Following Eric Bailly’s impressive opening season at Manchester United his ambition to be a warrior centre-back for José Mourinho and emulate Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand as club legends is firmly on track.
When Bailly arrived last summer from Villarreal the manager viewed him as having potential but requiring time to adjust to English football. Yet after starting the opening victory at Bournemouth the 23-year-old impressed and became an instant first choice. Despite the disruption of October’s knee injury that ruled him out for six weeks, Bailly closed the campaign with 38 appearances in all competitions, a League Cup winners’ medal, and he would have started May’s Europa League final triumph if not suspended.
A quiet and thoughtful talker, time in Bailly’s presence reveals him to possess the clear-sighted focus that marks out an elite player. In Mourinho he has a manager who brought him to United and who, when at Chelsea, placed great faith in John Terry, the kind of totem centre-back Bailly admires.
Bailly’s journey from Ivory Coast to Old Trafford took in a grounded childhood, a two-year ineligibility period that delayed his move to Espanyol, and a season and a-half at Villarreal, before the dream transfer. His impact has been enough for seasoned United watchers to believe the void left by the departures of Vidic and Ferdinand in 2014 has finally been filled, as his arrival also inspired Marcos Rojo to reach new heights when Mourinho paired him with Bailly in central defence last term.
Now his aim is to be ranked alongside Vidic and Ferdinand as well as equally impressive predecessors Jaap Stam, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. “To be honest, yes,” he says. “They are players in which I cannot do [exactly] the same as they did but I have to try to follow in their steps. It is very difficult but everything is achieved with hard work, and I hope that happens in my case.”
Mourinho’s penchant for centre-halves akin to Terry has also taken in Marco Materazzi at Internazionale and Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid. United fans already view Bailly in this lineage, and he says: “Those are players that have passed various phases. They are big players which you have to have a lot of respect for. You always have to have an example like them to try to be like.”
Going back to his upbringing, Bailly, who was brought up in Abidjan and is the third of four siblings, says it helped shape him as a person and made him realise how important it is to have a strong work ethic. “My life was normal,” he says. “I am not going to complain about the life I’ve had so far. In Africa, there are people that live in more difficult situations. I’ve had the luck of having parents who work and have helped me out, they’ve done everything possible for me to get here.
“My dream was like all the other kids to get to the best possible [level] – which means professional football. I have made that dream come true thanks to God.”
That Bailly successfully pursued his dream as a teenager despite juggling football with a job managing phone boxes near his childhood home is even more impressive. “As a child I started working. Again I had luck with my father’s help financially, but I also had to work. I had a programme after training in the afternoon in which I would go in front of my house to do various things and the phone boxes was something I did to earn some money. I could not always rely on my parents, they always tried to help me. That was the basis of what I started with the phone boxes – to earn a bit of money.”
The young Bailly had heroes. “I was following Marseille and looking up to my compatriot playing there, Didier Drogba, and my team was Marseille,” he says. “I would try to be a striker even though I wasn’t and once I started growing up and seeing professional football was a step closer I would look at Sergio Ramos. I always looked up to Ramos as an example and watched him a lot.”
Bailly attracted Espanyol’s attention in 2009 but was unable to officially sign until two years later. “Yes, it was very difficult but you always have to be patient in life,” he says. “I also have to say thank you very much to the Spanish club – I am very grateful for them being patient for paperwork to arrive. This meant that they had total confidence in me, to save a young kid for two years that didn’t have paperwork was very important for me. Thanks to God I was able to arrive and start my career there in Europe.”
But moving countries and, indeed, continents comes with its own difficulties and Bailly faced the challenge of having to integrate into a foreign culture on his own. “First, it was very hard leaving the family and leaving the people which I was very close to,” he says. “However, in order to pass to the next phase from being a small child at home you have to value opportunities that come and it was to go and live in another country and live the experiences and I had to accept it.”
Bailly’s ability to make the most of opportunities continued. After his debut in a 2-0 win over Real Sociedad in October 2014 he made only four more La Liga appearances before Villarreal snapped him up. Before his debut at the Estadio de la Cerámica the following February Bailly played a first competitive international at the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, and ended the tournament as a champion, scoring a penalty in the 9-8 shootout victory over Ghana in the final.
At Villarreal, Bailly made 47 appearances and after completing only the first full campaign of his nascent career at one club impressed enough for Mourinho to make him his first signing as United manager.
At first, Bailly found the £30m transfer difficult to comprehend. “I found out when I was in the Ivory Coast,” he says. “I didn’t believe it was true, I thought it was a dream. Afterwards I found it was true that the team was interested in me and it was something big for me, and I am thankful for everything that happened in that moment.
“When I came to Manchester, it was a bigger step from when I was in Villarreal. It is something that is not easy, when you come to a team where there are players that have more experience in the English league. I had to see how the football was played. For me it wasn’t difficult because I had very good team-mates that helped and were always looking after me, all of this helped me join the group and that is why it wasn’t that difficult.
“I’ve had the luck to be in a dressing room that is like family. The majority speak French and Spanish, like Ander [Herrera], Juan [Mata] as well as Paul [Pogba] and [Anthony] Martial and the English players, such as Chris Smalling and the others, treated me like family as well.”
Bailly’s acquisition was followed by that of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Romelu Lukaku, Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof in Mourinho’s two summer windows in charge. On Sunday Bailly was in the XI that routed West Ham United 4-0 at Old Trafford in a Premier League opener that suggests United could be serious title contenders. “The team has always been at a world class level, they have just had some bad moments,” Bailly says. “But now it’s time to give Manchester United its value. That comes with our hard work and that’s what all the players do that come - like Lukaku and Paul, and also Lindelof. With all the hard work we put in we are going to demonstrate that we are again a world class club.”
Expect Bailly to be at the forefront of that quest.
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