Football: Two games of great import

Alex Hayes meets the Everton French class taking lessons in adapting to a new life in the Premiership
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The Independent Online
ON ARRIVING at Bellefield, Everton's training ground, the visitor is greeted by the Pythonesque scene of Ibrahima Bakayoko and a mobile phone salesman conducting business in different languages. With neither man on the same wavelength, help is offered. A few exchanges later, and with his order for six mobiles complete, I ask Everton's pounds 4.5m striker how players cope in a foreign environment.

"It's difficult," he replies, "but you get there slowly." And don't Everton know it. Despite spending pounds 21m on new players, the club have made a negligible impact on the Premiership, scoring an average of just 0.8 goals per game. This week's matches against Aston Villa in the league and Ipswich in the FA Cup are vital, especially as the absence of Bakayoko and his fellow French speaker Olivier Dacourt from the Cup game threatens to undermine an already fragile side.

"Settling in was tough," says the 24-year-old Dacourt - a pounds 4m signing from Strasbourg. "John Collins [who speaks fluent French from his time with Monaco] was a great help, though having my wife and son here is particularly comforting." Dacourt's desire to play in England further contributed to his relatively smooth adaptation. "Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to live the English experience. I can remember seeing the stadiums on TV and being really impressed by the fans always singing and cheering. When 'Le Boss' [as he calls Walter Smith] came to see me in Strasbourg, and said he wanted me to help the club become great again, it was a strong motivation."

For Bakayoko, the 22-year- old Ivory Coast international, acclimatising has been more arduous: "I really wanted to experience British football, but when I arrived in October, it was raining a lot and I was living in a hotel. It wasn't until I moved into my own house that I felt settled." And it showed immediately, as he scored his first league goal that week, against Southampton. But doubts off the pitch remain. "I am alone here, without a girlfriend or my family. At least Montpellier was home-from-home, but I don't know anyone in Liverpool." Both he and Dacourt miss the family atmosphere of the French scene, where players socialise away from the club. "To be honest," admits Bakayoko, "there were nights when I thought about going back to the Ivory Coast. But then you grow strong and rise to the challenge once more."

As the blue half of Merseyside becomes more cosmopolitan, Everton lean on their Mr Fix-It, Bill Ellaby. "Whenever a player has a problem, he's there. He's our Zorro," insists Dacourt. Ellaby helps players find houses, buy cars, choose their kids' schools... he also arranged for both Dacourt and Bakayoko to take a crash-course in English with the man who taught Collins French, Philippe Patry. "Language is obviously important," says Bakayoko. "If you don't understand what people are saying, it can make you feel awkward. When I first arrived, I didn't know what hit me: people yelling in English, balls fizzing over my head. But you need to experience these tough times. Look at Hamilton Ricard. It took him months before he adapted, but now he's on fire." One thing Ellaby cannot do, however, is help a team who cannot score for toffee.

"The team is not quite right yet," admits Dacourt, "but this club is huge. We don't concede, but we don't score either. I don't know why, because we look sharp in practice." Dacourt has great faith in Bakayoko, second only to Stephane Guivarc'h in the French scoring charts last season. "He's a tremendous player who is finding it hard because he is no longer playing in an attacking side. He's also under huge pressure because forwards here are judged on the goals they score, not their overall play."

Bakayoko himself, having netted four in his last six games, remains upbeat. "I am doing OK, but I need more service. Without the ball, I can't score. I love playing with Tony Grant. He reminds me of Xavier Graveleine [his team-mate at Montpellier] with whom I had a telepathic understanding. We are a good team, but we don't have enough self-belief. A win against Aston Villa tomorrow could set us on our way, though." Wishful thinking?

"No," says Bakayoko enthusiastically. "Here, the bottom team can beat the top one because players pile forward and leave huge holes at the back."

"As a midfielder," continues Dacourt, "it's exhausting because you have to attack, defend and hold the ball. It's different to France, where the game is more tactical. Play is slow until the last 40 metres when everything happens very fast." Both believe this is why English teams struggle in Europe. "They charge forward without a battle plan," explains Bakayoko. "French clubs are reaching the latter stages because they are very professional," adds Dacourt.

Following Paul Gascoigne's recent criticism of foreign players, it will relieve Smith and the fans that neither feels over-worked. "There aren't too many matches in the season," says Dacourt. "I actually find it very exciting. Every week I discover a new stadium."

Like Villa Park tomorrow, though not Portman Road on Saturday. After the Premiership game, Bakayoko flies out to the Ivory Coast for an African Nations' Cup qualifier against Namibia, while the card-collecting Dacourt serves out another one-match ban. Three points would go some way towards compensating for missing out on the Cup. In their absence, Everton may well miss out too.