. If you’re lucky to have a good start, everything is quite easy.

“When you don’t have a good start, you have to be strong. You have to survive, use your opportunity, use your moment, and start to shine again.”

It’s simple maths to calculate why Onana is so beloved at Carrington. He is a measured thinker and exudes a natural warmth in his interactions.

His fluency in Spanish, French, English, Italian and his understanding of Dutch marks him the ‘golden thread’ of the dressing room.

Onana has been a sounding board for the youngsters around the first team, and has particularly shepherded 19-year-old Willy Kambwala.

Willy Kambwala arrives at London Stadium ahead of Manchester United's Premier League game against West Ham

He has also been a saving grace for United in recent months, as they stacked the unwelcome status of having conceded the most shots of any team in Europe’s top-five leagues.

“If this year is a price to pay, I’m ready,” Onana says, circling the club’s defensive injury crisis which has prompted them into a low-block approach that invites pressure.

“Last season, Manchester United didn’t concede so many shots. But I don’t think it’s a big issue because at the end of the day, football is about goals and now we are scoring a lot. We’ll receive some against us sometimes, but we have defenders that work hard and we will do everything to block the shots.

“It’s the risk we take because we are a very offensive team with the quality we have in front.”

Injuries have forced United into 31 different combinations at the back this season, which surely impacts a goalkeeper’s consistency?

“Well, it’s quite easy when you’re used to playing with the same back four,” Onana concedes but adds: “We are Manchester United, so every player around the first team has the level to belong here.

“Unfortunately we have a lot of injuries but that is an opportunity for others – like Willy, he was brilliant for us.

“Being a goalkeeper is a position with a lot of responsibility. You have to be ready to play with anyone and… I can’t complain. Of course, when you are used to playing with the same line, it’s the best, but at the moment we don’t have that.

“So we just have to deal with the situation, stay positive and look forward.”

Onana strays into Roy Keane territory, labelling the sea of shots he has to deal with as “just doing my job, it’s why they brought me here,” but he talks about “being more dominant with the ball” and assisting the attack.

Was the long kick out to Bruno for Marcus Rashford’s beauty in the Manchester derby a prime example?

“Yes, one example, but not only that,” Onana says. “It’s also to give more confidence to the players, let them know I’m the spare man and when we have the ball, I’m the one who has to find the free men.

“When you play against big teams, sometimes they go one against one, sometimes you have pressing from the No.10… so you have to recognise these kinds of situations and you have to make a decision. I’m here to take that responsibility and give confidence to my players.”

Onana declines to pick out a game for United which has showcased his best attributes because he doesn’t feel he has reached full stride yet. He does have a favourite experience though: the FA Cup quarter-final victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford.

“It was crazy,” he puffs. “I was in shock. It was just beautiful to be there. The noise, it was so loud. The joy… wow!”

Onana wants that feeling to be the norm for United fans, and he’d like Ten Hag to be the man who delivers it.

“Football doesn’t have a memory,” he says. “You deliver good today and yesterday, tomorrow you don’t deliver good and they are always going to remember what you did last. And unfortunately, you can’t change that.

“Erik is a very good manager. I’m not here to back him because he’s already big enough to back himself. He did great things for United last season. But this is football and I always say football is temporary. It is about moments, we have to know how to deal with the bad period because what we are facing this season in terms of injuries, I never saw that in my life…

“You know, we have more than 35 injuries. It’s not an excuse, especially being a United player, but these are the things you have to deal with. You cannot hide. That is reality.

“We are doing everything to turn the situation. And it will turn, I’m sure a hundred percent.”



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