Herrera talks Europa League final, best position, Mourinho, captaincy, more
Ander Herrera will head to Stockholm on Wednesday with hopes of helping Manchester United win the Europa League and secure a place in next season's Champions League.
The Spanish midfielder has become a key part of Jose Mourinho's team, and ahead of the final against Ajax, United's newly crowned Player of the Year gave an exclusive interview to ESPN FC.
Q: How does it feel to be Manchester United's Player of the Year?
A: So happy. It's a big award. For me it means a lot because if you see the list of the players who have won it, it is just amazing. Big players, big legends of the club. I'm so proud to be part of that list, but I'm not going to stop. This award just pushes me to keep working and playing for this club.
Q: Were you surprised to win?
A: Yes. We have amazing players in the team right now. I knew it was going to be difficult because [Zlatan Ibrahimovic] was there, Antonio [Valencia] has played an amazing season as well. But I'm very happy and I'm very thankful to our fans for the affection they give me. It's amazing.
Q: How do you assess your own season?
A: I'm happy but the season is not finished yet. We can really make a great season, but it is all about Wednesday. I'm happy with my performance, but I'm never happy enough, because I think if you are too happy you can get relaxed, and that feeling is not good. You have to keep playing and keep focused on the next step, and the next step is the final. We can make a great season, but it is not going to be easy because Ajax want to do it as well.
Q: You had to work your way into the team under Jose Mourinho; were you ever worried it might not happen?
A: I always believe in my qualities. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. I always think I can give things to the team. Of course, in the beginning of every season you never know how important or how consistent you are going to be because there are 25 players in the squad. Everyone wants to play and everyone has the quality to play. You have to work very, very hard to become an important player. But if I didn't think like that, that I could give a lot of things to the team, I wouldn't play for Manchester United. Every preseason I start with the best mentality, with the strongest attitude and looking forward to work. You never know how far you are going to be. But I trust in my qualities and my capability to work for the team.
Q: Gary Neville said he thought you were "too nice" to play in midfield for United but that you have now proved him wrong.
A: I don't know what he means when he says "nice"! I think, in my first two seasons, I try to work very hard for the team. I played 71 games for the team, so that's important, as well. But of course, this season I made one step forward. Also my role in the team has changed. But I think everyone knows, and Gary Neville knows, that with confidence you perform better. I am very thankful also to him because I really appreciate what he said about me. And I know he's a Manchester United fan, so I tell him the same as I tell everyone: I will not stop here. You never know if you are going to play well or not as good, but what I'm going to do is give everything in every minute I am on the pitch wearing the Man United shirt. That's my attitude.
Q: How has your role in the team changed this season?
A: The manager had a conversation and he told me I was going to be an important player if I do what he wanted me to do. I am always open to learning. I am always open to adapting myself to a new role and a new position. It is not so easy to play for Manchester United, for example, as a No. 10. When you play for a big club, a No. 10 has to score 10 or 15 goals and make 10 or 15 assists, so it's not so easy. So I say to myself, if I want to play every game for Manchester United, which is my dream, I have to do something else for the club and for the manager. I think we have a good understanding between the manager and myself. We understand football the same way and we think the same; if you give everything, you are going to give things to the team.
Q: Do you now consider yourself a defensive midfielder?
A: I can play at No. 6, No. 8 or No. 10. I have been asked a few times about it and I always say I don't have a preference because sometimes you perform better as a No. 6, sometimes it's better to be No. 8 and sometimes it's better to be No. 10. I just try to give solutions to the manager. He knows I can play at 6, 8 or 10. Even No. 2, that I did against Everton at home. And if one day he wants me to play as a keeper, I will try my best. I think that's the right attitude and it's the attitude every Manchester United player has to have.
Q: Have you allowed yourself to get excited about the Europa League final?
A: I am excited. I lost one when I was at [Athletic] Bilbao and so I want to win it. We have to be calm because we are going to face a very talented team. [Ajax] are a massive club and they want to win a European trophy as well, so we have to respect them. It is a final, and a final is never easy. It will be tough. They have a lot of young players. Sometimes that means they don't have too much pressure. They want to enjoy it, and it's going to be tough. But we are Manchester United and we have to go there and try to win.
Q: The manager has had to rotate his squad in the last few weeks, and results have dipped; has that affected your confidence ahead of meeting Ajax?
A: I think the manager has played his team in the smartest way. After 56, 57 games playing almost every week Thursday and Sunday, even sometimes playing Thursday night and Sunday morning, it's not so easy. The manager has experience in football and he knew it was going to be impossible to play every game with the same players. The Premier League is very tough and every team can beat you. He knows what he has had to do. That's why we have two titles already and we are going to fight for the third.
Q: It is seen as Europe's second competition, but how hard is it to win the Europa League?
A: It's very hard overall. Premier League games are never easy. I think the manager has said as well, in other countries the big teams can rotate players and keep winning. In England, that's not possible. It's not possible because, in my opinion, it is the best organisation in the world. Every team is capable of winning every game against every opponent. The timing could have been better. I have played a few games Thursday and then Sunday, and when you are doing the warming up you feel that you are still in recovery. But we don't have excuses. We will go there to try to win the final, and that's it.
Q: Is the Europa League trophy or earning Champions League football more important in Stockholm on Wednesday night?
A: First of all it's a European trophy. That's what I am going to have in my mind. We will have time to think about different things afterwards. It's a European trophy this club has never won. We can make history for the club, so that's the only thing I have in my mind. Always respecting the opponent because they want to make history, as well. But I don't have anything else in my mind apart from winning the final and trying to get the trophy for this club.
Q: How important is being in the Champions League for a club like United?
A: I don't want to think about if, if, if. I just want to play the game as good as possible, try to win, and you will be able to ask me later about it.
Q: Could this season be a platform for bigger and better things for United under Jose Mourinho?
A: It could be an amazing season and an amazing start for the manager. I don't want to talk about if we win it because we have to face a very good team, but I said after the FA Cup final last season we were building something good here, and it is confirmed now.
Q: How do you feel when you hear United fans talk about you as a future club captain?
A: I am very thankful when I hear that from the fans, but [as] we say in Spain, they are massive words. The captains of this club are legends. The current one is Wayne Rooney but also Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic. It is a list of amazing players and legends of the club. I prefer to keep calm and to keep my mind calm because I feel that I still have to do more for the club. I still have to win things for the club to deserve that. So I will keep calm. We also have some experienced players on the team, who have been here longer, like Chris Smalling, David De Gea, also Juan [Mata] came before me. So I am thankful to the fans for thinking that about me but I don't want to think about it yet.
Q: Why do you think the fans have taken to you so well?
A: Because I give everything. I just try to give everything every time I am on the pitch. As a football player, you know that sometimes you play better than other times. But what I don't negotiate is the effort on the pitch. I just try to give everything, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully, but I just try to give everything every time I am on the pitch, and I think the fans appreciate that.
Q: Is there a chance you could end your career at Old Trafford?
A: Yes, but to finish your career in this club you have to perform every season, and it's not so easy. I think a lot of players have the quality to make a very good season, but the most difficult thing is the consistency. I am still 27. Hopefully one day you can compare me with legends of the club, but you cannot do it yet. I have to perform for a long time for the biggest and the greatest club in England, so it's not so easy.
Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.