There he was kicking up a storm in
Sir Alex Ferguson it is said is a long-term admirer, keen to add the former AZ Alkmaar player’s strength and skill to his squad. But it was Tottenham’s chairman Daniel Levy who moved quickest after watching the highlights of Dembele’s Mancunian destruction derby. It was he who activated the £15 million get-out clause in the player’s Fulham contract.
On Wednesday, Dembele crossed London for the Spurs training ground, where he underwent a medical while his representatives debated the small print of a contract reportedly swollen to twice the size of his previous one.
And what a very good bit of business it looks for Levy. Dembele is a handy combination for a Premier League enforcer: big, powerful and technically adept.
On Saturday he produced almost as many tackles against Manchester United as he did penetrative passes. Eight times he cleanly dispossessed home players, before launching a series of incursions that spread panic in the United defence.
Jermain Defoe must be rubbing his hands at the thought of the service he will now get. That is, if he himself is still at Spurs after the weekend’s transfer window closure.
Never mind that the assumption was he was destined for Manchester, at least Dembele has this advantage over the man he is set to replace, Luka Modric: he wants to play in the Premier League.
But Dembele’s elevation is intriguing for a reason beyond the scrap to sign him up. He is but the latest example of a trend which has been growing over the past couple of years: English football has gone mad for Belgium. The Premier League is gradually turning red, yellow and black.
One of the weariest jokes in British comedy – one dog-eared through overuse – involves the difficulty of naming five famous Belgians.
A gag that must always have gone down a bomb in Brussels and Bruges, it ignores the fact that Rubens, Herge, Audrey Hepburn, Rene Magritte and Georges Simenon are names familiar in many a British household. And that’s without even mentioning Plastic Bertrand.
The sneery assumption behind the gag is that Belgium is a sort international adjunct, forever withering in the shadow of its neighbour France, contributing little to international culture beyond chocolate and urinating statuary.
Now the premise of the joke has been further undermined by the fact it is possible to name at least five famous Belgians playing football in this country. Actually, there’s a whole team of them.
Take Chelsea’s new signing Eden Hazard, tomorrow set to terrify Atletico Madrid’s back line in the Super Cup as he has those of Wigan, Reading and Newcastle already this season.
There’s Vincent Kompany, the articulate and impressive captain of Manchester City who last May acquainted himself with lifting England’s most significant trophy.
There’s Marouane Fellaini, who currently stands head and shoulders above most of his rivals in the league – and that’s nothing to do with his towering busby of hair. His new team-mate, Kevin Mirallas, scored two goals and made two during his first start for Everton on Wednesday. Plus Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Verthongen and Romelu Lukaku have all been at the heart of their clubs’ early season form.
Meanwhile, sensing that the land of chips, mussels and mayonnaise is the place to pick up talent, Aston Villa have been pursuing Christian Benteke of Genk. And Spurs have stretched their wage structure in order to accommodate the impressive shape of Dembele.
How did this happen? How did a nation which didn’t even qualify for the Euros, a nation that stands a full 50 places below England in the current Fifa rankings suddenly become the Premier League’s shopping ground of choice?
Well, it helps that the Belgian league does not offer much in the way of financial opposition. Anderlecht may have history but not much fiscal muscle. Players can earn far more in England than they ever could back home. For that reason alone, they want to play here.
Moreover most, brought up on English language television in a way the French, for instance, are not, have no difficulty quickly assimilating into the British way of life. Home sickness is not much of an issue when it takes no longer to get from London to Brussels by train than it is to journey to Liverpool.
But the main reason Belgians are proving so popular is that – as yet - they do not come at the same sort of premium prices as Frenchman, Italians or Spaniards.
Sure, Hazard cost Chelsea £32 million from Lille, a mark of his elevation to the top tier of talent. Vermaelen, though, was signed by Arsenal from Ajax at £8 million, while City paid but £6 million to bring Kompany from Hamburg.
Indeed, add in Verthongen, Richie de Laet and Simon Mignolet and an entire Belgian backline were bought for the price of Andy Carroll.
The land now famous for its footballers was - at least until word got out - the home of the snip.
Odd, then, that Ferguson, the manager who has most frequently spoken about the need to find value for money in the transfer market, missed out on signing the latest success to emerge from the Belgian bargain bin.