It’s hard not to wish Tottenham Hotspur striker Louis Saha well before this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley. The Frenchman missed out on the 2006 World Cup final after he was booked in the semi-final and suspended; he missed the 2008 Champions League final and huge chunks of seasons through injury; and he has written his own place in FA Cup history, scoring the quickest goal in a final, but finished on the losing side.
Throughout it all, one thing has never been in doubt: his talent.
Chelsea, in particular, have struggled to cope with Saha in the past; his only league goal for Everton in the first half of the season came against Sunday’s opponents, while that Cup final goal scored in 2009 was against Chelsea (in a stat bound to be repeated on Sunday, the man whose record Saha broke was Chelsea coach Roberto di Matteo). In all, he has scored seven in his last eight games against the Blues.
That he may not start on Sunday evening at Wembley is unlikely to trouble him too much: the 33-year-old is just happy to be fit and involved these days. He has started over 20 Premier League games in a season just once since 2003-04 and all too often, his injuries have come at the worst possible time.
In 2008, he started only six league games and chose not to join in the celebrations when Manchester United clinched the title at Wigan Athletic. That same season, he watched on as United beat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Moscow. “Those sorts of moments are tough, very tough,” he told L’Equipe shortly after. “I wonder sometimes how I came through it. It’s like being a kid who has been given an extraordinary toy and is not allowed to play with it.”
France coach Laurent Blanc likes Saha too; he was called into his first ever squad in August 2010, but was injured ten minutes into a substitute appearance in the Euro 2012 qualifier against Belarus. “That was like a small tsunami for me,” he remembered. “I gave myself every chance, and then injury knocked me for six again. I was hoping to lend a hand. I would have liked to help out the younger generation.” That may yet be possible he was picked again in Blanc’s most recent squad for last month’s friendly against Germany, though has only an outside chance of making it into the final 23.
In his recently-released autobiography, Du Quartier des Etoiles—’From the Suburbs to the Stars’— Saha paid tribute to Sir Alex Ferguson for keeping faith in him despite all the injuries. “I was at the end of my tether, I must have been injured for the 15th time. I had the impression that Sir Alex had already been too nice to me, and I didn’t want to abuse the situation,” he recounted.
“So I said to him, ‘I can’t take it any more, relegate me to the reserve team’. He replied, ‘Don’t worry Louis, you’ll be back. We’re counting on you.’ That’s a phrase I will never forget. He never gave up on me. Somewhere in my mind I thought that perhaps it was all over, that the coach had had enough of my injuries.” Saha conceded that he had thought about retiring because of his injuries, but he kept on fighting.
Eventually, though, Ferguson did run out of patience, and in January 2009 Saha swapped Old Trafford for Goodison Park (others to have made the same journey include Tim Howard, Phil Neville and Darron Gibson), where coach David Moyes suffered similar frustrations. Five games after Saha, clearly back on form and also then on Blanc’s radar, scored four goals in Everton’s 5-3 win over Blackpool in February 2011, his season was over again, this time with an ankle injury. “If he had stayed fit, he would have scored the goals that would have taken Everton up to challenging the top group of four or five teams,” said his former Fulham team-mate John Collins. “It’s just rotten luck because there is nothing wrong with his preparations or professionalism.”
“Have I missed having a great career? Well, I don’t have any regrets since I always gave my best, and never ducked a challenge,” Saha told France Football last season. “Honestly, you need to have mental strength to keep coming back, and that’s what makes me proud. Not everyone can come back every time like I have done.”
That is certainly true, and how far he has come from the 18-year-old who moved on loan to Newcastle from Metz back in 1998. His mental fragility had been a problem earlier in his career: by the time he made his Metz debut as a teenager, he had already played for France Under-15s, Under-16s, Under-17s and won the Under-18s European Championship in 1997. When he made his eight Under-21 appearances, he delighted and frustrated coach Raymond Domenech in equal measure.
“When he was younger, you always had to gee him up,” Domenech remembered. “He would fall into a rut as soon as he thought he was good enough or had reached a certain level. When he was certain that his place in the side was assured, his performances would be less effective. He would only play well in every other game. There was a real danger when he was younger that he would waste his talent and never become the player we all hoped and expected to see.
“When he was with me, it was in a great generation of players. But he was up there with the best and we used to say he was the Van Basten of his generation. He had all the skill you could wish for.”
Rio Ferdinand once called Saha his toughest opponent, explaining that he was “the prototype of a perfect number nine – quick, strong, aggressive, can shoot with both feet and great in the air.”
Unfortunately, injuries and bad luck have prevented Saha having anything like the success that Van Basten enjoyed before injuries ended his brief career. The Dutchman famously retired at 28: Saha may have thought about doing the same, but he is now 33 and still playing. For Saha, that in itself has to count as success.