Eric Bailly goes into the Manchester derby admitting he expected to be playing for City rather than United.
It was Manchester City who were making all of the running to sign Bailly before Jose Mourinho intervened and made a phone call last summer to clinch a £30million deal to take him to the Old Trafford giants.
But Bailly, 23, who was also being chased by Barcelona, admitted he thought it was a prank when his mobile rang and the voice on the other end of the line said he was Mourinho.
“I was in the Ivory Coast, I got called from a Portuguese number, he introduced himself but I just didn’t believe it at first,” smiled Bailly.
“Before I came to Man United, it was City who had been watching me. In my mind, I was going there. But then everything changed.
“It felt like Mourinho was the one who really wanted me. He showed more interest, he rang me and that’s why I’m at Man United.
“Man City contacted my agent, Barcelona as well were talking to my agent, but they weren’t as interested in me as Mourinho. He really pushed for the move.
“Of course the club is important when you sign, but the manager is so important. If a player feels like the manager wants you, wants to sign you, it gives you extra motivation.”
Bailly’s is a remarkable story, because he did not even play for a club in his native Ivory Coast.
He was spotted playing at a football academy as a teenager, scouts invited him to a tournament in Burkina Faso and then Italian giants Juventus tried to sign him.
But because of his lack of any football background and paperwork, they could not get a work permit and he ended up going to Espanyol instead.
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Eric Bailly shows off his dance moves
Current Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino was still in charge of the Barcelona club then and promoted him into the first team for a friendly tournament.
“Pochettino likes hard-working young people and he helps them through, he assists them and helps them progress,” said Bailly. “Of course I will always be grateful. I saw him when we played Tottenham and we always talk and catch up.
“I had no regrets about Juventus because I had such a good time in Spain. I grew up watching Sergio Ramos, he was my hero. Then, here I am, playing against him. We beat Real Madrid 1-0 when I was at Villarreal. I could never have dreamed of that, it was incredible.”
Bailly has made a seamless transition into the Premier League and believes Mourinho has been key to his development.
“I’ve always thought Mourinho was good coaching defenders,” he said. “I used to watch Raphael Varane, saw the progression he made under Mourinho [at Real Madrid] and knew he could help me as a player.
“I had some apprehension before I came to England but some of the more experienced players really helped me.
“Players like Michael Carrick are always talking to younger players, Chris Smalling has big experience and Antonio Valencia really helped me. Wayne Rooney has been great.”
Bailly has stressed the importance of United winning the Europa League next month as a passport back into the Champions League, while he admitted revenge will be on their minds in Thursday’s derby after losing to City in the reverse fixture last September.
“For a club the size of Manchester United, the Europa League would be a great trophy to win,” said Bailly. “We’ve got the players and the quality to win it.
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Jose Mourinho speaks ahead of Manchester derby
“It would save our season because the league has not been what we wanted and the Europa League gives us the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League gives us extra motivation.
“It’s always been my dream because I’ve never played in the Champions League and that’s something I’m very much looking forward to. That’s why it’s so important to win the Europa League if we don’t qualify for the top four.
“We will have to take the Celta Vigo game very seriously, they play very good football, they are very good tactically and I feel they are a little bit better than Anderlecht. We will have to concentrate very hard, focus and try to win. It will be very difficult.
“The first game with City was not easy for me – it was my first derby – but obviously it gives me extra motivation when we play City now.”