Nine clubs, eight years, one memorable goal: Federico Macheda's story so far
NOVARA, Italy -- The black Range Rover, with British number plates and a baby seat in the back, swings into a car park in the centre of Novara, a town of 105,000 in the shadow of the snow-capped Alps. The car belongs to Federico Macheda, centre-forward for the town's second-tier football team.
It has been eight years since Macheda was responsible for one of the most dramatic moments in Manchester United history, a late winner on his debut as a 17-year-old. While he's made a good living as a professional since then, he has also suffered adversity.
Over a coffee before training, Macheda sits down with ESPN FC to tell his story for the first time.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ESPN FC: Describe your upbringing.
Macheda: I grew up in Ponte de Nona, a crazy area of Rome. It was not a posh place. We had social housing and there were lots of crazy people around. Most of them are my friends; they were then and they are now. I made a lot of mistakes as a kid, which I look back on and think "you can't do that." But I did do that; petty stuff that got me in trouble.
It wasn't the best place to live but I was comfortable there because I was surrounded by friends. I also had my dad to pick me up if I got into trouble. He used to work at night as a security guard. My mum worked as a maid in a hotel. If dad didn't work I couldn't go training. He would work at night and take me training in the day.
From the age of 11, I had to take care of my little brother in the day. He was eight. We played football all the time. Financially, money was tight for my family. We didn't have holidays. Never. Once every few years, we'd go to the sea for a day. One of my Lazio teammates invited me to go on holiday with his family to the south of Italy. I would take €20 for one month and they would pay for everything.
ESPN FC: So you were a young Lazio player and fan of the club. Who did you look up to?
Macheda: [Matias] Almeyda, [Alen] Boksic and [Juan Sebastian] Veron. My uncle and my cousin would take me to watch Lazio. They lived near the Stadio Olimpico. My cousin is a big Lazio ultra, but he got banned for five years for fighting. From the age of 11, I got from tickets from Lazio. Things went well for me there.
ESPN FC: And at school?
Macheda: Forget it! I had to repeat the same year four times and I couldn't pass it. School wasn't for me, I just couldn't do it. I was given the option of doing the equivalent of three years in one year so that I could finally pass an exam. I failed.
I had one teacher who would later became the head of the school. When I made my debut for United, she called me and said: "Come back, I'll let you pass! Come for two days." I went back aged 17 and having made my United debut. I sat an exam with 13-year-old boys and I still didn't pass!
ESPN FC: How did you end up at Old Trafford?
Macheda: When a friend said to me: "I hear Man United is after you; there's a Welsh guy who has been watching you," I ignored it. I didn't know the story of Man United but I knew it was a big club with big players. My parents were sounded out informally. I had no interest in joining Man United. People were talking about me training with the first team at Lazio, about a contract worth €2,000; a huge amount for my family.
The guy working for United began to convince me and my family was invited to Manchester. When United played in Rome, Sir Alex Ferguson invited my family to the team hotel where he gave a shirt with my name and the No. 9 on the back. They also gave me one from Cristiano Ronaldo. I began to think: "Wow, they really want me a lot."
And this was Ferguson saying this; at Lazio, I'd never even spoken to the first-team manager. I was also free to move as Italian clubs couldn't give a contract to a player until he was 16. I spoke to my family and said: "I'll only go if you come with me." And it wasn't like they had money in Italy. We didn't have enough to go to a restaurant.
So I moved to Manchester on a scholarship and I earned about £600 a month. That wasn't enough for a family to live on; there had been a misunderstanding about money and my father got angry in a meeting. We threatened to leave but United gave us a loan against my future contract.
ESPN FC: What was your first impression of Manchester?
Macheda: I stayed in digs for the first month until my family came. The English food was horrible compared to Italy. I couldn't speak English; I didn't have a laptop. The weather made me depressed. I wanted to leave after one day.
The next day, a guy who could speak Italian took me to the Trafford Centre and said: "Things will get better when you start training tomorrow." The next day I was having breakfast with Ronaldo and [Ryan] Giggs! Fergie came to say hello. I thought: "Wait a minute, you need to stay here." Day after day, things got better. I missed my friends in Rome but I knew I had to make a sacrifice.
