IT WAS 23 JANUARY 2004 and Manchester United had finally got their man. Over £12 million was the eventual fee United paid Fulham for Louis Saha – brought in to lessen the goal-scoring responsibility on Ruud van Nistelrooy in the absence of an injury-stricken Ole Gunnar Solskjær. After scoring over 60 goals for Fulham in three-and-a-half years, helping them to gain promotion in his first season, his talents were set to be broadcast at the Theatre of Dreams.
Saha was born in Paris in 1978 to Guadeloupian parents. He started playing football at an early age and soon joined his local side, Soisy Andilly Margency, where he earned the nickname ‘Petit Louis’ after regularly playing with the older boys.
Originally, Saha wanted to be a goalkeeper but, thanks to his dad, he was convinced to move further up the field, a decision that paid off when the famous Clairefontaine academy came calling when he was 14. One of 12 elite academies located around France, and supervised by the French Football Federation (FFF), Saha was in good hands, surrounded by the likes of a young Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka and William Gallas.
After three years at the Clairefontaine, Saha signed for FC Metz in 1997 and, after two years, went on loan to Premier League club Newcastle United, who at the time were managed by Dutch legend Ruud Gullit. Despite not being a prolific goalscorer for Newcastle he netted a crucial strike against Blackburn in the fifth round of the FA Cup but was left out of the squad entirely for the final.
Saha struggled on his return to Metz, scoring just five goals in 47 matches across a two-year spell. Still young, he rarely found consistent form but it didn’t stop Fulham from spending £2.1 million in the summer of 2000. Saha took to English football in fine fashion, scoring 27 league goals to help Fulham gain promotion from the then Football League First Division, with his goals earning him the Golden Boot award.
Firmly a fans’ favourite, Saha carried his momentum into the new Premier League campaign, winning August’s Premier League Player of the Month award. His fantastic first touch, pace and power were allowing him to adjust well to the Premier League and, despite scoring just nine league goals, people could see he was a talent, including his future manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Fulham visited Old Trafford on 19 August 2001, eventually losing 3-2 in a dramatic game, but Saha was a threat throughout, scoring both goals for the Cottagers. The first came from a long ball over the United defence, beautifully plucked out the air with his left foot; Saha took a second to look before calmly lifting the ball over a helpless Fabien Barthez. His second showcased all of Saha’s undoubted abilities: pace, composure and precision. With United carelessly losing possession in midfield, Steed Malbranque slipped the ball through to Saha and, after two touches, he slid the ball across Barthez with his weaker right foot giving the United number 1 no chance.
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Saha’s performance at Old Trafford was reportedly the game that made Sir Alex interested in him, two years before he even signed for United. Despite only scoring seven goals in the 2002-03 season he was a constant in the Fulham side. The start of the 2003-04 season saw Saha score 15 goals in 22 matches before the winter transfer window, when Man United made their move. Fulham were reluctant to sell their star striker but, when Saha pushed for the move, there wasn’t anything they could do.
Saha started his Manchester United career with a bang, scoring a deflected free-kick at Old Trafford against Southampton. On 28 February, United travelled to Craven Cottage to face Saha’s ex-club, Fulham. Saha’s reputation as a fan favourite at Fulham had quickly diminished as chants of “Judas” were heard regularly from the home fans.
Saha would have the last laugh, though, as a classic United counter-attack finished with the Frenchman smashing the ball past Edwin van der Sar, who of course went on to sign for United in 2005. Saha demonstrated the exact reasons why Fulham were so desperate to keep hold of him; a beautiful first touch on the run, close control and a ruthless finish with his weaker foot.
Saha soon earned his first international call-up for France and scored on his debut in a friendly against Belgium. His form saw him also called up to the French team for the European Championships in Portugal. For United, he finished the season with seven goals in 14 games – a solid return for someone who had to adapt to a new style mid-season.
After a strong first season with Manchester United, the 2004-05 campaign would prove to be a different story. Injuries would prove to become a constant for Saha, something that affected him for the rest of his career. In the September 2004, Saha picked up a knee injury on international duty with France, causing him to miss a month of the season. The same injury struck again in November – again on international duty – although this time worse and Saha missed a further two months of the season.
After finally getting back to fitness, the injury struck again for a third time and, just when things couldn’t get any worse, of course they did. Over the summer of 2005, Saha tore his hamstring, an injury that would see him miss the first three months of the 2005-06 season.
