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Long may Louis Saha continue thinking outside the box

Thinking Inside the Box by Louis Saha
Vision Sports Publishing (272 pages), £14.99

Louis Saha loves scoring against Fulham. He’s done many times for Manchester United, Everton and he might sign off at White Hart Lane with the winner in our last game of the season for Tottenham this afternoon. Of course, the elegant French forward used to love putting the ball in the net at Craven Cottage too. It was under the tutelage of Jean Tigana, Christian Damiano and Roger Propos that Saha finally fulfilled the potential most of France had heard about since he shone as an eye-catching youngster at Clarefontaine  – shooting Fulham to the promised land of the Premier League, with 32 goals in a fine season, and topping the top flight scoring charts in 2003-04 before leaving for Old Trafford under something of cloud when Manchester United came calling.

Saha’s ill-advised comments as he sought a move that undoubtedly benefited his career might still rankle with a section of Fulham’s supporters, but reading through his memoir, initially released in France last summer and critically lauded for its honest appraisal of race relations (which is in now vogue following the Front Nationale’s strong showing in this month’s Presidential elections), you can’t help but admire him. The striker admits that he had written around 150 pages before realising that he wanted to write a different autobiography from the type footballers usually publish. He decided to turn journalist, interviewing his compatriots, fellow players and managers, to give the fans an unseen insight into the life of a professional footballer. The result is a compelling read that strays far from the pitch and touches on the frustrations of both an injury-ravaged player and a man who has a lot to say.

Saha’s interviews elicit empathy for Patrice Evra, the Manchester United full-back provides the book’s foreword, who cuts a forlorn figure on a Italian platform as tries to get to Sicily to join his new club, and almost gives up before being offered support and shelter by a stranger from Senegal. There is a revealing one-on-interview with Sir Alex Ferguson, which follows a painful chapter as Saha reveals the agony behind his failure to be passed fit for the 2006 Champions’ League final, and a chapter written by his wife Aurélie, on how she came to London at nineteen, life as a football’s spouse and the women ‘wannabes’ who get so much press attention. Saha compares the spirit of 1998, when France won their own World Cup to the dismay of 2010, with his own frustrations about missing the 2006 final sandwiched in between.

Saha’s searing honesty is in sharp contest to the guarded memoirs released by his fellow players while they are still picking up their pay cheques. English professionals, like many of the squad that have been to the last few major tournaments, have ‘written’ autobiographies that stick rigidly to what happened on the pitch, decrying a few managers, and passing on the tamest of anecdotes from their team-mates, knowing that they still need to forge a career. Saha talks candidly about his life and profession, writing revealingly about the moment when he nearly lost it all, setting aside what has previously described as ‘the Professional Sportsman’s Personal Sacrifice contract’ and foolishly riding a motorbike prior to Fulham’s first Premier League home game against Sunderland in August 2001:

She was sleek and black with knobbly bits here and there. She was oh, so sophisticated. I loved her charm, her feline shape and sassy ass which made my jaw drop. Once I’d seen her in the magazines she was always on my mind. For months I waited, eager to devour her as a wolf waits for a sheep to stray from its flock. Did I own up to my obsession? Of course I said nothing to my family; especially not my father as he is so serious and wouldn’t have understood. I told my girlfriend and our conversation was electrified. I felt small but gave in to temptation. When I removed the packaging, I let out a little whimper. I was not licensed to drive my beautiful KTM Duke and had less experience with motorbikes than an eight-year-old. I remember how I rode her with a great big smile on my face; my dreads whipped by the wind as I went no more than 20 or 30 miles an hour. What a loser!

It was, Saha admits, ‘a lesson in temptation’. And he learnt quickly as his friends Manu and the former Arsenal and French international forward, Sylvain Wiltord, accompanied his now-wife to A&E to watch the NHS surgeons surgeons try and patch up Fulham’s star man, who had bagged a brace at Old Trafford, only days earlier. Somehow Saha managed to score the crucial second as Tigana’s side picked up their first Premier League points, but it was a little too close for comfort.

Now 33, Saha gives little indication that’s he ready for the pipe and slippers of retirement. His form since joining Tottenham on loan in January – he’s scored four crucial goals and created plenty more – arguably should have persuaded Laurent Blanc to take him to Poland and Ukraine, but it’ll certainly ensure that there will be plenty of suitors should David Moyes not decide to extend his contract at Everton beyond the summer. There are plenty of Fulham fans – myself included – who feel he’d be the perfect foil for the potent Pavel Pogrebnyak, especially if Saha – who sighs as he says ‘I’ve nearly been great’ – still has a point to prove.

