What ever happened to Manchester United's first player from China?

Dong Fangzhou signed for the club in 2004 and stayed on the Old Trafford books for four years

Dong Fangzhou, Manchester United

Picture by: Neal Simpson / EMPICS Sport

With all the relatively big names signing for Chinese Super League clubs of late, the next challenge for football in the world's most populous country is to produce their own elite talent.

China has yet to produce an elite player, although they have occasionally exported some of their talent to Europe.

One example is Sun Jihai, who is still playing in his home country at 38, formerly of Manchester City between 2002 and 2008 and also of Crystal Palace before that and Sheffield United after that.

Fellow defender Fan Zhiyi spent time at Dundee, Crystal Palace and Cardiff City in that era too, while midfielder Zhou Haibin was on the books at PSV in 2009 without making a single appearance.

He wasn't the only Chinese player that particular Dutch giant signed, with Sun Xiang making nine appearances on loan, before having more game-time with Austria Wien in the 2008-09.

Celtic and Charlton Athletic fans may also remember China captain Zheng Zhi briefly.

But the most high-profile arrival had to be Dong Fangzhou who made the headlines when Manchester United signed him from Dalian Shide for half a million in January 2004.

Interestingly his goal return in two years at Dalian had read zero league goals in eight appearances but he was very much one for the future at the age of 18 (he turned 19 some days after his signature hit the page).

The notion of one for the future was added to by the fact that work permit issues meant he was unable to play with Man United straight away.

Hence he was loaned out to Belgian side Royal Antwerp, a club with which United have a strong relationship with, seeing as many a Reds youngster has been blooded there including Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson. An interesting sidenote is that Louis van Gaal was also a player there between 1973 and 1977, scoring seven goals from midfield.

Manchester United's John O'Shea, left, from Ireland, and Dong Fangzhou, center, from China, jog during a training session at the Hong Kong Stadium Friday, July 22, 2005. The English team Manchester United will play against the Hong Kong National team on Saturday. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

But back to Fangzhou, who started slowly in Antwerp before finding his scoring boots.

His debut half-season there saw him score just once, before 2004-05 delivered six goals and then his peak of 18 in 2005-06.

He didn't make his debut at Old Trafford until 2007 in a charity match against European XI, before making his Premier League bow in May of that year where he started against Chelsea and got 73 minutes of action. 

It was pretty much as good as it got for him at United before his contract was mutually terminated in 2008.

He got a full 90 minutes in a League Cup defeat to Coventry City in September 2007 and 18 minutes in a Champions League draw with AS Roma three months later.

Returning to hometown Dalian Shide for two seasons from 2008, he failed to score and ended up back in Poland in 2010 with Legia Warsaw, where he also failed to score.

Then he joined Portuguese minnows Portimonense where he finally found the net once, before heading to Armenia's FC Mika for whom he scored more often but did not last too long.

A season there and then he returned to China's Hunan Billows for a couple of seasons, before his final port of call Hebei Zhongji (now home to ex-Arsenal winger Gervinho).

Just 31, that is where the footballing trail runs cold for a player who didn't get much of a look for the Chinese national team either, with just 13 senior caps.