The Beautiful Game, the Historic Club, and the Pride of Armenia
BY ARAM KAVOUKJIAN
Ever since I was a little kid, my favorite thing to watch on TV was a soccer game. No matter what club was playing or which league it was, if it was on TV, I wanted to watch it. This passion was passed on to me from my grandfather. From a young age, both he and his younger brother played on club teams in Armenia (at that time Soviet Armenia). From a young age, I started playing soccer too, and even played several years as a goalie for LMU’s Club Soccer team.
So, my favorite thing to do on Saturdays was to spend the entire day watching the English Premier League with my grandfather. We would sit and watch game after game after game. After the EPL games were over, we would watch anything from the German Bundesliga to the Mexican Liga MX. At a young age, I didn’t really have a favorite team, and neither did my grandfather. He had taught me to enjoy the game regardless of which team scored. His passion had taught me to cheer for the sport, rather than a team or a club. As my grandfather got older, he would rely on me for the latest futbol-related news. This was when watching the games became more than just “a game,” but a real passion.
As I started to get older and heard my friends talk about their favorite team, I decided I needed a favorite team too. In middle school, I decided that Manchester United was the team for me. Everything about them — the club, their history, Sir Alex Ferguson, and an incredibly talented squad – was exciting. They included the likes of a young Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Ruud van Nisterlooy and more. As the years went on, the club became a part of me. The days they won, the sun would shine brighter; the days United lost, the sky seemed gloomier.
It wasn’t until the 2006/2007 campaign that Manchester United won a title for me to witness as a supporter. The next few years were some of the best years in club history. United was truly unstoppable.
2008 was really unforgettable. Sir Alex Ferguson led Manchester United to win the FA Community Shield, the English Premier League, and the UEFA Champions League. That year also marked the 50-year anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster. This was one of the first times where I truly understood the importance of the club’s history.
Fast forward to the 2011-2012 season. After a very close title race, Manchester United lost the title to their cross-town rivals, Manchester City, on goal difference. After 38 games, both Manchester United and Manchester City had finished with an equal number of points, 89, but Manchester City had a better goal difference, so they were crowned champions.
During the same time, Armenia’s national team was having the best qualifying run they had ever had. It was during this campaign run that Henrikh Mkhitaryan was getting his much needed international attention. Together with Yura Movsisyan and the rest of the Armenian national team, they were one game away from qualifying for the knockout stages of their first major International tournament. The final game was a very controversial one, where Armenia’s goalie was given a red card within the first thirty minutes for a “handball” outside of the box. Armenia ended up losing that much 2-1, which resulted in Ireland moving on through to the tournament.
The next few seasons, Mkhitaryan was shaking up the Ukrainian Premier League with Shakhtar Donetsk. In his final season at Shakhtar (2012 – 2013 campaign), he set a record for the most goals scored in a single season in the Ukranian Premier League. For the next three years, Mkhitaryan played for die Schwarzgelben (BVB’s nickname, meaning The Black and Yellow).
The first two seasons at Dortmund (2012-2013 and 2013-2014 season), Henrikh had a difficult time adapting to the Bundesliga, and securing his starting spot on the roster. During the same time, Manchester United was also going through some very difficult times. At the end of the 2012-2013 season, Sir Alex Ferguson retired after twenty-seven years as the manager, having guided the club through almost 1500 matches. He left behind a legacy, having won thirty-seven titles.
After Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Manchester United went through a series of managerial changes. In the summer of 2014, Manchester United appointed Louis Van Gaal as the new manager. After a season full of streaks (both winning and losing streaks), United finished the season in 4th place, qualifying for the Champion’s League play-off round.
The summer of 2015 saw Mkhitaryan’s rebirth at Dortmund. Under new manager, Tuchel, Mkhitaryan had his best season to date, scoring eleven goals and providing fourteen assists. His performance in the 2015 – 2016 campaign won him the title of both Bundesliga Midfielder of the Season, and Bundesliga Player of the Season. This was a title that no other Armenian had won. He was single-handedly putting Armenia on the footballing map.
The 2015-2016 season was yet another season that United fan’s want to forget. After yet another disappointing season managed by Louis Van Gaal, the United manager was sacked after beating Crystal Palace 2-1 in the F.A. Cup Final. Less than a week after sacking Louis Van Gaal, Manchester United appointed Jose Mourinho, ex-Chelsea villain/manager, as the new manager at United. As a Manchester United fan, I didn’t know how I felt about this. I knew that Mourinho had a record full of victories and had lead several teams to success, but his personality and history of singling out players scared me. He was also known to “park the bus” — an extremely defensive and boring style of futbol.
However, Mourinho started off strong, with some big name signings, including Eric Bailly, a young Ivorian defender, Swedish giant, Zlatan Ibrahimović, followed by a £26 Million signing of Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Finally, finishing off with an £89 Million world record deal for Paul Pobga to return back to Manchester United.
