Date: 21st October 2012 at 3:00pm
Written by:

IN the wake of El Hadji Diouf’s most recent expulsion of bile concerning Liverpool Football Club, more specifically concerning the club captain, talisman and for many, the greatest player ever to pull on the famous Reds’ shirt, Steven Gerrard, I thought it fitting to take a brief look back at the short Anfield career of the man who quickly became one of the most hated players the English game has ever seen.

El Hadji Diouf arrived at Anfield in the summer of 2002 from French Ligue 1 side Lens. The troubled youngster had hit the headlines in France where, after two unremarkable seasons at Sochaux and Stade Rennais, the Senegalese forward joined Lens, netting eighteen goals in fifty four league games over the course of two seasons. These two seasons were enough evidence for the then Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier, returning to the Anfield hotseat after recovering from major heart surgery, to be convinced of the young African’s potential and ability to score goals, and an offer was made for the player before he left on international duty for the World Cup with his beloved Senegal.

Houllier had a habit of buying from France. His work with the FFF and the French youth set-up gave him, he was convinced, an inside track on the best new, young talent which was emerging across the channel. However, what Houllier failed to recognise was that at this particular moment in time all the top French talent was vacating Ligue 1 to ply their trade abroad.

Some went to Italy: Zidane, Trezeguet and Thuram for example, some went to Germany: Sagnol and Lizarazu spring to mind, and yes, many came to England: Petit, Vieira, Henry, Pires, Le Boeuf, Wiltord, Saha, Ginola, Cantona Anelka…the list goes on. Of this list of remarkable French players who came to England at that time, Houllier managed to capture precisely none of them (not for any length of time anyway), with the vast majority preferring to link-up with Arsenal’s French manager, Arsene Wenger, instead.

The talent-drain which this mass exodus of top quality players brought about, created a vacuum in French football which was mostly filled by African players, who although of a good standard, were vastly below the level of those they replaced. It was mainly these players that Houllier succeeded in attracting from France; names such as Djimi Traore, Salif Diao and yes, El Hadji Diouf.

The need for a striker who would score goals at Liverpool was a direct result of Gerard Houllier’s and Phil Thompson’s decision to sell Robbie Fowler to Leeds in late November of 2002 for a fee of £11m. Houllier had made clear that he saw Michael Owen as the future of Liverpool’s attack, despite club captain Fowler’s incredible record, ability to score goals of all kinds, standing amongst the fans, loyalty to the club and general brilliance. Fowler, frustrated at being left on the bench more often than not, behind a starting front two of Owen and Heskey, began to speak out about the situation.

Never one to mince his words, Fowler’s temper reached boiling point during an alleged training ground bust-up with Thompson (who stood in while Houllier was in hospital). A few weeks later much to the outrage of myself and many Liverpool fans, Fowler was sold.

Not long after Fowler’s departure, Nicolas Anelka arrived at Liverpool on a short-term loan deal from Paris St Germain. The Frenchman, who was mentioned earlier, had enjoyed a successful period with Arsenal in the Premier League before flopping somewhat at Real Madrid, following a big money move, and had re-emerged at his first club, before setting his sights on England again. Anelka played his first game for Liverpool on Boxing Day of 2002. He took time to settle, however over the course of the rest of the season he acclimatised, scoring four goals in twenty league games including one in the derby. By the time the season was over, Anelka was looking like a top class player once more. However Houllier failed to sign him permanently when he had the chance. The young forward was available for around £11m – just the price that Liverpool had extracted from Leeds for Fowler- but rather than sign Anelka, Houllier chose instead to spend £10.5m of that money on the untried, untested, El Hadji Diouf.

Anelka had a reputation for causing trouble, particularly through his brothers, who were the player’s agents at the time, and Houllier has since said that his reason for passing on Anelka was that his brothers had offered him to Arsenal on the quiet and that Wenger had informed him of that. Whether true or not, Anelka did not go to Arsenal, nor did he stay at Liverpool – instead he signed for City for £13m (where he stayed for two and a half seasons scoring thirty-seven goals in eighty-nine league games). Failing to sign Anelka and choosing to sign Diouf instead was Houllier’s biggest mistake as Liverpool manager and one which heralded the beginning of the end for his career at Liverpool.

