Manchester United’s only ever Chinese player, Dong Fangzhuo, has recalled his move to Old Trafford and his subsequent experience at the club.
Speaking to the official club website, the former Chinese striker claimed, “I’m so happy and excited to come back”.
The now 38 year old was on a whistle-stop tour of the north-west of England back in November and returned to his old stomping ground for a quick visit.
The player only made three appearances for the first team and never scored a goal after joining in 2004.
Fangzhuo spoke of the opportunity that brought about his dream move. “The trial was supposed to be two weeks. But ten days into the trial, United decided to give me another two weeks to test how good I could be. Halfway into the trial, the decision had been made for me to sign, but they wanted to see if my performances were consistent.”
The Chinese forward had his issues however. Despite putting pen to paper in 2004, he could not make his debut until 2007 due to being “ineligible for a work permit upon arrival in the UK”.
In the meantime, the player went out on loan to Belgian side, Royal Antwerp, and despite original difficulties with the language barrier and a solitary hotel life, he went on to become the team’s top scorer.
The former China international believes his success came about by bringing in his own trainers.
“I hired my own trainer at Antwerp – I explained to my coach why I needed a trainer and why I did extra training. The argument was: ‘I respect you, I respect your training sessions, but my ambition is not to stay at Antwerp, my ambition is to go back to Manchester United one day.’”
Eventually after his fine form in Belgium and sorting his documentation issues the player returned to Old Trafford and signed a new deal, primed to showcase his talent at the very top of European football.
However, on entering a squad containing the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he said he “felt pressure, even from training with these massive players. There was a consistently high intensity in the training sessions every day. The more pressure I felt from playing with them, the more I wanted to prove that I could do that too.”
Dong finally had his chance at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea at the end of the 2006/2007 season when the Red Devils were already crowned champions and actually received a guard of honour from the side from West London.
Speaking of the debut, “On the pitch, I felt a bit nervous and when I look back, I feel I could have done even better. Some content creators made fun of me, mocked me with highlights as ‘lowlights’, showing me shooting the ball into the stands.”
However, the player would only get two more chances and he believes that his decision to ignore Sir Alex Ferguson’s advice and not get surgery on an injury may have been the death knell for his career at the club.
“Maybe Sir Alex took me continuing to play as a sign that I wasn’t professional, that I didn’t have a long-term plan for myself. Sir Alex thought about the club, he cared about his players and didn’t want them to risk their careers to keep playing with injury.”
The Chinese international’s reason for delaying the operation was so that he could represent his national team in their home Olympics in Beijing in 2008.
“He (Ferguson) made the call in person to inform me [that he was being sold], and I was really disappointed and sad. It was an ultimate honour to represent my country in such a tournament, so I would probably make the same decision again, but what I would change is to have had better communication with the manager and to have made smarter decisions.”
Fangzhou struggled with injury during the rest of his career and was forced to retire at only 30 years old. He now works as a pundit and runs the Dong Fangzhuo Football Club in Xiamen, which aims to develop players who “might one day follow in his footsteps but also at helping youngsters with special needs”.
The former attacker signed off the interview by stating, “maybe you have already forgotten me, but I have to say thank you for your support because as a Chinese player, having that opportunity to play in the red shirt at Old Trafford was already a dream come true.”