The story of Louis Saha’s career is one of talent and injuries.
Looking out over Real Madrid’s training ground in 2008, Ruud van Nistelrooy discusses Manchester United’s front line. He praises Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, United’s world class triumvirate, adding: “Louis Saha is a very, very good player. I really hope that he gets a good run of games because he has the qualities to play at the top level.”
This opinion has been expressed throughout the career of the 32-year-old French striker.
United lost patience with Saha, whom they signed from Fulham for £12.4 million (Dh73.2m) in 2004, and while Sir Alex Ferguson never doubted his class, he was so injury prone that fans accused him of being a hypochondriac and having legs made of balsa wood.
When fit, his movement allowed Rooney and Ryan Giggs to use the space created by his intelligent runs. Comparisons were made with Samuel Eto’o.
Louis Laurent Saha was born in Paris in August 1978. He was a scholar of the famed Clairefontaine football academy, which takes the best young Parisians and moulds them into footballers.
There are 11 other elite academies in France, but none as successful as Clairefontaine. Past students have included Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, William Gallas.
Saha’s professional career began with Metz, now a second division club in France but then good enough to reach the Champions League qualifiers. He went on loan to Newcastle United in England in 1999, where he played 11 games, but he was left out of the squad which lost the FA Cup final to Manchester United.
Saha returned to Metz, but he was being watched by compatriot Jean Tigana, then manager at Fulham, a second-tier club with ambitions of reaching the Premier League.
Fulham paid £2.1m for the young striker, their investment justified as Saha helped them get promoted with 27 goals in his first season. He was named Premier League player of the month after just four weeks in the top flight.
Establishing himself as a fan favourite, Saha scored 53 goals in 117 games for Fulham. Such progress meant that by January 2004, bigger fish were showing interest.
Fulham were reluctant, but a deal cut on the private yacht of Fulham owner Mohammad Al Fayed saw him sold to Manchester United, whose manager Sir Alex Ferguson had been impressed by the player’s performance at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season (he scored twice in a 3-2 defeat) and Saha started well with a goal on his United debut.
Saha’s rising stock led to a call-up to the French national side for Euro 2004, where he won the first of 19 caps. Injuries also prevented him becoming an international regular.
Lithe and quick, his best football at Old Trafford came in the latter half of 2006 when he and Rooney were joined from the wings by Giggs and Ronaldo.
It would not last. Saha started just 76 games, with a further 48 on the bench – in four-and-a-half seasons – an average of 16 per season. His 42 goals were commendable, but his statistics were never good enough to justify his salary.
A hamstring injury meant he was available for selection for just 17 of the 38 Premier League games in 2007/08, his final season. United insiders claimed that his problems were more psychological or “in his head” to quote training-ground parlance and he was a mere bystander as United won the Champions League in Moscow, joining Everton in the summer of 2008.
Just as he had done with Jesper Blomqvist eight years earlier, Ferguson gave Everton a glowing reference for the outgoing player, with the rider “when fit”. Such were the doubts about Saha’s injuries, he agreed a pay-as-you-play deal at Goodison. And as he was not fit when he signed, his offer to train for free was appreciated.
Saha has fared better than expected at Everton. On his day, he is their best player. His days just don’t come often enough and Steven Pienaar, Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill have been regarded as more important for the club during Saha’s time there, but he’s enjoyed wondrous spurts of goal-scoring form and is enjoying one of these at present.
With a two-year contract signed, he scored against Chelsea two weeks ago and then hit four in Everton’s 5-3 win over Blackpool last week, taking his total to eight in his last five starts.
“He is a finisher and a good centre forward,” said compatriot Arsene Wenger last week. “His career has always been a little bit bothered by injuries but, if Louis Saha can play 10 games on the trot, you can compare him with any striker.”
His talent has seldom been doubted, but the same cannot be said of his physical capacity to bear the strains of playing regularly in the Premier League