Henrikh Mkhitaryan: 'My dad inspired me - I hope he is proud looking down'
There is not a day that goes by when Henrikh Mkhitaryan does not think about the father who was cruelly taken away from him when he was seven.
Two decades have passed since Hamlet Mkhitaryan’s death from a brain tumour aged just 33 but it is the memory of his beloved dad, the former professional footballer in whose footsteps he followed, that will provide the Armenia midfielder’s inspiration as he attempts to help turn Manchester United into a team of successful show-stoppers once again.
“He was my drive, he was my motivation, because when I was young he was playing football professionally and I was always dreaming about going with him to the training ground,” said Mkhitaryan, a £26.3 million signing from Borussia Dortmund and new manager Jose Mourinho’s third summer recruit at United.
“Because of him, when we came back to Armenia [as a family], it was my dream to continue his work and to also be a football player. It [his death] was a pity but that is life and life continues. I just hope he is proud looking down at me from the sky because I try to do everything to make him proud.”
Hamlet was playing professionally as a striker with ASA Issy in France when he discovered he was ill. He moved back to his native Yerevan in Armenia with his young family – wife Marina, Henrikh and the aspiring footballer’s elder sister Monica – to undergo treatment that would involve three operations in a year but ultimately prove unsuccessful.
“I would watch footage of him playing many times when I was young but football has changed a lot so if I watch now it’s just to remember the way he played,” Mkhitaryan said.
“It’s sad because I think he could have helped me with his words and his support. I think on one side, yes [his death made me grow up faster] but on the other, no, because it is very difficult when you grow up without a father because in the family you don’t have a real man who can give you direction, discipline.
“But my mother became my mother and father, so I am thankful to her and all the people who were next to me at the time in a hard moment.”
Mkhitaryan’s mother worked for the Armenia Football Federation and his sister is employed by Uefa. – “We’re a football family,” he says – and they can be proud of the boy they raised. It is not just a football brain Mkhitaryan possesses, one that helped him claim a total of 55 goals and assists for Dortmund last season en route to being named the Bundesliga Player of the Year.
Clever, charming and charismatic, the 27-year-old is multilingual – he speaks six languages, including excellent English – and studied economics at the St Petersburg Institute in Yerevan as well as graduating from the Institute of Physical Culture in Armenia.
He is the thinking man’s footballer and one Mourinho considers central to the counter-attacking game plan, with the emphasis on speed on the transition, that he believes can reinvigorate an attack that looked anaemic under Louis van Gaal last season.
Not that Mkhitaryan is taking anything for granted. He is aware of the struggles Shinji Kagawa, the last attacking midfielder United signed from Dortmund, had in Manchester. Kagawa returned to Dortmund as a team-mate of Mkhitaryan after failing to make the grade at Old Trafford but Mkhitaryan should be far better equipped to deal with the Premier League’s physicality than the Japanese and has the pace and vision to ask serious questions of English defences.
“I never promise something, I always say that I will try,” Mkhitaryan said. “Because if you promise something and you don’t do it you will always be under pressure. I want to do everything to get to a new level.
“Every time Shinji talked about Manchester he told me something good so it gives a good impression. You have to try and do everything to show your best qualities otherwise you will not be here anymore.”
He said Mourinho told him “it doesn’t matter what they bought me for, I am not guaranteed to play the games, so I am trying to do my best to earn this place to play”.
Mkhitaryan is relishing the prospect of providing the ammunition for a fellow new signing, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. “He’s an amazing player, the name says everything,” he said. “I think it will be easy to play with him because he is a high-quality player. He won’t make only my life easier but the team’s life.”