'I worked phone boxes for money but others had worse' - Man United star reveals tough upbringing
Bailly wants no sympathy for overcoming hardship before United
It has been a meteoric rise from minding phone boxes for loose change in his native Ivory Coast to establishing himself as the defensive bedrock of a Manchester United side with serious designs on the Premier League title but Eric Bailly cannot understand all the fuss when asked to reflect on a life less ordinary.
Bailly had not long entered his teenage years when he ended his studies to become the manager of a telephone box in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast. Each day he would empty out the change, earning a pittance in the process, before going for trials with other hopefuls as he pursued his dream of playing professional football.
"In Africa, there are people that live in much more difficult situations but, yes, as a child I started working," Bailly recalled. "I've had luck, with my father's help, 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 and to resolve some of my issues. I cannot always rely on my parents. They've always tried to help me, but I had to do something to be able to get what I wanted."
Bailly's importance to United's ambitions this season is hard to overstate.
With Jose Mourinho holding back Victor Lindelof in the belief that United's £30 million defensive recruit needs more time to settle following a summer move from Benfica, Marcos Rojo out injured until Christmas, Chris Smalling out of favour and Phil Jones hoping to stay injury-free, Bailly has become his team's leader and linchpin at the back.
When a recent conversation with a player from one of United's title rivals turned to Bailly, the admiration for the 23-year-old was immediately apparent. Fast, aggressive, physically and technically strong and generally unpleasant to play against was a verdict that will chime with United fans who believe Mourinho has unearthed another Jaap Stam in the making.
There is still a raw streak for Mourinho to iron out, and Bailly's temper got the better of him when he was sent off in the second leg of United's Europa League semi-final victory over Celta Vigo last season, but the tools are there.
From Jorge Costa at Porto and John Terry at Chelsea to Walter Samuel at Inter and Pepe at Real Madrid, Mourinho has always favoured a warrior, and Bailly is determined to follow in their footsteps.
"They are big players, which you have to have a lot of respect for," he said. "You always have to have an example like them to try to be like them. I've got the luck of having Jose Mourinho to learn from."
Bailly grew up dreaming of being the next Didier Drogba, the former Ivory Coast striker who rose to prominence under Mourinho at Chelsea, before realising his future was as a defender and studying Real's Sergio Ramos, another of Mourinho's former players. "I would try to play as a striker even though I wasn't, but once I started growing up and saw that professional football was a step closer, I watched Sergio Ramos a lot," he said.
Bailly made the transition to the Premier League look easy in the wake of his £30.4 million move from Villarreal last summer.
"For me it wasn't difficult because I had very good team-mates," said Bailly, whose younger brother, Arturo, lives with him in Manchester. "It's a dressing room that is like family."
That is all the more remarkable considering Bailly had not played a competitive game of 11-a-side until as recently as five years ago, but the switch to United was probably less daunting, in many respects, than leaving his family behind in Abidjan to move to Spain at 16.
He had been spotted at a specially convened training camp in Burkina Faso for promising young Africans, but it was two years before he could play competitive games for Espanyol owing to paperwork issues surrounding non-EU nationals living in Spain.
"It was very hard leaving the people I was very close to," Bailly said. "But you also have to value opportunities that come. I had a strong mindset to withstand that and come alone to Spain."
Espanyol knew they were on to a winner when Bailly excelled against Barcelona's Lionel Messi on only his third start, and after a strong showing at the Africa Cup of Nations for a victorious Ivory Coast squad a couple of months later, Villarreal pounced. One of the games that is thought to have convinced Mourinho he was a talent worth taking was Villarreal's 1-0 victory over Real in December 2015, when he played right-back and marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game.
It was Bailly whose character was frequently cited by Mourinho as an example to team-mates last season, and while much of the focus was on the midfield and attack after the 4-0 opening day victory against West Ham, the manager knows his best defender will be as important as anyone this term. Swansea are up next tomorrow and Bailly has high hopes for the campaign.
"Now it's time to give Manchester United its value again," he said. "I think that with all the hard work we're putting in we are going to demonstrate that we are again a world class team." (© Daily Telegraph, London)