The ultimate Manchester United unsung hero who Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho both loved
His Man Utd career spanned the eras of Ferguson, Louis van Gaal, Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Old Trafford.
If you ask any Manchester United fan old enough to remember what was happening at the club in the summer of 2009, they'll remember being somewhat concerned by the transfers that took place in the transfer window.
After back-to-back Champions League finals, United saw both Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez leave to be replaced by an injury-prone Michael Owen and a £16million winger from Ecuador who had been spent the previous three seasons with Wigan Athletic, Antonio Valencia.
While the Owen transfer went just as many had predicted it would at the time — flashes of good moments and important goals, without much else — Valencia managed to forge out, against the odds, a largely successful career at the club over a 10-year period.
Yet when conversations are brought up around the better wingers or full-backs that the club have had during the Premier League era, his name is rarely mentioned.
When he was signed, Sir Alex Ferguson revealed that they had been 'admiring him for two or three months' and that he believed 'his pace and ability will make a significant contribution to the team.'
As usual, he was right.
A complaint often thrown at Valencia was that he wasn't flashy enough, didn't have the skill or flair of Ronaldo and that his left foot was just to stand on.
But it didn't matter, because Ferguson quickly found a way to get the best from him. United would often isolate Valencia against the full-back in one-on-one situations and then it was just a matter of shifting the ball a yard and either smashing a ball across the box or dinking a cross towards the back post.
During his debut season at the club the Ecuador international registered seven goals and 13 assists, playing a big part in helping club talisman Wayne Rooney to a career-high 34 goals in all competitions.
The following season started well, only for him to suffer a horror leg break and ankle dislocation against Rangers after his foot got caught in the turf following a challenge from Kirk Broadfoot.
He was expected to miss the rest of the season but eventually made it back in time for the Champions League final that season — after a visit from Ferguson at his home gave him a boost. While the Scottish manager was known for his man management skills, this was him going above and beyond for a player that he deemed super-important to his squad.
After his return, Ferguson spoke about just how much he rated the winger. “He is an outstanding footballer, who is very capable of being a threat.
'His understanding of the game is terrific. He has a great tactical brain. The boy has everything, balance, power and speed.”
Those attributes were part of the reason why he asked for Valencia to fill in at right-back for a short period the following season. With regular options Phil Jones and Rafael Da Silva injured, Valencia stepped in but admitted that he had no plans to do it long-term.
“The manager asked me to fill in at right-back because two or three of my team-mates were injured,” Valencia said at the time.
“I was obviously happy to do that, especially when he mentioned that it was only for a brief period! I am more comfortable in my own position.”
He played well and while he eventually returned to the wing, it was the start of a second phase in his United career. That year (2011/12) Valencia won the Player's Player of the Year and Fan's Player of the Year as the Reds missed out on the title on goal difference due to that Sergio Aguero goal.
His performances also earned him the famous No.7 shirt, which was initially given to Owen when the two players joined the club together.
The following season saw a big dip in form for Valencia, however, as he registered just one goal and eight assists in 40 appearances although United won their 20th league title. It was also the end of the Ferguson era, as he rode off into the sunset at the end of a glorious career.
The following season under David Moyes saw Valencia return to his favourite No.25 shirt, which weighed less heavy on his shoulders, but also saw his poor form continue on the right wing. Defenders had smartened up to his moves and he'd lost that burst of pace and acceleration that once made him unstoppable.
Then came Louis van Gaal, who began the full-time transition to right-back. The Dutch coach immediately saw the physical abilities of the former Wigan man and with the signing of Angel Di Maria that summer, the move happened seamlessly.
Valencia was coached into the role and used his speed and excellent stamina to help overlap on the right wing from a deeper position. While he struggled positionally on occasion, he made the role his own and by the end of the year was the undisputed first option in the position, with United often playing wing-backs in a 5-3-2 system.
“I quite enjoy it, I’m happy there,” he said as Van Gaal’s first season drew to a close. “It works well and I’ve played a lot there this season.”
“This is different to the position I’m used to playing in, where you can be less cautious when attacking.
“It’s been a hard position to learn, but the key is to keep your concentration for the entire 90 minutes. You’ve really got to be on the ball for all that time.”
The following season Valencia played the full 120 minutes as United lifted the FA Cup for the first time since 2004, beating Crystal Palace 2-1 after extra-time.
That win wasn't enough to save Van Gaal's job, but when Jose Mourinho arrived at the club his position was as secure as ever. The Portuguese manager revealed shortly after joining that he had previously tried to sign Valencia and that he was perfect for the right-back role.
“I tried to sign Antonio when I was at Madrid,” Mourinho said. “Even though he was not playing right-back at the time, I thought he could be phenomenal in that position.”
In Mourinho's first season with Valencia as the first-choice right-back, United won the Europa League, League Cup and Community Shield. His pace and power was still there for all to see, but he had improved positionally and in one-on-one defensive scenarios he was almost unbeatable. He was the perfect Mourinho defender.
With Michael Carrick retired and Rooney moved on, Valencia was appointed permanent captain at United in 2018 — he'd come a long way from the underwhelming signing from Wigan. And yes, his form and fitness deteriorated somewhat and he eventually fell out of favour that season, with Mourinho beginning to prefer fellow winger-turned-defender Ashley Young.
His release after the final game of the 2018/19 season — with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the wheel — was a relatively quiet affair as he bowed on when being substituted during the 2-0 defeat to Cardiff that marked the end of a forgettable season, both for the player and United.
Valencia returned to Ecuador, before retiring from the game entirely earlier this year.
Some United fans will remember the second half of his tenure at the club and perhaps forget why others regard him as one of the best pieces of business during Ferguson's long reign.
Trophies, reliability, availability, ability and a passion for the shirt. Valencia even has a big United tattoo.
Antonio Valencia had it all and will forever go down as an underrated great at the club.