Dong Fangzhuo smiles at the memory. It was Christmas, he was far from home and legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson took pity on him by arranging a holiday get-together.

The one-time Chinese star recalled the story in the coastal city of Xiamen, where the 34-year-old former Red Devils striker is coaching children, some with special needs.

Dong admits that his time at Old Trafford from 2004 to 2008 was a tale of injury, crippling shyness and ultimately unfulfilled potential.

But he has no regrets, calling it “a dream” to join the club he supported. He is also discovering a new-found joy in passing on his football knowledge to China’s next generation at the Dong Fangzhuo Football Club.

Some are barely old enough to kick a ball, some have physical limitations, but they know his story.

Dong arrived in Manchester as a teenager without speaking a word of English and stayed with a host family, using hand signals to communicate. He remains in contact with them to this day.

He would make only one Premier League appearance, in 2007, when he played in the a 0-0 draw at Chelsea alongside current United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Old boss

The young Dong joined a squad containing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistelrooy and he still talks glowingly of his old boss Ferguson.

“The relationship between me and him – the relationship between him and all the Manchester United squad – was more like father and son,” Dong said in Chinese, although he speaks and understands basic English.

He also remembered Ferguson’s act of kindness during a Christmas in the United Kingdom.

“He worried that I had nowhere to go because everyone might be celebrating with family so he arranged for someone he knew to invite me to celebrate with his friend,” Dong said. “As well as helping me on the training ground, Ferguson helped me a lot in life.”

Dong also spend time at Royal Antwerp for a prolonged spell on loan after arriving at United. During that period, he scored 30 goals in 53 matches.

Dong Fangzhuo, right, spends his time coaching Chinese children after a successful playing career. Photo: AFP / Hector Ratamal

Of course, he is aware of the claims that Manchester United just bought him to sell shirts in China but insisted that was not the full story.

“I don’t deny that a good player has his commercial value, but if he can’t meet the requirements on the field, he has no value,” Dong said.

Backing up that assertion, in 2006 Ferguson praised Dong’s “speed and physicality.” The next year came his first taste of Premier League and Champions League football.

But shyness and injuries, primarily a knee problem, ruined any hopes he had of making it at United. In 2008, he left the club and returned to Chinese football, and retired aged 30.

Dong has the broad shoulders and stature that hint at his days as a professional footballer. He still enjoys a kickabout, but has had problems with his knees, feet, heels and back.

Enduring interest

He cherishes old photos of him tussling with Wayne Rooney in training, signing for United with a smiling Ferguson and playing with Ronaldo. He occasionally pops back to England to watch matches and stays up into the early hours to see United games on television in China.

There is an enduring interest in Dong in England. In May this year, The Sun tabloid newspaper published an article with the headline: “Man United’s Chinese starlet Dong Fangzhuo went from next big thing at Old Trafford alongside Ronaldo to reality TV facelift freak.”

Dong has heard the story about his supposed cosmetic surgery, but says it is not true.

“I just did some simple make-up,” he said, adding with self-deprecating humor: ”If you say that I had plastic surgery, the way I am now is probably a plastic surgery failure.”

Dong, who still gets stopped in the street by fans, hopes his training club in Xiamen can bring a happy denouement to a turbulent life in the game.

He gets a satisfaction from coaching children with special needs that he never experienced as a player, even if it is a world away from the glamor of the Premier League.

“I feel the purity of their eyes and their hearts,” Dong said. “And although they may have some physical limitations, their kind of concentration, their seriousness… that passion actually moves me.”

– AFP