Saha’s 2005-06 season eventually got underway in November and, slowly but surely, he recovered full fitness and with it came goals. Saha’s fortunes were finally changing after a torrid year. Six goals in United’s League Cup run saw him start the final ahead of Ruud van Nistelrooy, in which he scored as United smashed Wigan Athletic 4-0 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
The pacey striker scored an impressive 15 goals for United that season and saw himself become the club’s first-choice strike partner for Wayne Rooney. Saha was back on form and Ferguson’s trust in him was evident when van Nistelrooy was sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 2006 as Cristiano Ronaldo began to become pivotal in the Red Devils’ line-up.
Despite scoring over 150 goals for Manchester United, the manager saw fit to get rid of the Dutchman and elevate Saha to one of the most important players at United. Saha was confident, on form and more importantly, fit again. He had all the attributes to become one of Europe’s deadliest forwards.
After starting the 2006-07 season consistently, he was rewarded with a new contract keeping him at the club until 2010. Despite a good start to the season, however, his injuries would come back to haunt him. Groin and hamstring problems would become the norm for Saha throughout the rest of his career, gradually causing him to lose some of his explosive pace. After scoring just a solitary goal in the second half of the season, the injuries were clearly affecting Saha.
United started the 2007-08 season slowly, scoring just two goals in their opening four matches and winning just once. Returning from yet more muscular issues, a fresh Saha scored the winner against Sunderland after coming on as a second-half substitute. A huge ovation from Old Trafford highlighted how much he was appreciated by the United fans, even though he had missed most of the previous campaign through injury.
Saha yet again suffered more injuries throughout the season, including a knee problem that would keep him out for over six weeks. Saha admitted that Achilles problems began in 2004, which led to more pressure and a higher workload on his knees. In 2008 they were wearing out – to many, visibly as he lost his pace – and Saha could only contribute four goals during the course of a campaign that would see United win the Premier League and the Champions League on that famous night in Moscow.
Saha missed the European final, later admitting how much it hurt him: “I was injured. I missed the 2006 World Cup final, I missed a few amazing games, but to miss this absolutely killed me.”
Saha travelled to Moscow to support his team-mates but he also knew his time at Old Trafford was over. His knees were becoming more troublesome and his muscles were weak. He didn’t feel fully part of the Champions League-winning squad and couldn’t play over 30 games a season like most healthy players. After talking to Sir Alex Ferguson, he agreed he’d move on in the transfer window.
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Saha signed a pay-as-you-play deal with Everton for an undisclosed fee in the summer of 2008. The Frenchman was still injured when he signed and told Everton not to pay him when injured, something that seemingly few of today’s players would do.
Despite losing his athleticism, an area of his game that rarely suffered was his ability to take chances; in his four years at Everton, he couldn’t put his injury problems behind him but scored 35 goals in just over a hundred games.
In 2012 Saha moved to Tottenham on a six-month contract. Just four goals in 12 games for the North London club saw Saha move back up north, this time to Sunderland, but injuries restricted his playing time and he left the club when his short-term contract expired. Saha finished his career in Italy with Lazio but wasn’t able to find the net. Zero goals in 20 games between Sunderland and Lazio combined saw Saha bow out with a whimper.
A desire to help the team, coolness in front of goal, intelligence of movement, and close control saw Saha at one point on the brink of becoming one of Europe’s top strikers. Ferguson didn’t give him a new contract for no reason, and to be trusted ahead of van Nistelrooy says much.
Wayne Rooney has partnered the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie up front for United, but the best of them all, in his opinion, was Louis Saha: “There are so many but I’m going to say Louis Saha. He was a fantastic player; a real handful for anyone and I just really enjoyed playing off him. He was so lively, a real striker who made great runs in behind and who was always making space for others.”
United legend Rio Ferdinand was also full of praise for Saha: “My former United team-mate Louis Saha, now at Everton of course, is my toughest opponent. He’s quick, he’s strong, he’s aggressive, he hits the ball cleanly with both feet and he’s great in the air. If I was building a prototype of a perfect number 9 then I’d look to Louis.”
It’s true that many of today’s aspiring youngster could look to Saha to develop their own game, such was his incredible movement inside and outside the box. Add that to his unflinching composure in the penalty area and fantastic close control, and you really to have the complete modern striker.
The “what if?” feeling around Saha is something many United and Les Bleus fans still wonder about. Without his weak knees and repeated muscular injuries, he surely could have scored over a hundred goals for United and retired as a club legend, not to mention one of the greatest imports in Premier League history. As it goes, however, he sits below the likes of Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Luis Suárez as some of the best out-and-out goalscorers to have come from abroad and lit up the Premier League.
By Kieran Stewart @kieransstewart