ESPN FC: How did the football go?
Macheda: I scored on my debut for the under-18s and was promoted to the reserves when I was 16, in a good team with Danny Simpson, Danny Welbeck, Chris Eagles and Gerard Pique. My first game was away at Liverpool as a sub. In my first start I scored and played with [Mikael] Silvestre. I was honoured to play with him; he was a proper player.
My English started to improve and, by the time I was 17, I was in the reserves for every game under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Warren Joyce. They made me work very, very hard, but I was flying and scoring for fun. I was hungry, aggressive and playing well. So well that Ferguson came to me and said: "If you do well tonight then there's a big chance that you're going to be on the bench on Sunday."
I thought: "Wow! F------ hell!" I was a baby, just 17. I looked at my friend Davide Petrucci, a fellow Italian, and said: "Did he really say that?" Davide nodded his head.
ESPN FC: What happened next?
Macheda: I scored three goals at Newcastle! That was a big message to Ferguson: I was ready, I was full of confidence. I felt the support of the boss of the club and I also knew that Wayne Rooney was suspended, Dimitar Berbatov was injured and Carlos Tevez was returning from playing an international game in Argentina. Carlos made it back but he was tired. There was Danny Welbeck too, so I knew that I was going to be on the bench.
I didn't tell my family until after training on the Saturday, the eve of the game.
"Tomorrow we go to Old Trafford," I said to my father
"What for?" replied my dad.
"I'm on the bench."
He was shocked.
ESPN FC: And the next day?
Macheda: We drove to Old Trafford on the morning of the match. Unlike now, the team didn't stay in a hotel before matches. I was excited and scared. I wondered what I would do if I came on.
I went into the dressing room of the reigning European champions. I'd only [trained] with those big-name players twice in the previous two days and I didn't know them; I was a reserve player.
ESPN FC: And what was the impact of that game?
Macheda: My life changed that day and it has never been the same since. Nobody gave a f--- who I was before that goal but the day after I would go to the Trafford Centre and have 100 people around me. I enjoyed it at the start.
To this moment, it remains the best football day of my life. I woke up and I was on the front page of newspapers all around the world. My friends were calling me from Rome and crying down the phone. I went into training and all the staff were high-fiving me and saying well done.
I was on the bench [vs. Porto in the Champions League] but didn't play, but I came off the bench in the next league game at Sunderland and scored the winning goal again! I'd only been on the pitch one minute when I scored. Two winning goals in one week.
I started my first United game in the FA Cup semifinal against Everton. I had a great game and played 90 minutes. Our very young team played well but unfortunately lost on penalties. I was training with the first team every day, improving as a player. I was happy.
ESPN FC: What did the manager say to you?
Macheda: I had a meeting with him and my mum and dad came along. He wanted to make sure that I was OK, that my feet were on the ground. I don't think I ever became big-headed; where I'm from you can't be like that.
Fergie also told me that he'd look after me and, when I was 18, I signed my first proper contract. I stayed in the reserve-team dressing room, though.
ESPN FC: How were the first-team players with you?
Macheda: Fine. [Paul] Scholes was incredible in training and Ronaldo would work so hard; he had an addiction to work and improve.
ESPN FC: I spoke to Nemanja Vidic about you. He spoke well of you as a person and said you were talented, but also that you could have pushed yourself more.
Macheda: He's right. Maybe I was just happy to be there. Maybe I didn't push myself to the limit to make the next step because I felt that I had the faith of the manager. Fergie loved me. I was happy with my life but maybe I was too happy -- with a big contract -- and should have pushed myself a lot more.
ESPN FC: You played 36 games for United, scoring five goals and setting up six more. But you were never a regular starter.
Macheda: I had a few runs of games but I needed to be playing every week. Fergie wanted me to go on loan; I could see that was sensible. Many Premier League clubs came in for me including Everton and Sunderland.
But I wanted to play in Italy, in Serie A. Fergie did not agree and said I should play in England, where he could keep an eye on me. He said he didn't have the same power in Italy. I insisted on Italy and that was the worst mistake of my life.
