Football: Kachloul finds a haven among Saints

The Dell's dynamic Moroccan is making up for two lost years.
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The Independent Online
THE MIDDLESBROUGH midfielder who will not make this afternoon's Premiership fixture appeared on Friday night's Comic Relief extravaganza shortly after the Southampton midfielder who definitely will be at the Riverside Stadium. Paul Gascoigne popped up on the box for some slapstick nonsense with Chris Evans while Hassan Kachloul was there in the guise of his celebrity look-alike Steve Coogan.

When we met in a hotel several stars up from the one that is home to the hapless Coogan character, Alan Partridge, it would have been entirely understandable had Kachloul not been in the best of humours, Red Nose Day or not. A visit to his sister in London had educated him in the delights of rush-hour traffic but despite a nightmare journey back to his Southampton base what shone through was a contentment with his lot.

A lone Moroccan, competing in a strange country against different nationalities holding intimidating reputations, Kachloul nevertheless relishes the challenge and says: "I am just glad to be playing football again. I have had a wasted two years and at 26 it is vital I am out on the pitch every week."

An initial trial period last autumn led to an extended stay and then the offer of a contract to take in the next two seasons after this. With injuries putting paid to any attempt to improve on last season's remarkable 12th-place finish, the Southampton manager Dave Jones was desperate to pull in anybody new but there is no doubt that the Saints believe they have secured themselves a real find.

Kachloul arrived to find the club, inevitably you could say, in the throes of another relegation fight. Five months on the fight has intensified and there is real danger that they are about to relinquish their 20-year tie with the elite division.

"When I came we had just one point from eight games but it felt like I was joining a top-five club," said the goal-scoring midfielder recently recalled to the Moroccan international side. "The spirit was very good and there were a lot of laughs in the dressing-room. That is still the case now although, of course, the situation is far more serious. If we could play away from home like we do at The Dell we wouldn't be in trouble and today is a crucial game. A win will do ourselves much good and it will also drag Middlesbrough [who will be without the suspended Gascoigne] in to danger as well."

Even relegation pressures are a liberation for Kachloul after the travails of his last two years in France. Launching his career with Nimes as a substitute in a side containing Eric Cantona - "first and foremost a gentleman but also a great footballer" - he moved on to Metz, who stubbornly refused to use him in their starting line-up. A spell on loan at St Etienne ended with him back at Metz and the same cycle of frustration, forcing him to take the drastic step of tearing up his contract to pursue fame and fortune elsewhere.

"It was very lonely training on my own and waiting for the telephone to ring, but I had to do something to get my career going. I thought at one stage I was heading for Spain but a proposed move to Santander dragged on without getting anywhere so I was delighted when Southampton showed an interest.

"It was always my dream to play in England. Liverpool were my team as a youngster and it was great to turn out at Anfield even though the 7- 1 defeat was not nice."

Kicking around with boyhood friends in Lyon,where he grew up from an early age, Kachloul imagined himself as Kevin Keegan. His all-time hero, however, is Diego Maradona and his highlight to date was facing him in a friendly international in Argentina before the 1994 World Cup finals.

Watching the video of the match these days, he says that he is still taken aback by the deathly silence that greeted his equaliser for Morocco in a stadium hitherto so noisy it was impossible to make your team-mate hear you.

A similar blanket of hush will descend upon the Riverside today should he add to his five goals for a club he would love to help to Premiership survival as a thank you for rescuing his own career.