Eric Djemba was a signing out of leftfield for legendary Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
However, in an era when fans had enjoyed watching some of the world’s best midfielders at Old Trafford, Djemba-Djemba was ultimately unable to prove he could succeed iconic skipper Ferguson in the middle of the park.
He lasted just 18 months with the Red Devils – but still had some memorable moments in a United shirt before playing for a vast range of clubs including Roy Keane, Burnley, Odense, Hapoel Tel Aviv and St Mirren.
As Djemba-Djemba turns 40 on Tuesday, Mirror Sport takes a look back at his career…
Announcing his arrival in ‘obscene’ style
Djemba-Djemba arrived at United as a 21-year-old having earned a reputation as an uncompromising tackler in Ligue 1.
In that sense he seemed the ideal type of player to follow in Keane’s footsteps – and he set about proving his credentials on his debut with a crunching tackle on Sol Campbell described as “obscene” by Arsenal boss Wenger.
Marc-Vivien Foe had described Djemba-Djemba as “a Manchester United player in every sense” after signing the combative midfielder for £3.5million in the summer of 2003.
“Eric is a young player we have watched throughout the season and he’s impressed us each time with his understanding of the game,” said Ferguson.
“He’s quick, aggressive and a good passer of the ball, and is the kind of athletic footballer we are looking for.
“In the last few months he has shown his development playing in a very good Cameroon team and he looks like a Manchester United player in every sense.”
Djemba-Djemba scored a memorable winner for United in the dying minutes of a League Cup clash against Leeds, hitting Quinton Fortune’s cross wth a first-time shot that looped over goalkeeper Paul Robinson to earn a last-gasp 3-2 victory.
He won the FA Cup with United, and admitted to enjoying the occasional Nando’s with Cristiano Ronaldo – but his career path didn’t match that of the future global superstar.
Despite the promise Djemba-Djemba had shown in France, he proved unable to live up to the demands of playing for United, and left having made just 39 appearances, even before Keane had finished playing.
Living in the shadow of Keane
Eighteen months after joining United, Djemba-Djemba was sold to Aston Villa for just over half of what United had paid for him.
He became one of football’s journeyman, playing for Burnley, Qatar SC, Odense, Hapoel tel Aviv, Partizan Belgrade, St Mirren, Chennaiyin, Surabaya United, Bhayangkara, Chateubriant and Vallorbe, in countries as diverse as Denmark, Israel, Serbia and Indonesia.
So where had it gone wrong? Djemba-Djemba admitted he found it tough trying to impress at United in the shadow of Keane.
“It was difficult,” Djemba-Djemba told The Sun in 2018. “I was 22, I came from France and I went straight into a team that was one of the biggest in the world.
“There was a lot of pressure, and Roy Keane was a man. Everybody listened to him. At the beginning it was good, I played matches because Keane was injured.
“But when he came back, it was hard for me. Sometimes I played with him, sometimes with Paul Scholes or with Darren Fletcher.”
‘If you had a gun, you’d want to shoot him’
Djemba-Djemba said he preferred the Keane of the dressing room rather than the on-pitch version.
He admitted he hid a diamond earring because he was worried what the skipper would say to him.
“In the dressing room, he was a good guy. He was very affectionate,” Djemba-Djemba told The Sun.
“But on the pitch…. If you had a gun, you’d want to shoot him. He’d insult you, he’d say anything and everything.
“As soon as the game was finished, he was a different person. I preferred Keane in the dressing room rather than on the pitch. He was like that because he wanted to win.
“Sometimes I’d wear a diamond earring and Keane would say to me, ‘What is this?’ So before I got to the dressing room I removed it because I didn’t want him to see it.”
Djemba-Djemba admitted to having endured financial problems as he struggled with the riches of being a Premier League star.
“It was difficult handling the money. Now I am a grown up, I have learned,” he said in 2018 in quotes cited by Goal.
“I was too trusting. I trust in God and he opened my eyes. Maybe he wanted that to happen to me so tomorrow I might be better. I didn’t lose everything but I lost a lot.
“It was said I had 30 bank accounts as well. Come on, no one has 30 bank accounts. When I read stuff like that it upset me.”
Cameroon success – and heartbreak over team-mate
Djemba-Djemba enjoyed success with Cameroon, helping his country win the 2002 African Nations Cup.
But he suffered the heartbreak of losing tragic team-mate Marc-Vivien Foe – which almost made him quit football.
Foe was just 28 when he collapsed during Cameroon’s Fifa Confederations Cup semi-final against Colombia, with the midfielder confirmed dead on arrival at the stadium’s medical centre.
He said: “I was the last person that talked to him. He said to me just before, ‘Eric, I am tired.’
“So I said to him, when the ball goes out, we’ll tell the coach, and he will substitute him.
“But he didn’t have one minute. The ball was in the air and he jumped up with Mario Yepes, who I played with at Nantes.
“I saw Foe fall down and then I saw Mario shouting, ‘Hey, hey, hey’. We walked over to him and we knew he was dead straight away.”
Cameroon won the game 1-0, but Djemba-Djemba recalled that he and his team-mates didn’t want to play the final.
However, Foe’s wife told them to play it for her husband and their children, and they duly did, finishing as runners-up in the tournament to France.
Where did Djemba-Djemba wind up?
The midfielder’s last club was amateur team Vallorbe-Ballaigues, based just outside Geneva.
Djemba-Djemba moved to Switzerland to be nearer to his four children, who live in France, joining up with boyhood friend Jacques Etonde who he grew up with in Cameroon.
In an interview last year he admitted he had taken a pay cut to play with Etonde at Vallorbe, and likened the standard to League Two.
He has also regularly turned out for United’s Masters Football team alongside the likes of Quinton Fortune and Louis Saha.
And despite failing to fulfil the early promise he showed in Nantes, Djemba-Djemba said he wouldn’t change anything about his career.
“If today, they said to me you can change your life and do something different – I wouldn’t,” he told The Sun.
“Today, everywhere I go I am a Manchester United player. Nobody mentions Aston Villa or Nantes.”
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