ESPN FC: You went to Sampdoria on loan in 2011.
Macheda: Another mistake. I should have listened to Fergie. Sampdoria had been in the Champions League playoff that season; they had a good team. I was going to replace Antonio Cassano and play up front with [Giampaolo] Pazzini. I started well and scored straight away against Udinese, then started against Milan, Napoli, Juventus, Roma.
But then they sold Pazzini to Inter Milan. I was only 19; I couldn't take the responsibility that he had. We went down the table and I started to get strong criticism, with people saying: "He's come from Man United; who does he think he is?" For the first time in my life my confidence dropped. I began to ask myself: "Am I good enough?" And I started to get injured.
ESPN FC: So you went back to Manchester.
Macheda: My family was still there. Things had changed at the club; I wasn't going to be playing. I went to QPR and needed an operation on my ankle after one month. Then I went to Stuttgart in the Bundesliga. That was a good experience and I went to live there with my girlfriend of three years, but I didn't play a lot. They played with one striker and I usually played on the left wing, which is not my best position.
Those loan spells of six months didn't help me. Six months is not easy, especially at the top level. You can make a difference in the Championship in three months but you have to be at your absolute fittest to do that at the top level. And, to be at that level, you need to be playing games.
ESPN FC: What happened next?
Macheda: I needed to play every week, to be a footballer. You're not a footballer playing 10 and 20 minutes. I decided to step down a level [and went] to Doncaster Rovers in 2013. From the Premier League and Serie A and the Bundesliga to Doncaster, who'd just been promoted [to the Championship].
Paul Dickov, the manager, called me and said I'd play every game. I started well with two goals on my debut against Nottingham Forest and then the only goal in an away win at Sheffield Wednesday a week later. I was playing well and every week, until I pulled my hamstring against Leicester. I came back and didn't do as well.
The town of Doncaster was different to anywhere I'd lived too and not the best. My girlfriend was my saviour; she came everywhere with me. We met at school. She was the best in the class, I was the worst!
We wanted to move and I went to Birmingham -- a bigger city with more life -- at the start of 2014. I was also in the last year of my Man United contract and wanted to be playing for a bigger club. Lee Clark was manager and I was flying. I scored 10 in 10 starts and my confidence was back. Even though I joined in January, I finished as Birmingham's top scorer.
ESPN FC: In the summer of 2014, you were an in-form free agent.
Macheda: Cardiff City, who'd just been relegated from the Premier League, offered me a three-year contract under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It was a big club and Ole really wanted me. I had offers from three clubs in Serie A -- Palermo and Atalanta for sure -- but I wanted to play in the English leagues where I had been doing well again.
The contract was great, but then I got injured in preseason and missed the first eight games. I scored when I came back on my debut. Then Ole got sacked and the new manager Russell Slade started to get rid of the players on big contracts, who Ole had signed. Russell wanted me to stay and I did OK under him.
Then the back injury returned; a slipped disc pushing on my nerve. The pain was terrible. After an operation I went back but had no chances. A loan to Forest followed, but I wasn't fully fit to play. I started the first three games but was exhausted after 55 minutes. Cardiff paid up my contract in August 2016.
ESPN FC: So, by August 2016, you were an out-of-work footballer?
Macheda: Finding a club was difficult. I trained with Watford for three weeks as my agent had a contact there. Brighton showed interest, but they were doing well and didn't want to take a chance. I didn't want to be a backup striker.
I was very worried. I couldn't find anyone who wanted to take me and I'm a good player. I couldn't understand it but, because I didn't play last season, it was difficult. I said to myself: "If you want to play again then you have to make a decision before the January transfer window, when the market is open again and there are lot of players available."
I was put in touch with the director of football at Novara in Serie B. They want to push for promotion and I'm playing every week, enjoying it. I want to be injury-free for one season. I'm still only 25; I'm working harder than I've ever worked. I eat better than I ever have; I train before training. I don't do the minimum anymore like I did at United. I'll regret that for all my life, but I'm still young. I don't want any more regrets.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.