Great, like legend, is a word overused in modern sport. Saha’s been most impressive as a man, unfailing polite and friendly, as well as articulate and confident in discussing France at the crossroads with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last week. In a book I’d recommend you all read, he shares his pride at his nine year-old son correcting his English. Even if the title’s a play on his predatory instincts inside the penalty area, long may ‘King’ Louis continue thinking outside the box. It’s very refreshing.

Back to the future?

Fulham fans are often characterised as the reserved, civilised types by our contemporaries at other clubs. Lately, our excitement could just be getting the better of us. The excellent Rich Allen asked in the aftermath of the win over Wolves:

Who can doubt Jol’s Fulham now? Who dares doubt a machine like this? Who has seen a better Fulham side?

The good folk at the Guardian were purring appreciably on Monday as well:

Fulham have potentially not had a striker as good as him [Pogrebnyak] since Louis Saha. Or, indeed, a team as exciting as this in their history.

My points of reference are more limited than others, having only been going regularly to the Cottage since the early nineties. Whilst I’d put more than a kind word for Brian McBride on the forward front, the last side to have me marvelling at their potential – for that’s what it is at this stage – was the one that Jean Tigana built. Thinking about it, there are more than a few parallels.

The Frenchman arrived after a period of managerial instability – two managers in two seasons, as it happens (and three if count the Karl-Heinz Riedle/Roy Evans caretaker combination) with a clearly-defined brief. There were worries about whether he’d adapt to the English game or change the style that had seen the club climb swiftly into Division One and more than a few concerns about selling our best striker to a potential promotion rival: for Bobby Zamora, read Geoff Horsfield. People even wondered whether his replacement would be good enough to get goals in England, but Saha soon scotched those arguments.

Tigana turned a more direct – and particularly sterile side, certainly under Bracewell – into a far more expansive, pretty passing team. There were technicians in midfield, with the peerless John Collins pulling the strings in a fashion not too dissimilar to the way Danny Murphy does now, and fluid movement from the forward players, with Saha, Barry Hayles and Luis Boa Morte scoring goals for fun. Tigana, like Jol, was a truly continental coach and, while it ended in something approaching ignominy, people shouldn’t understate his role in taking the team to a level they’ve graced for more than ten years now.

The quality of that side is reflected in the careers they went on to forge. Rufus Brevett was much improved at left-back, even outshining Jon Harley who was signed the following season to replace him. Tigana’s first-class coaching saw Hayles become our most potent Premier League forward in the very next campaign. Steve Finnan looked so suited to the top flight in his first season that he made the PFA Team of the Year and won a Champions’ League medal with Liverpool. Saha, famously went to Manchester United over Chris Coleman’s not-so-dead body, and is still banging them with regularity now for Spurs. Imagine what his career might have been like without those niggling injuries. And, if your mind is still visited by the ghost of Steve Marlet, remember that Tigana certainly had an eye for a player. Think Legwinski, Goma and, of course, Steed Malbranque.

His Fulham team was the last to truly offer chance to youth. Sean Davis had been languishing in the reserves during the Keegan era but became a combative – and even cultured – defensive midfielder before there were in vogue under Tigana’s tutelage. The Lambeth lad even got as far as the England bench and no-one will ever forget those goals against Blackburn and Sheffield Wednesday. The Frenchman was brave enough to hand Zat Knight a full debut in the Premier League and, whatever his limitations, he made 181 appearances for the club and amassed a couple of England caps. In the same way that Jol has nurtured the likes of Briggs and Frei, Tigana gave youth its head too.

Jol’s project shows plenty of promise – much more than the other clubs currently going through a ‘transitional’ phase. Abramovich was never likely to have the patience to stick with Vilas-Boas, who was horribly hindered by the worst excesses of player power, whilst Kenny Dalglish’s spending spree isn’t exactly pulling up trees at Anfield. Can Jol really take us to the next level? It’s a stiff ask and we’ll have to wait and see, but we can dream.

Tigana could sway Anelka’s China move

According to this article from London 24, former Fulham boss Jean Tigana may hold the key in persuading Nicolas Anelka to swap Chelsea for Shanghai Shenhua.