As excited as I was for the new signings and an Armenian superstar joining the Premier League, I didn’t believe it was the right move for him. After having one of the best seasons of his life at Dortmund, I thought it would be the best for him to stay there. I also wasn’t sure how he would adapt to the English Premier League, and whether he would be able to compete for a starting spot against a fully stacked midfield that included Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Memphis Depay, Jesse Lingard, Ashley Young and more. I also thought it was the wrong time in Mkhitaryan’s career to be making such a big change, but Dortmund wanted to sell him before his contract expired. I also thought that Mourinho’s style of futbol wouldn’t be a good fit for Heno.
Growing up, whenever I would order the newest Manchester United apparel, I loved customizing it with my last name on the back, just to have an Armenian last name on the back of a United jersey. I always dreamed of going to Old Trafford, wearing a United jersey that had an “–ian” on the back of it, and proudly waving an Armenian flag in the crowds. Even though I was uncertain about Heno’s United move, I was damm proud to have an Armenian join my favorite club and have his name on the back of a United jersey.
The next few months seemed difficult for Heno at Manchester United. He really had to fight for his spot on the roster. His fight to win a starting spot took a big detour after he was injured on international duty, in a friendly match against Czech Republic. Ten days after his injury, he landed a starting spot in his first Manchester Derby (Manchester United vs. Manchester City), but it was obvious that Mkhitartyan was not fully fit; his touches were bad, his give and goes weren’t working, and he couldn’t keep up with the pace. This led to Jose Mourinho subbing him off at half time.
Following United’s defeat to City in the Manchester Derby, Mkhitaryan didn’t reappear on the team roster until November. Jose Mourinho said that Mkhitaryan needed to work harder in order to prove himself. This for me was really tough to hear and I thought it would be the beginning of Heno’s downfall. As much as I loved Mkhitaryan, the success of the club was still a priority for me and the team, and I wasn’t sure if Heno would be able to prove himself as a key part of it. I feared he would be yet another Ángel Di María or Radamel Falcao. What I hated more than anything else was listening to all the Armenians criticize Jose Mourinho and the club for Heno’s downfall, including several of my uncles and friends. This was when Heno proved us wrong. He trained on days that the rest of the team had off and he didn’t let any of Mourinho’s criticism get to him. He fought for his spot!
His hard work was rewarded three weeks later, when he was given a starting spot in United’s 4-0 Europa League defeat against Feyenoord. His performance earned him a spot on the United roster in their next EPL match just three days later against a strong West Ham side. Henrikh was subbed on in the second half, and his performance impressed the manager enough to earn him a spot in the starting XI in their next match. On November 30th in Manchester United’s EFLC 4-1 victory against West Ham, Mkhitaryan had two beautiful assists and won his first Man of the Match award as a Red Devil. He continued his run of excellence with starting spots in the next three games, against Everton, Zorya, and Tottenham, scoring two important goals, his first, a solo run weaving through Zorya’s defense, and his second a powerful strike against Tottenham which proved to be the game winner. Heno was carried off in the 85th minute, after a hard tackle by Tottenham’s Danny Rose. Seeing Heno in pain, getting carried off by the medical crew, really scared us all again. We feared that after finally showing Mourinho and United fans all across the world what he is capable of, Heno’s injury would be another huge set back.
In the following days, we read the news that Mkhitaryan would only miss one match, and was set to return on Boxing Day against Sunderland. Sixty-two minutes in, Mkhitaryan was subbed on for Jesse Lingard. His presence on the pitch was quickly apparent, as he helped change the entire attacking style of the game in United’s favor. In the 86th minute, Heno scored what he called “the best goal of his career” — a beautiful “scorpion goal” that impressed millions of viewers and fans across the world.
In two weeks’ time, I will be making my first journey to Old Trafford to watch one of the greatest Premier League rivalries: Manchester United vs. Liverpool. It will be a quick four-day trip, including traveling from Los Angeles to Manchester and back, but will be one that many United fans wouldn’t pass up. It will be an experience that has been on my bucket list for many years, and one that I wish I could experience with my grandfather. My dream of one day being able to wave an Armenian flag at Old Trafford will soon be a reality. We will be waving the flag high and singing the Mkhitaryan chant nonstop!
To Henrikh Mkhitaryan, thank you for inspiring so many Armenians across the world. Thank you for proving me wrong! (I apologize for ever doubting you.) Thank you for teaching so many kids across the world that if you work hard and fight for what you want, you will get it. Thank you for allowing so many fans around the world to have an Armenian last name on the back of a United jersey. You said that the move to United was one that you had always dreamed of, but this move not only fulfilled your dreams, but many Armenian United fans’ dreams too. On January 15th, 2017 don’t forget to look up in the Sir Alex Ferguson stands; you will see my friend and I, waving the Armenian flag high. And if it’s not too much to ask, we would love to see you score your first United hat trick, live, against Liverpool!
“Whoa Mkhitaryan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, he’s our midfield Armenian!”