Tragedy of United starlet casts shadow over season

Jimmy Davis, Watford's on-loan forward from Old Trafford, killed in crash

The new football season began amid tragedy yesterday as one of Manchester United's rising stars was killed in a car accident. Jimmy Davis, on a season-long loan from the Premiership champions with the First Division club Watford, was on his way to Vicarage Road in the early hours of yesterday morning when his BMW collided with a truck. He was just 21.

Davis's sudden death prompted Watford to postpone their game against Coventry City. In a statement the club later clarified their decision: "Watford were advised by the police that a road traffic accident occurred on the M40 arising from which a person was killed. The police have informed the club that they suspect it to be 21-year-old Jimmy Davis. The reason for our delay in this further announcement was on police advice - in order for Jimmy's next of kin to be informed."

By late afternoon, football was the last thing on people's minds as tributes were flowing for a player who many regarded as a genuine talent. Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who signed Davis as a 17-year-old trainee in 1999, said: "You could not meet a nicer and more bubbly character than Jimmy Davis. He was a player with real potential, that's why we had sent him to Watford. At 21 he had great promise. We are all really sad. It is terrible news."

A further statement from the champions read: "Everyone at Manchester United is devastated. We send our sincere condolences to Jimmy's family and many friends. He will be sadly missed."

There was further sad news yesterday when it was reported that Ray Harford, the former Blackburn Rovers manager, had died after a long battle with cancer.

The new FA chief executive, Mark Palios, added his condolences for Davis: "We are deeply saddened by this tragic loss. It is terrible that a player so young, with such a promising career ahead of him, should lose his life in this way."

Palios also confirmed there would be a period of silence observed before today's Community Shield match between United and Arsenal at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. Both teams will wear black armbands.

The Bromsgrove-born Davis joined United as a trainee on 6 July, 1999, before turning professional the following month. He was a regular for the reserve side and spent four months on loan at the Belgian club Royal Antwerp with the defender John O'Shea at the end of the 2000-01 season, before joining Second Division Swindon Town for three months last year. It says everything about his impact there that he was awarded a standing ovation on his 15th and final appearance for the Wiltshire club last November. Brimming with excitement at the time, the forward revealed: "That has to be the highest point of my career. I've never felt like that before in my life. The Swindon lads have invited me to their Christmas party. They're always going on about the size of my ears, so I'll come as Dumbo the elephant."

Davis had made 15 appearances for Swindon, scoring three goals. After his last game, manager Andy King said: "The fans were great and they made their feelings known about Jimmy Davis. I think we will see him playing for Manchester United before the end of the season."

King was not wrong. On returning to United, Davis was rewarded with a place on the substitutes' bench for the Champions' League match away to Deportivo La Coruña in March. His one-year loan move to Watford was seen as yet another step towards the United first team, although he was not due to play yesterday, due to a groin injury.

His international career was prospering, too, as he was a regular with the England Under-20s, for whom he wore David Beckham's trademark No 7 shirt. No wonder, then, that the Watford manager, Ray Lewington, described Davis as "a bit of class" on the day he secured his loan signature in June.

The crash, involving the footballer's grey BMW 3-series and a DAF lorry, took place in the early hours of yesterday morning on the M40 in Oxfordshire. Two lanes of the southbound carriageway were immediately closed while investigators examined the scene.

Hertfordshire police later confirmed that Davis was alone in his car, and that the driver of the lorry was uninjured. They also called for anyone who witnessed the accident to contact them.

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