Okay, I’m really going to need you to stick with me on this one as I will be utilising my "artistic licence" to its extreme limit and really push your concept of the term "Cult Hero" but bare with me as I believe this young Frenchman’s tale is one worth repeating.
I want to take you back to a simpler time in SAFC after the passing of the new millennium. Going into the 2001/02 season hopes there were high for Peter Reid’s side coming off the back of two seventh place finishes and the majority hoped for more of the same, if not further success and improvement. I won’t punish you with the tale of what would prove to be the demise of Peter Reid but instead the story of young David Bellion and his tumultuous time on Wearside which snowballed into one of the most bizarre transfer sagas in recent memory as the Gallic forward jumped ship to Manchester United.
See, I told you I would be stretching the "Cult Hero" aspect this week! But hey, Simon Walsh once won a bet courtesy of Bellion, so he’s a hero in at least one Sunderland fans’ eyes!
It is easy to forget Bellion’s time on Wearside, some uninspired performances combined with some flashes of potential, promise and electric pace. It is also easy to forget that at the time of his signing the young forward came with great promise. Widely regarded as the natural successor to Thierry Henry, Bellion was the latest graduate from the Cannes Academy who had previously helped to mould the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira. High praise I’m sure you’ll agree.
Whilst with the Cannes Academy Bellion was also regarded as a very talented athlete competing in the 2001 National Indoor Youth Championships and winning the 60m event. However football would prove to be David’s passion and in the summer of 2001 he took a leap of faith and moved to the North East, with Sunderland the interested party despite having never made a single professional appearance.
David did not have to wait long for his first taste of Premier League football as he was thrust into action as a substitute in a game against Fulham in August. The following month Bellion would break his duck with a goal against Aston Villa at the Stadium of Light, his first league start, a goal which pretty much showcased his raw talent at that stage in his career – pace – and a nice little backflip to celebrate. Bellion was replaced by Marcus Stewart minutes later to a standing ovation from the Sunderland faithful, no really, it happened, honest.
It was from here on however that Bellion’s Sunderland career imploded before it had even really got going. Firstly whilst the club were desperately struggling to stave off relegation the young forward went AWOL, a move which hardly endeared him to the fans. Bellion would later excuse his absence due to looking after his ill grandmother and withdrew himself from selection claiming he was mentally unfit to take part in a relegation battle.
Something just didn’t seem right and Bob Murray knew it. Speculation began to rapidly grow that both Manchester United and Liverpool were interested in Bellion’s services and that the Old Trafford outfit had "tapped" the forward up. Bob Murray was quoted at the time:
"Manchester United have tried again to get David on the cheap. We have been trodden on and that’s all I need to say at this time.
Bellion came to us as an amateur eighteen months ago and the agent involved was paid £200,000 and that’s not bad. We made him a three-and-a-half year offer last October and I feel we are being used."
Manchester United, of course, denied any wrong doing.
The plot thickened again as the former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein claimed that his club had been offered Bellion’s services illegally.
In what was already becoming one of the most bizarre transfer sagas of recent times Sunderland suddenly buckled and Bob Murray signed a confidentiality agreement which stated that no investigation would be conducted with regards to Bellion’s move to Manchester United. Make of that what you will…
That was that. A compensation package between the two clubs was agreed, with Manchester United putting up an initial £2m fee which allowed the striker to play immediately and a further £1m tied up in payments based around appearances, international call-ups and a sell on clause. Murray finally admitted defeat:
"We’re happy with the package and feel that it is entirely deserved as we have lost and exciting and talented young player"
Bellion would, against all the odds, make a half decent start to his Manchester United career, scoring on his debut against Celtic as part of the club’s pre-season tour and go on to notch a further three goals, his first in the League Cup at Elland Road then against Everton and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. The 2004/05 season however would see David frozen out, well down Sir Alex’s pecking order and as good as forgotten following a broken leg whilst playing for the reserves. David found himself on loan at West Ham at the start of the 2005/06 season where he crossed paths with SAFC once again and was given a heroes welcome by his former employers.
Following an initial loan move to Nice in January of 2006 Bellion has since got his career back on track in his native France whilst never really setting the world alight.
The rest, as they say, is history. Poor Bellion now features alongside the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson and Juan Sebastian Veron as signings Sir Alex Ferguson would probably rather erase from the history books. In hindsight it is easy to see that the original hype was all built around a nippy forward that stood out in a poor Sunderland side and Manchester United, not for the first time, took a gamble on a rough diamond.
So there you have it, the David Bellion saga, laid bare once again. Have SAFC learned their lesson in the decade that has come to pass since this turbulent transfer? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!