Louis Saha wasn’t universally welcomed at Fulham in June 2000. Much of the scepticism surrounding the young French forward’s arrival was down to circumstance, he was the mystical youth pushing out cult hero Geoff Horsfield, whom Jean Tigana swiftly decided was ill-equipped the beautiful, balletic and mesmerising football he sought to unleash on the First Division. Some Fulham fans pointed towards Saha’s fitful loan spell at Newcastle under Ruud Gullit in 1999, where he scored twice in twelve appearances and was left out of the FA Cup final squad, and an underwhelming goalscoring record with Metz as justification that the £2.1m Tigana had splashed out on the 20 year-old was far too step.
That view didn’t hold for long. Saha scored at Tiverton Town in his first outing in the black and white – and it seemed like he never stopped scoring during a season where Tigana’s charges swept all before them. He scored ten in his first eleven league fixtures as Fulham stormed to the top of the table, a position they were never to relinquish. ‘Petit Louis’ as his friends at his first football club, Soisy Andilly Margency, called him for his penchant for playing with the older boys grew into a man this year – and his was a power nobody could contain. He formed a quite devastating scoring triumvirate with the archetypal English forward Barry Hayles and eccentric winger Luis Boa Morte, then borrowed from Southampton, and showed just why everyone at Clarefontaine, including Tigana’s perceptive assistant Christian Damiano, had tipped him for the top.
Saha was the new breed of striker built for the 21st century. Now, everyone can list the components of the main man in a fluid 4-3-3 formation: pace, power and predatory finishing, but back then Saha was a revelation. He could score goals with his either foot – memorably alternating from left to right for penalties – or his head and had a footballing intelligence that was able to bring others into play as well. His first touch was magnificent and the way he glided away from despairing defenders just seemed effortless. The 27 goals that carried Fulham to the promise land of the Premiership contained all sorts of sublime finishes – an astonishingly powerful strike from an acute angle at Tranmere, the mazy dribble through the remnants of a Northampton defence, the bullet header that was the first of three against Barnsley and a brilliant brace at Wolves spring to mind.
As the man who in many ways symbolised that Fulham’s time at English football’s top table had come, it was fitting that Saha would steal the show at Old Trafford in their first Premiership fixture. In a game that was supposed to be all about Ruud van Nistelrooy, Saha took just four minutes to make his mark, striding away from a suicidal Manchester United high line to lift a sumptuous ball from Sean Davis over a stranded Fabien Barthez. Just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Saha restored Fulham’s lead shortly after half-time, sprinting onto a through ball from Steed Malbranque to slot into the bottom corner with his weaker right foot. August 19th 2001 was apparently the day Sir Alex Ferguson decided to sign Saha, but the way he and Malbranque ripped United apart had ruinous consequences, as the Scot soon parted company with Jaap Stam, something he later described as ‘one of the stupidest decisions I ever made’.
Saha finished August as the Premier League’s player of the month, but only showed flickers of his immense talent in the remainder of that campaign, with a sensational strike against Newcastle and a devastating double at Stamford Bridge illuminating what became a frustrating season. He began the following summer with what might have been the last ever goal at Craven Cottage, a scrappy strike against Greek outfit Egaelo ensuring Tigana’s team progressed in the InterToto Cup, but only managed seven in total as the injuries that so ravaged his later career began to take hold. It was when Chris Coleman played him as a lone striker in a side tipped by the pundits to go down that ‘King’ Louis really flourished.
Fulham began that season like a house on fire and Saha seemed back to the creature that had terorrised the First Division. He scored five in his first nine games as Fulham went to Old Trafford sixth in the table with the talking heads again suggesting that the wind would have been taken out of their sails after they surrendered a two-goal lead to lose to Newcastle in midweek. Saha might not have scored on that famous day that Fulham put the champions to the sword but, as Gary Neville wrote in his autobiography, ‘he was totally unplayable’. This time the goals didn’t dry up – his fifteen in 22 appearances had the Whites in the Champions’ League places when Ferguson came calling and, even Coleman’s infamous ‘over my dead body’ reply, couldn’t keep hold of Fulham’s prize asset.
For a while, the sadness of Saha’s exit soured the memories of the artist’s remarkable three-and-a-half-years with Fulham. But, in the fullness of the time, it became churlish to deny that he was the finest forward anyone had seen in the black and white. The fact that his massive transfer fee reportedly paved the way for a return to Craven Cottage seemed too good to be true, but so it proved. Saha might have gone on to represent his country – looking back it seems ludicrous he wasn’t judged good enough to achieve full international hours whilst with Fulham – and win titles with United, but he was never better than during his years alongside the River Thames.
The likable forward, who always had time for the fans, celebrates his 39th birthday today. He has moved on from his playing days, writing one of the best football books of the genre, and now has his own network that is taking aim at the ruinous power of the agent. Louis was one of a kind, the kingpin who came to embody Tigana’s French revolution at Fulham, and I wish him many happy returns.