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Friday, Jan. 23, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Saha saga just goes to show what a funny old game soccer is


LONDON -- "Read my lips -- Louis Saha is not for sale" -- Fulham owner and chairman Mohamed Fayed.

Christopher Davies

"There is absolutely no way Louis Saha will leave this club in January" -- Fulham manager Chris Coleman.

TWO WEEKS IS a long time in football and a fortnight after the denials by Fulham, Louis Saha completed his £12 million transfer to Manchester United.

In football "no" so often turns out to mean "yes" and Saha's move is yet another example of a player eventually getting his way despite constant denials from his club he would not be leaving.

Of course, football also lives in its own world where the rules are different from any other walk of life. A dentist, teacher, secretary or just about anybody can leave their current employment for more lucrative pastures new without any transfer fee or threat from the employer that they must stay.

Can you blame Saha for wanting to swap Fulham, whose only hope of success is winning a domestic cup once every blue moon, for the biggest club in the world?

If the most lucrative company in your particular field offered to double your salary with realistic prospects of reaching the top, would you reply: "No thanks, this firm gave me my chance and I want to repay them"?

But on planet football, life is not the same as in the outside world and emotions take over. Football clubs have hundreds of thousands, even millions, of supporters who dedicate their life to its welfare. You can change your job, house, wife, name . . . just about anything . . . but you cannot change the team you follow, no matter how much your loyalty is tested at times.

Fulham fans have labeled Saha "Judas" but Saha is not a Fulham supporter. He was employed by the club to do a certain job -- for which he was well paid -- but did not have the depth of feeling for the club a supporter has.

Saha and his agent made it virtually impossible for the striker to remain at Fulham once United's interest was known. Timely leaks and quotes from the player ensured massive coverage and pressure was put on Fulham to grant the Frenchman his wish, which ultimately it did, after turning down the first offer from United.

Fulham may be unhappy with the way the transfer was conducted, but it should be delighted with the fee, which represents a handsome profit on a player it signed from Metz in 2000 for £2.1 million.

At the start of this season most people would have valued Saha in the region of £2 million, £3 million at most.

Now, after a good six months, he is worth around £10 million more, which will go a long way toward paying for the refurbishment of Craven Cottage, Fulham's natural home, where it will return next season after two years as co-tenants with Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.

Saha had 18 months remaining on his contract and that is the time when clubs sit down with a player and say: "Will you sign a new deal?"

If the answer is no, then it is in the club's interest to sell the player rather than allowing him to leave for nothing when his contract expires.

Fulham has received £12 million for a striker who would have walked away for free in June 2005, which, when you strip the sentiments and emotions away, is pretty good business.

Even so, manager Chris Coleman did not want Saha to leave but was overruled "from above" after United made an offer Fulham could not refuse.

Coleman said: "I'm the manager of the team, he's a quality player who's been banging in goals and, especially in January, why would I want him to go?

"I've been saying that all along and I'm not going to back down now because the chairman, our directors and chief executive have decided to sell him.

"But if they think, for the long-term future of the club, it's good, then I'll go along with that. Our chairman has pumped a lot of his own money into the club.

"We're going back to the Cottage and that's going to be expensive. If that's their decision I'll stand by it."

Amid the controversy of Saha's transfer were two moments of humor, one of the gallows variety.

Before what proved to be Saha's last game for Fulham, a special jersey had been made for the striker with the name Haha on the back.

It was hanging in the dressing-room (you draw your own conclusions as to the reasons why) and it was only when the referee told the club's kit man this contravened Premier League rules -- which stipulate only a player's official name can be used -- that the Haha shirt was switched to the more conventional Saha jersey.

Meanwhile, a week or so before the transfer was official, a journalist who had been writing that the deal was done, then it wasn't after Fulham had slapped an £18 million valuation on the player, received a package from Harrods, the store owned by Fayed.

Inside was a box of marbles with a note saying "these may come in handy as you have clearly lost yours."

Needless to say the hack in question is now known as, yes, Marbles.

When Manchester United asked the Football Association's independent disciplinary commission for the reasoning behind the eight-month suspension handed to Rio Ferdinand for missing a drug test it ran to 38 pages.

On Monday, the F.A. received the appeal from Ferdinand's legal team which must surely be a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.

It ran to 121 pages -- 96 pages of appendices and 24 pages of the notice of appeal. Oh, and one page consisting of a covering letter. Four rolls of fax paper were required to accommodate the correspondence.

While one would not expect such an appeal to comprise four or five pages, the mind boggles how, even in legal jargon, an appeal against a footballer missing a mandatory drug test can be stretched to 121 pages.

It is one of the few cases when the player's appeal includes a longer sentence than the accused will serve.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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