Football: Hadji so happy with spirit in the Sky Blues

Alex Hayes discovers why the Moroccan opted for the Midlands
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The Independent Online
THE EVER-GROWING feeling that the Premiership is fast becoming a sanctuary for average foreign players is not wholly misguided. Indeed, rather than attracting the very best players in the world, English clubs are too often being swamped by over-rated and over-paid imports. There are exceptions, however, and in among the fakes the League does possess some veritable gems.

One of the most eye-catching arrivals of the summer was that of Coventry's Mustapha Hadji. He was lauded for his goal in the France 98 group match against Norway, and it was his team's 3-0 demolition of Scotland during the same tournament which firmly cemented the Moroccan's reputation. Gary McAllister did not play that day, but the former Scottish captain remembers the game well, and has nothing but praise for the architect of that African masterpiece. "He's a class performer, and his arrival is a major coup for us," said the Coventry skipper. "He'll be a big success here."

No doubt a few eyebrows were raised when Hadji signed for the Midlanders. Coventry have shown resilience in maintaining their top-flight status for 32 years, but their progress has otherwise been limited. Far from being put off by that lack of success, though, Hadji has seen this as an opportunity to turn the club's fortunes around. "I knew they had underachieved for some time," he said at the Sky Blues' training ground. "But I also know they have ambitions.

"When you build a fantastic new stadium or invest pounds 6m on a new player, you can hardly be called a small club. Our targets are not to be fighting for survival; we want to do well. And we have the players for it. McAllister is not just anybody; Whelan is very quick and the likes of Bugsy [David Burrows] have played at the very highest level."

Having had a taste of the biggest European competitions - he played in the Champions' League with Sporting Lisbon and in the Uefa Cup with Deportivo La Coruna - Hadji is hungry for more.

Born in Morocco, he moved to the French region of Lorraine with his parents when he was three. At 15, he joined Nancy's renowned football academy - which boasts such graduates as Tony Vairelles of Lyon, and the darling of French football, Michel Platini - before embarking on his Iberian odyssey in 1994. So Hadji's cv reads: Morocco, Nancy, Lisbon, Deportivo, Coventry. Coventry?

"Yeah. I wanted to try England," he said. "Football is very committed with an incredible rhythm. The whole emphasis is based on attack. If a team are winning 1-0 with a few minutes to go, their first instinct is to carry on attacking regardless. It may be naive, but it is what gives English football its charm."

Approached by a number of high-profile French and Spanish clubs during the past 12 months, the 27-year-old says he opted for Coventry because he was impressed by what the club's chairman and manager - Brian Richardson and Gordon Strachan - had to offer. "No, not just the money," Hadji retorted.

"Mr Richardson called me several times towards the end of last season and we got on very well. In early June, he suggested that I go and see the team to meet the manager during a friendly tournament that they were playing in Germany. I immediately liked what I saw, and later what I heard."

Hadji says it was the opportunity to play under Strachan that finally tipped the balance in Coventry's favour. "The name Gordon Strachan means a lot," he said. "Everyone knows and respects him. I certainly followed his career at Manchester United and Leeds and knew what he could do. When he sat me down and told me what he hoped I could bring to the team, I was sold. He spoke from the heart and when someone does that, it makes you want to play for them."

The Sky Blues have started the season in typical fashion. At present languishing at the wrong end of the table, Strachan's men have alternated the excellent with the not so good. This past fortnight has been all too predictable. A comfortable 2-0 win against Derby County, was followed by a disappointing 2-1 home defeat by the champions, Manchester United, and an encouraging 1-1 draw with Sunderland at The Stadium of Light. Up- down-up. Welcome to the football season according to Coventry.

It is too early to talk of crises and relegation battles, but the Midlanders will be anxious not to let themselves sink into a perilous position. And if this new-look team are to achieve their ambitions and push for a Uefa Cup place, they will have to find consistency. Next Saturday's visit of Leeds would be the perfect time to call off the search. "It's going to be tough," Hadji admitted, "but we played Wimbledon, so I know what a typical English match is like. Leeds pass the ball around a bit more, but they are strong as well."

Strachan says that if he had the money, he would sign more Moroccans because "they play football the way I like to see it played". Coventry fans will hope he means the winning way.