It was said with such self-confidence — even a hint of swagger — that the words could easily have come from the mouth of Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I told you how calm and cool I am,” said Anthony Elanga, who appears to be the latest young star to come out of Manchester United. “I just want … to lead like I’m the best player on the pitch. Make the defender scared.”
Elanga had just made the latest telling intervention in his breakthrough season at United — a coolly taken equalizer late in a 1-1 draw at Atlético Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday — and, moments later, he’d be praised by his coach as a “role model.”
“I wish a few other players would take him as an example,” United manager Ralf Rangnick said.
Talk about a rise to prominence.
Elanga is a 19-year-old Swede who speaks with a strong Mancunian accent and plays like someone living out a fantasy.
Because he pretty much is.
Try telling the 11-year-old Elanga who left the southern Swedish city of Malmo with his mother and sisters to move to Manchester in 2013 that, less than nine years later, he’d be starring for one of the world’s biggest clubs, playing alongside — and often outshining — Ronaldo, the five-time world player of the year, and Marcus Rashford, England’s national treasure whose place in United’s team is being seriously threatened by Elanga.
These are pinch-yourself times for a winger who performs with a smile on his face and seemingly without any pressure on his shoulders.
“He is playing as if, for him, a dream comes true,” Rangnick said. “It’s just joy and fun to watch him play.”
That description will sound familiar to Ian Forder.
It was Forder who was running the under-13 team of Hattersley FC, a club just outside Manchester, when he came across Elanga, who had just arrived in England and was looking for somewhere to play. Elanga’s father, Joseph, played at left back for Cameroon and was in the squad for the 1998 World Cup. Forder was immediately impressed with the kid.
“After 10 minutes of his first session, I could see the quality that Anthony possessed and I found myself giving the signing-on forms to Daniella (Elanga’s mother),” Forder recalled.
“He is such a gifted, well-mannered young man that I had the pleasure to coach.”
In Elanga’s first season at Hattersley, he scored 14 goals and set up 27 others in just 14 games and was the team’s player of the year. He was recommended to United by the father of a boy who played alongside Elanga and ended up signing a contract with the Premier League club having also had a trial at Manchester City.
Elanga is still in touch with the guys at Hattersley and it’s hoped he will hand out the club’s end-of-season awards this year.
That’s if he’s not too busy.
After all, he is now a key member of the senior squad, getting starts ahead of the likes of England internationals Rashford and Jesse Lingard with Rangnick willing to give Elanga more minutes in the first team than his predecessor, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Indeed, more opportunities have opened up in United’s attack with Anthony Martial joining Sevilla on loan and Mason Greenwood currently suspended.
What’s notable about Elanga is his work rate, his movement and increasingly his eye for goal.
In just the last five days, he has scored goals against Leeds, one of United’s biggest rivals, and at Atlético on the biggest stage in European football. He has three in his last eight games.
“He plays with no fear,” former United defender Rio Ferdinand said in his role as a TV pundit for BT Sport. “All he wants to do is impress — he’s desperate to go out there and put his name in the lights.
“There’s an honesty to his game, that raw honesty you love to see when you see a young player come into the team. That willingness to run for balls that others may consider maybe dead balls. He tries things without fear of getting criticized.”
Ferdinand said a couple of former United players, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, had a similar work ethic that made them appreciated by the club’s fans.
The supporters have already created a song for Elanga, to the tune of “Rhythm Is A Dancer,” by Snap!
Elanga is eligible to play for England, but has already represented Sweden’s youth teams at under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels and looks set for a long career with the senior team.
For United, too, at this rate.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80