Last updated : 22 January 2006 By Ed

The Observer:

It was not an auspicious start for Patrice Evra. His debut for Manchester United at Manchester City last weekend was watched by tens of millions of viewers worldwide, among them his 23 brothers and sisters. He lasted only 45 minutes before being substituted, with his team 2-0 behind.

'It's never nice as a defender when you concede goals,' the left-back said after United's 3-1 defeat, 'and I can't be happy with my debut. But I'll quickly put that behind me. Now we've just got to knuckle down.' His knuckling down could start in another high-profile Premiership game against Liverpool at Old Trafford this afternoon, and continue in the League Cup when United take a 1-1 away draw into the second leg of the semi-final against Blackburn on Wednesday.

Evra already has a scar to show for his efforts. Tangling with Trevor Sinclair midway through the first half of the derby, he was caught first by a flailing arm and then, as he lost balance and fell, by the City winger's studs. The unintentional collision left Evra with a cut along the left eyebrow and a squint that made it seem as though he was winking when we met in the tunnel after the game.

'I expected it to be a physical game, but that's never bothered me,' he said. 'I can give as good as I get. My vision was blurred for a few minutes, but I'm not sure whether I was taken off for that or whether it was a tactical change.' The latter is favourite.

Evra's journey to Old Trafford has been a circuitous and, it is fair to say, remarkable one. Evra has many people to thank for helping to guide him along a tortuous path from the tough Paris suburb where he grew up. There have been so many turning points, fateful moments, on the way that he barely knows where to begin. Those he is grateful to include his huge family, the Italian scout he met in a suburban gym, a Senegalese stranger who saved him from sleeping rough in Milan, a group of nuns on a packed train, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for a tackle that left Evra with a nasty scar across the inside of his left ankle but a new fan in Sir Alex Ferguson.

Evra, 24, was born in Senegal's capital, Dakar, the youngest of eight children. His father, who married four times and added another 16 kids to the clan, worked for the Senegalese Embassy and was sent to work in Brussels before the family settled in France. Evra, who recently became a father himself - his son, Lenny, is now three months old - was still a toddler when he moved to the high-rise concrete blocks that form Les Ulis, the same suburb to the south of Paris where Thierry Henry first began kicking a football.

Henry's talent was spotted early. Evra, though, was still clicking his heels at 17 and getting into bother with the local gendarmes for petty crimes bred of boredom - scrapping, and stealing croissants from the boulangerie.

Evra was invited by a friend from another Paris suburb to play in a small five-a-side tournament in Juvisy. It was to be his first step towards the big time. An impressed Italian observer approached Evra and asked if he fancied a trial with Torino. Evra accepted, and after the trial he was whisked off not to sign for Torino but by Marsala, a Sicilian team then playing in the third division. A contract was offered and accepted. Evra, then a dashing forward, was a professional footballer.

Next was a pre-season training camp in a remote town in the north Italian countryside. The scout wrote down the train route from Paris on a scrap of paper, and provided the tickets. Evra nearly never made it.

'I hadn't exactly done a lot of international travelling, shall we say,' Evra says. 'I made it to Milan, but then couldn't work out where my connection was.' Not speaking a word of Italian, a distressed Evra tried and failed to communicate with railway staff and passersby. In a panic, he rang his mother and said he wanted to give up and go back home. She told him to sort it out and after wandering around aimlessly for a while, the near penniless Evra slumped to the floor in tears and prepared himself for a night under the stars in front of the station. He would try to find the right train the next day. In stepped the stranger from Senegal.

'He saw my distress and just came and saved me,' says Evra. 'He was so kind, and being from my homeland made it a bit special to me, sort of fated. He put me up for the night and put me on the right train the next day. There were five of us on this huge mattress in his tiny pad. I'd love to see that guy again, to say thanks.'

After proposed moves to Lazio and Roma collapsed amid a heap of scrabbling agents, Evra found himself with second-division Monza and a coach who was not interested in the teenager. The only good things that happened in the following months, says Evra, is that he got to finally know his way around nearby Milan station and his brother Dominique met his future wife. They now run a bar in Milan.

Frustrated at his lack of games, Evra engineered a move back to France with Nice in the second division. After starting out in attack for the first few matches, Evra was forced to fill in at left-back for the last 15 minutes of a game against Laval following a spate of injuries. He did so well that his coach, Sandro Salvioni, decided to prolong the experiment, much to Evra's displeasure. Despite a running row between the two that lasted the remainder of the season, Evra shone sufficiently in his new position to be named the division's best left-back. Didier Deschamps, just starting out on his managerial career, persuaded Evra to turn his back on interest from Barcelona and Auxerre and join him at Monaco.

Which is where Hasselbaink comes in. Having memorably seen off Real Madrid, Monaco came up against Chelsea in the 2004 Champions League semi-final. In the opening minutes of the return leg at Stamford Bridge, Evra went down under a crunching challenge from the Dutch striker. There was a hole in his sock and he could see a gaping wound. Monaco's trainer signalled to the bench to make a substitution, before being convinced to backtrack.

'I told him I'd smash his face in if he made me go off,' says Evra, who even now is surprised at the vehemence of his words. 'I knew it was a bit mad, but I just had to play, even though my foot felt like it was hanging off. I apologised afterwards to our trainer for being so rude.'

Evra later had nine stitches inserted and wears the scar proudly. Ferguson mentioned the incident to him when he first approached Evra, after Monaco lost the final 3-0 to Jose Mourinho's Porto.

'He said it showed my character, and he liked my determination,' Evra says. But Monaco, who had already allowed Ludovic Giuly and Jerome Rothen to leave, blocked United's move for their rising star. Ferguson, with some success, turned to his left-back Gabriel Heinze. When the popular Argentine was injured, Ferguson went back to Monaco and got his man.

'I know Heinze well and he's a good guy,' says Evra. 'It's funny how our destinies have crossed. But, you know, I've had so many twists and turns along the way that nothing really surprises me any more.'