The Chinese club are hopeful of concluding a deal to bring in Tigana, who has been out of work since resigning as Bordeaux coach in May, as their manager in the next few days. The club’s media officer  Ma Yuetold told the AP that they are confident that Tigana will soon be in place:

It’s basically decided. He will be coming with his own team picked from France. Now you understand why Anelka might choose us.

Ma is hopeful that Tigana’s reputation in French football would make Shanghai a more attractive destination for Anelka and believes the Chelsea striker could have a lucrative few years in Asian football.

Tigana starts with a defeat

Jean Tigana’s return to French football got off top a disappointing start tonight as Bordeaux side slumped a 1-0 defeat at Montpellier.

The former Fulham manager, who succeeded Laurent Blanc in the summer, wasn’t helped by the absence of six first-teamers due to injury or suspension. Montpellier, surprisingly knocked out of the Europa League in midweek by Gyor, took the spoils on the opening weekend thanks to a second-half header from Garry Bocaly, who punished some slack marking at a free-kick. Tigana’s woes were compounded when Yohann Gorcuff, Bordeaux’s liveliest player, limped off with an ankle injury midway through the second period.

Jean Tigana, who later fell out with Mohamed Al Fayed, celebrates winning the Division 1 title

The legendary midfielder, who guided Fulham to the Division One title in his first season at Craven Cottage back in 2000-01, had spent two years with Beskitas, winning the Turkish Cup in 2007, prior to replacing Blanc after the ex-Manchester United centre back was offered the chance to succeed Raymond Domenech following France’s horrific showing in South Africa this summer.

Tigana will hope for better in Bordeaux’s first home match of the Ligue 1 campaign, against Toulouse next Sunday afternoon.

Fulham’s away day blues

Jamie’s report on our defeat at Blackburn is well worth a read. I was particularly interested in his concluding paragraph:

A shame. Roy Hodgson is rightly talked of as one of our greatest managers and has presided over a period of unprecedented success. But, like pretty much every side we’ve produced since promotion in 2001, Roy’s Fulham are generally only able to win at one ground. We’ve now failed to beat all of Wolves, West Ham, Wigan, Birmingham, Burnley, Stoke and Blackburn on the road this year. And sadly, it’s spoiling what could have been another marvellous season.

He’s pretty much right. But it set my mind racing. Rich has been busy looking at our away stats, but I’m interested in the breakdown of our away league wins.

Things weren’t much better under Jean Tigana, footballing genius that he was. We won just four out of 35 league games under the Frenchman and all bar one came in our first season back:

West Ham 2-0
Derby 1-0
Leeds 1-0

Sunderland 3-0

4 out of 35 gave Tigana a success rate of just 11%.

Chris Coleman got a single win when he was in temporary charge (thanks to a Louis Saha strike at Charlton – 1-0). Things got a little better the following season when we astonished everyone by finishing ninth:

Tottenham 3-0
Blackburn 2-0
Man Utd 3-1
Leicester 2-0
Bolton 2-0

Newcastle 4-1
Norwich 1-0
Birmingham 2-1
Blackburn 3-1

We had to wait until 2006 for our next victory on the road, secured by Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra, a 2-1 win at Newcastle, made bittersweet by Jimmy Bullard’s horrible injury. It was Coleman’s last away success, leaving him with 11 wins from 66 league games – a strike rate of 16%.

Poor old Lawrie Sanchez didn’t muster an away win.

Roy Hodgson’s was a long time in coming, but once Erik Nevland secured success at Reading we didn’t seem to look back:

Reading 2-0
Man City 3-2
Portsmouth 1-0

We had a bit of success the following season too, once we opened up a bit away from home:

Bolton 3-1
Man City 3-1
Newcastle 1-0

That leaves our single success this term on the opening day at Fratton Park (thanks to Bobby Zamora’s backside), to give Roy seven away wins from 41 league games (17%). Chuck in the win in Basel, which I ignored for methodological reasons (Tigana’s team beat a host of lower league opponents on our way to the Cup semi-finals in 2002) and the record’s more impressive. Hodgson’s teams have amassed more away points on average than Tigana’s, Coleman’s, Sanchez’s and – yes, of course – Lewington’s. That last one’s not hard.

It’s all rather predictable. We haven’t won enough away from home. How do you sort it? That’s an entirely different question.