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04/01/2024 16:18

Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man Utd signing he hoped to shape into his own Thierry Henry

Sir Alex Ferguson was delighted when David Bellion chose Manchester United  in the summer of 2003.

Despite not becoming the Old Traford legend Ferguson had hoped for, there was real excitement when Bellion joined. Ferguson was aiming for four trophies in one season and saw the then Sunderland forward as the ideal addition to an attack that already included Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Diego Forlan and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Bellion was discovered by Sunderland two years earlier when Ricky Sbragia, future United reserve manager, spotted him at the Cannes soccer Academy – the same place that nurtured Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira. The Black Cats quickly secured a two-year deal due to their excitement about the French youngster’s raw talent and athleticism.

Bellion started the next season in the northeast promisingly, with two substitute appearances in the first three Premier League matches. However, he only featured another seven times as he struggled with the physicality of the English top-flight.

Ferguson was impressed by Bellion’s speed when he saw him play at an Under-20 youth tournament in Jersey. The French forward’s performances at this level sparked Ferguson’s interest.

Bellion loved athletics as much as football, and even won a 60-metre race at the 2001 National Indoor Youth Championships. His athletic ability led to comparisons with Arsenal star Thierry Henry. Ferguson believed he could turn Bellion into a top Premiership striker, just like Arsene Wenger did with Henry.

Interest in Bellion grew after a mixed start to his second season with Sunderland. Despite only scoring one senior goal, a £1.5million bid was prepared for him in the January window. However, the bid was rejected.

Ashley Cole of Arsenal battles with David Bellion of Sunderland (Image: Ben Radford/Getty Images)

Sunderland boss Howard Wilkinson was desperate for Bellion to stay, but the player had his eyes on Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson , however, thought the move was ‘doomed’ after Sunderland rejected their bid.

Sunderland’s chairman Bob Murray accused United of ‘tapping up’ Bellion, calling their behaviour ‘shabby, despicable, disrespectful, arrogant and unprofessional’. In response, Ferguson said: “We did things the right way. We tried to do a deal because his contract was up and we spoke to him in January, which is the appropriate time. But we are very unsure about the boy coming here now.”

Bellion was also uncertain, considering a return to France due to Sunderland’s refusal to let him join United. His agent Mike Morris said: “David is very upset, but has to get on with it and he will be at Sunderland for another four months. He is out of contract in the summer and wants to return to France because he is confused about how English clubs do business.”

Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to transform David Bellion into a lethal striker (Image: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

In the end, it was Morris who helped secure the deal, thanks to his close friendship with Ferguson’s son, Jason.

Bellion turned down Sunderland’s offer to extend his contract, hoping for a chance with United. When his contract with Sunderland ended on June 31, he was in Manchester the next day to sign a four-year deal.

Even though Bellion was a free agent, United had to pay a compensation fee due to his age. This was an initial £2m, decided by a tribunal, and included a sell-on clause that would benefit Sunderland if Bellion was transferred again.

“This is a dream come true,” said Bellion at his unveiling with United. “I am ambitious and when you want to achieve the best things then you can’t ask for more than joining one of the biggest clubs in the world. I have a long way to go to make it at United. I have a lot to learn and I will give everything to be a success.

“That’s exciting and not something to be frightened of. I am confident I can learn from the best.”

Bellion was the first player signed by Ferguson after David Beckham left. But it was Ryan Giggs who Bellion wanted to emulate, having admired his play while growing up in France.

“Ryan Giggs was a particular favourite of mine,” the Frenchman said. “I used to watch him closely because I loved the way he took on players at speed.

Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Bellion in training

“There is no doubt that Ryan will be someone I can learn a lot from. However, with the world-class quality at Old Trafford I can learn from everyone. I think the more I add to my game from each player the more versatile I will be and the better it will be for me.

“Eric Cantona, of course, was another favourite. Everyone in France loved Eric because he was a character. He was a strong personality and above all else a winner and that was a great example for kids.”

Six months after his move, Bellion was finally back on track and excited to make amends as Ferguson began to mould his own version of Thierry Henry into a formidable force.

United coaches turned their attention to attacking drills in training as they sought to improve Bellion’s proficiency in the last third, aiming to enhance his already energetic style with some much-needed goal-scoring flair.

A promising sign was when Bellion netted on his debut in an easy pre-season victory over Celtic, stepping off the bench to replace Giggs and smashing home the last goal in a 4-0 win.

David Bellion scores on his debut against Celtic (Image: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

However, it would take three long months before he had the chance to celebrate a second United goal.

In the interim, Van Nistelrooy and Forlan shone in the pre-season games, amassing nine goals between them in just six matches a feat Bellion knew he couldn’t hope to match.

Despite being on the bench for a win over Arsenal in the Charity Shield, Bellion only played seven minutes in the first nine Premier League matches of the season. In the last week of October, he finally got a rare start and scored in a tough 3-2 victory over Leeds in the League Cup

His first league start came a month later in a 2-1 win over Blackburn, but his first league goal didn’t come until Boxing  Day in a 3-2 win over Everton. Despite a good performance, Bellion had only started because Ferguson rested Van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes and Giggs due to a busy fixture schedule.

