The only player from the People’s Republic of China, and the first ever to sign from East Asia at all, to have ever made an appearance for Man Utd. Dong arrived in 2004 as United reportedly fought off interest from Internazionale and Real Madrid for his signature. Interest in his progress was huge in China, amid suspicion his signing was more a marketing move above anything else, but he went on to make only 3 appearances for the club with only one of those coming in the league. Thus, his contract was cancelled in 2008 and he returned home to China without really making a mark on United’s first team and faded into obscurity. So much so that when Shinji Kagawa signed for United, he was asked about Dong Fangzhou to which Shinji reportedly replied, ‘I don’t know who that is.’
Why did he fail? Was his apparent potential a ruse? And did China’s once shining hope for the future manage to get his career back on track? Let’s find out.
Dong Fangzhou started his career at Dalian Sidelong, now Shanghai United, after impressing at an U-17 tournament where he was named most valuable player. A year and a runners up medal in the Chinese Jia-B league later Dong sealed to a move to the then successful (now defunct) Chinese side Dalian Shide. He only made a handful of appearances, scoring 1 goal that I can find, for his new team before Sir Alex Ferguson came calling.
How can you say no to United? You’re 18 years old with the prospect of being the first East Asian player to sign for the biggest club in the world. A transfer of £500,000 was agreed, rising to £3.5m based on appearances, and Dong was announced as a United player in January 2004.
Dong wasn’t going to walk into the first team with the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Louis Saha in the squad. Regardless, China’s new superstar needed a work permit before he was eligible to set foot on the Old Trafford pitch. Therefore, he would spend his first 2 and a half years on loan at Belgian side Antwerp, Man Utd affiliate and at the time the location a lot of United youngsters learning their trade.
He started off slowly in Belgium, scoring one goal in 9 games in his first season. Then, however, he came to life. Proving those who suspected this to be a marketing move wrong(ish), Dong went on to finish his second season with 18 in 30, highlighting his potential as a pacey goalscorer. His third season in Belgium was cut short half way through, not through injury or anything of the sort, but because he managed 11 in 15 up to the mid point (he was playing alongside other United players at the time including Jonny Evans, Frazier Campbell and Darron Gibson) and was granted a work permit after appearing 3 times for the Chinese national team.
What was most likely an exciting time for Dong and fans of Chinese football turned out to be a bit of an anti climax. Instead of reporting on their new golden boy making waves in the Premier League, they were left to report on reserve games until finally, on 9th May 2007, Dong was named in the starting eleven for a dead rubber against Chelsea. With nothing to play for as United had already wrapped up the league, the game finished a very dull 0-0 with Dong being subbed off for Rooney in the 73rd minute.
It was to be his only league appearance and he featured only twice more; in the league cup in September 2007 and in another dead rubber against Roma in the Champions League which finished 1-1 with the United goal coming from the more successful, not so forgotten, United youngster Gerard Pique.
At the start of the 2008/9 season he wasn’t handed a squad number and reports a loan move to Watford was quashed by Ferguson. His contract was cancelled before the season started and Dong’s Premier League career was over.
He returned to China with his former club Dalian Shide in 2008. Irrespective of his apparent failure at United, his arrival was still greeted with anticipation and high expectations. One can only imagine that confidence was on short supply for Dong and a run of only 1 goal in his two years back at Dalian couldn’t have done much for the struggling striker and, to add further salt into his wounds, he was dropped from the national team.
2009 required a fresh start. Dong impressed at a training camp for Legia Warsaw in Poland. Back in Europe but without the pressures of United or China, he attempted to get his career back on track by siging an 18 month deal with the Polish club. Yet despite performing well in pre-season, he looked completely out of his depth in the league and made only 4 appearances, scoring 0 goals and returning to the reserves.
His contract was once again cancelled and now his stock was so low that Chinese Super League team Guangzhou Evergrande denied any interest in signing the forward. Instead, reportedly supported by a recommendation from Cristiano Ronaldo, he signed for Portuguese side Portimonense S.C.
He managed to score his first goal in nearly 3 years for the Primeira Liga side in a cup game against CD Cinfaes. However, once more the reserves beckoned and after only 4 appearances in Portugal his contract was mutually terminated.
Talks over a move to Serbian Premier League outfit FK Sloboda broke down over Dong’s 10,000 Euros p/w wages and his desire for a short term contract. A free agent, he signed for Armenian side, Mika. He gave a determined interview at Mika, saying he wanted to impress there and expressed a desire to return to top tier football . His time there was comparatively successful to the recent years of his career, he scored 6 goals and lifted the Armenian cup. But it was, to date, to be his last year in European football.
A return to China followed, to second tier side Hunan Billows. Despite proclaiming that he was home, he still insisted, ‘But my return to China doesn’t mean that I am incapable of playing abroad.’ . He played there for two years, scoring 9 goals before moving on to another Chinese second tier team, Hebei Zhongji, scoring 2 in 7.
In January 2015, he was released from his contract at Hebei and is still, as of today’s date, without a club. Now 30 years old and with reports he is not in peak physical condition, the future is not looking bright for United’s first Chinese player.
Manchester United Stats
Squad Number: 21
Clubs (Excl. Loans): 9
Current Club: None
Senior Caps: 13
Debut: 2005 (vs Germany)
Senior Goals: 1
This post first appeared on reddit/r/reddevils