When Diouf finally arrived at Liverpool he was a worldwide superstar. The unheard of youngster from Senegal who’d been plying his trade for Lens in Ligue 1, albeit with a degree of potency and productivity, had shone at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea where his home nation had captured the imagination of millions, reaching the quarter-finals and defeating, then holders, France in their opening group game. The hard-fought 1-0 win was thoroughly deserved and it was a breath-taking run from the new Liverpool forward which had made the goal. Senegal were eventually knocked-out by Turkey but Diouf featured in the World Eleven for the best players in the tournament and made Pele’s and Diego Maradona’s lists of the top 100 footballers playing at the time. He was also named African Footballer of the year for 2002.

Unfortunately for Diouf and for his new club, manager, team-mates and all, the good-times stopped there. Despite a promising Anfield debut, on which he scored two goals in a 3-0 win over Southampton, Diouf’s season was to slide into oblivion. He didn’t score again until November and after many lacklustre performances up-front, both as a starter and from the bench, Diouf found himself deployed on the right hand-side in the latter part of the season. Steven Gerrard instantly recognised Diouf was out of place in the Liverpool set-up; a point he made in his 2007 autobiography.

“As [soon as] Gerard started playing him on the right. I knew he was a poor signing.”

Phil Thompson, however, was having none of it:

“He has got incredible potential. What has warmed him to everyone is his workrate. It is astonishing. The fans have really warmed to him.”

Houllier also had faith in his new big-money signing and, according to Diouf, was not shy in sharing his belief with his new “star” player.

“Gerard Houllier says that I would be one of the best players in the world if I was French or Brazilian,” said Diouf.

Thompson’s and Houllier’s words were thrown back in their faces by Diouf during a fifth round UEFA Cup tie against Celtic at Celtic Park. Late in the game, the Liverpool player spat on a Celtic fan who’d appeared to give him a slight tap on the head. UEFA banned him for two matches, the club fined him two weeks wages and the already dissatisfied Liverpool fans took note. Houllier was disgusted and his words would go on to ring true for the young forward.

“The stigma of what you did will follow you round for the rest of your career. You’ll never live it down.”

This was only the first of a catalogue of spitting incidents which were to involve the Senegalese player during his time at Liverpool and further in the English game.

Diouf’s career at Anfield went from bad to worse. Having recorded just three league goals in his opening season, Diouf was, almost inexplicably, practically an ever-present for Liverpool in the first half of the 2003/4 season. An awful season for the Senegalese was to ensue. Diouf failed to score a single goal for Liverpool in the entire 03/04 season – not one! Not only that, but also his thuggish side was coming more and more to the fore. He racked up thirteen yellow cards and one red card that year and rapidly became a hate figure amongst home and opposition fans, for his lack of goals, terrible attitude and his aggressive, petulant behaviour.

Gerard Houllier left his post as Liverpool manager by mutual consent at the end of the 03/04 season, his side having gone noticeably backwards since Anelka’s departure and Diouf’s arrival. He was replaced by Rafael Benitez who immediately loaned Diouf to Bolton Wanderers, a team for which he would eventually sign permanently, scoring twenty-one league goals in one hundred and fifteen appearances. Diouf has gone on to play for Sunderland, Blackburn, Doncaster and is now at Leeds; controversy has never been far away from the two time African Footballer of the Year, his latest comments on Steven Gerrard bear witness to that.

Diouf has no regrets over his time at Anfield though, a fact that perhaps indicates the nature of the player’s character. His words betray him slightly too.

“I went to Liverpool, I don’t regret playing there, I won matches, I played for a great club, I played with great players, and I also earned a lot of money.”

However Jamie Carragher, another Liverpool legend who Diouf saw fit to badmouth publicly, summed up the Senegalese’s ill-fated spell at Anfield with an almost hawk-like precision after the player had moved on from the club.

“He thinks he’s a bit of a star doesn’t he. But he has one of the worst strike rates of any forward in Liverpool history.

“He’s the only no. 9 ever to go through a whole season without scoring, in fact he’s probably the only no. 9 of any club to do that.

“He was always the last one to get picked in training.”

Signed as the answer to Gerard Houllier’s goal-scoring prayers; the man who would fire Houllier’s Reds from second to first and help them claim their first Premier League title; the man who would replace Robbie Fowler and was deemed to be a safer, better bet than Nicolas Anelka, El Hadji Diouf would prove to be a massive white elephant. Recording just three league goals in fifty-five appearances for the Reds, the arrival from Lens will go down as one of the worst signings in Liverpool history; the biggest mistake that Gerard Houllier ever made.


You can catch Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog

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