David Bellion celebrates a rare goal against Everton (Image: Manchester United via Getty Images)

It was clear that the young French player didn’t have the trust of his manager as his game time was limited, only ever playing because others needed a rest. As the season ended, Bellion was allowed occasional appearances in a wide role, using his speed and direct dribbling approach on the wings. However, he failed to impress.

He finished the season with 3 goals in 22 appearances.

Bellion’s time at Manchester United didn’t go as planned, especially after the arrival of Wayne Rooney  Alan Smith and young forward Giuseppe Rossi. However, he got a chance to start in the 3-1 Charity Shield defeat by Arsenal due to a selection crisis for Ferguson.

United were missing seven players for the season opener, including Van Nistelrooy who needed surgery, and Cristiano Ronaldo who was away for the 2004 Summer Olympics. This game was a reminder that United needed more squad depth to compete with Arsenal and Chelsea.

Despite not impressing at the Millennium Stadium, Bellion played in United’s first five Premier League matches of the new season and even scored a winner in the second match, a 2-1 win over Norwich. But he wouldn’t start again in the league that year.

Once Ferguson had key players back, Bellion quickly fell down the pecking order, often not even making the bench.

Bellion’s best moment for the club came when he scored the only goal in a League Cup victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford. “It was difficult because there was a lot of tension and everyone was hungry – so it was like a fight, a battle,” the French forward said after the match.

“My goal was good for confidence and we kept the result – this was a positive thing.” He also saw it as a chance for less experienced players to impress the manager. “It was a good opportunity for the youngsters and people who have not played too many games to impress the manager and get a place in the first team,” he added.

However, Bellion didn’t get much more playing time. He made a brief appearance in the next match against Southampton, then faded from view. He only played three more times for the club, with his last game being a 1-0 win against Liverpool at Anfield.

David Bellion in action against Liverpool Reserves (Image: Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Despite this, Bellion never held any hard feelings towards Ferguson. In fact, he admired the manager for helping him enjoy football again. “It’s true when people say Sir Alex was like a father,” he reflected on his time in Manchester. “How could you ever not listen to his advice? He was the best.

“The last thing he would always say before a home match was, ‘Enjoy the game, you’re playing at the Theatre of Dreams.’

“It puts football in its rightful place. It’s a game. Of course, when you’re playing for such a big club you have to be serious – but at the same time we were not inventing a medicine that saves lives.

“It was all about bringing happiness to the wonderful supporters and although I don’t love football intensely I loved my time at that club.”

To search for greener pastures, Bellion sought a transfer to West Ham. He debuted with a winning goal against Sheffield Wednesday.

David Bellion scored the only goal as United knocked Arsenal out of the League Cup in 2004 (Image: Chris Coleman/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Life at West Ham began well under manager Alan Pardew. Initially, praise was high for his effort and potential role with the Hammers.

“I asked to join West Ham on loan,” stated Bellion in 2006. “But human relations aren’t easy with Alan Pardew – I don’t want to talk about it.”

Supporters didn’t fault him when he retreated back to France to play for Nice, despite his inconsistent run in England.

Upon joining Nice, he quickly settled in, playing a crucial part in guiding the team towards the French Cup final, albeit losing to Nancy.

David Bellion said goodbye to English football after five years when his move became permanent at the end of the season.

Giuseppe Rossi and David Bellion celebrate winning the Barclays Premier Reserve League in 2005 (Image: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)

“Leaving England was a hard choice to make, but I think there is huge potential in Nice and I don’t regret a thing,” he said. “I love playing football too much to stay on the bench.

“Nice are a team full of ambition and they have good potential.”

After impressing at Nice, Bellion moved to Bordeaux for seven years, still facing limited playtime.

He ended his career at Red Star in Paris in 2016 and now works as their creative director.

David Bellion, Loic Prigent and Julien da Costa attend The ASVOFF Fashion Film Festival 10th Anniversary Closing Party at Maison Jean Paul Gaultier (Image: Foc Kan/WireImage via Getty Images)

“When I had to give up because it was too much for me, then I became a creative director,” he explained. “All the images I saw, all the magazines I read, all the movies I watched, all the fashion shows I went to, brought me a lot of ideas that I could put into football and my creative direction.

“There are some players that have got the Golden Ball, I guess, or they are world champion, but they’re not happy the day after that. They’re happy just because they made it, but what’s next?”

Bellion’s journey shows that success isn’t only about making it big at United.

* An AI tool was used to add an extra layer to the editing process for this story.

The transfer window will soon close and although United got their hands on three players well in advance of the September 1 deadline, with Rasmus Hojlund joining Mason Mount and Andre Onana at Old Trafford, activity has stalled since Hojlund’s announcement.

A goalkeeper, a midfielder and a striker were Erik ten Hag’s priorities heading into the summer window, but injuries early on in the season mean United are in need of further reinforcements.

Our team of experts will be on top of all the goings-on at Old Trafford for the remainder of the window and beyond, and you can get the latest updates and inside information to your phone by joining our new free WhatsApp community below.

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