In a relatively small country, nothing stays a secret for too long. As Bruno Fernandes stepped outside his home and on to the street, he was swiftly doorstepped by a reporter from the television news station SIC. "It's not the moment yet for my final message to Sporting fans," he said with an amiable smile. Would he at least confirm that going to England was his preference? "It always was," said Fernandes, without a second's hesitation.
All things come to those who wait and how Sporting Clube de Portugal’s now-erstwhile captain has waited. In the past year it was abundantly clear that Sporting couldn’t hold him much longer, and with his talent demanding a wider audience it would have been so even if they had been in better financial shape.
So Sportinguistas savoured every moment over that period, from last April's stealthy rocket from range to oust Benfica from the Taça de Portugal in the semi-final to the deflected drive that put them on the road to victory in the Taça final against Porto.
It's been a long goodbye; more so this month, with the protracted negotiations between Sporting and Manchester United – who completed the €55 million, five-and-a-half-year deal on Thursday, with the option of another year – leaving him in a strange sort of purgatory, having an impromptu farewell mini-tour in which each game looked like being his last. Fernandes's reign at the Alvalade – and it was just that – finally ended with Monday's narrow home win over Marítimo. Cristian Borja scored the winner but this Sporting victory had their number eight's fingerprints all over it, as usual.
Fernandes wore the armband, took the set pieces, drifted from centre to left to right as he made the passes, switched the play and pointed his team-mates into position when he didn’t have the ball. He almost left one final sumptuous memory for those fans who adored him, smacking the crossbar with one of his frequent, sweetly struck efforts from range.
A player not getting that elite club move (and United remain exactly that in the eyes of the vast majority of players outside England) until their mid-20s arouses the suspicions of some, and recalls a different time, which encompassed cases such as those of Gheorghe Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov.
Although it is unusual to see top talent waiting far beyond 21 to be flogged to a top club in football's modern economic climate, it does potentially offer Fernandes and United big advantages. He arrives with a much greater depth of experience than a player leaving Portugal for the Premier League would generally possess.
Fernandes has rarely treaded water. He has always had a strong sense of educating himself: after growing up on the outskirts of Porto and joining Boavista’s academy, he took the big decision to leave for Italy, and Novara, when he was 17, at an age when most players in his position would be dreaming of a future at Porto, Benfica or Sporting.
It explains much of Fernandes's wide palette now. His range of passing and ability to change the tempo are not typical of many goalscoring midfielders, but it's testament to the tactical schooling he received in Serie B and then in the top flight, with Udinese. Italy was also where he developed his steely side. Fernandes is hard-working and difficult to bully, despite his relatively slight stature.
After moving to Udine in 2013, he came under the influence of Antonio Di Natale, the club's greatest-ever player. "Bruno Fernandes irritates me," Di Natale once said, "because he's young and out of the two of us he's the one with more technical quality. He's got two incredible feet but sometimes he just coasts through games."
By the time he said that publicly, Di Natale had brought it up with Fernandes in private. He helped the young Portuguese work hard on his technique, and Fernandes acknowledges learning everything from striking the ball to better body shape from him. By the time Fernandes played an excellent season at Sampdoria in 2016-17, he had matured considerably and even though the €8.5 million Sporting paid for him after that was the second-highest fee in their history, it felt like a pretty safe bet.
Let off the leash in the Sporting midfield with William Carvalho and Rodrigo Battaglia behind him, Fernandes came into his own in the attacking realm. He showcased his ability to score and assist, usually tucked in behind Bas Dost (the only player to cost Sporting more than Fernandes).
That promising Sporting side fell apart when a group of ultras reacted furiously to their failure to reach the Champions League in 2018, invading the training base and attacking the players. Fernandes was one of nine to unilaterally rescind their contracts but agreed to come back – and made a point of signing the same terms as before, keen not to profit from the majority of the fans' misery. Those supporters will miss him badly and if United get half of the productivity Sporting have been treated to, Fernandes will have gone a long way to remedying their midfield shortcomings. – Guardian