Last year Neil Warnock branded El Hadji Diouf as "lower than a sewer rat", yesterday he hailed the Senegalese striker as a "matador". Diouf's arrival at Elland Road was one of the more surprising signings of the summer given his previous relationship with the Leeds United manager, but his performance in the Championship club's 2-1 Capital One Cup victory over Everton on Tuesday night suggests the move is working extremely well for both parties.
Diouf was a constant menace to the Premier League's third-placed team as Leeds established a two-goal lead; his experience was then instrumental in resisting Everton's comeback. The 31-year-old initially signed on a week-to-week contract before agreeing a deal until January but Warnock is confident the unlikely partnership will now last the season.
"He is a matador," said Warnock. "This is his stage. He needs something like this. He's not doing it for the money, he's one of the lowest-paid players at the club. He could get six or seven times the money in Saudi Arabia or somewhere, but he won't be able to enjoy nights like that."
Warnock, whose priority is promotion, had been uncertain about playing Diouf and his strike partner Luciano Becchio, Leeds' top scorer who is carrying a groin injury. But Diouf insisted. "I said, 'do you want to play? I can rest you and Becs'," said Warnock. "He [Diouf] said 'I want to play, boss'. Becs had overheard and wanted to play too. I said I'd play them for the first half and, if we were losing, they would come off. But in the end I didn't want to bring anyone off."
It is not just his on-field impact. Diouf is regarded as a good influence on the training ground having taken on the mantle of guiding the youngsters in Warnock's thin squad. Diouf first came to notice in the 2002 World Cup when he reached the quarter-finals with Senegal. He came to England that year and played for Liverpool, Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Rangers and Doncaster Rovers.
But his career had been chequered by controversy, notably spitting allegations resulting in bans by Uefa and the Football Association, and a £5,000 fine for assault after he spat at a fan in a Celtic-Liverpool European tie.
Warnock's "sewer rat" claim was provoked when Diouf accused Jamie Mackie of faking an injury during an FA Cup tie between Blackburn and Queen's Park Rangers, whom Warnock then managed and Mackie played for. Mackie, it transpired, had a broken leg. "Nobody's said more about him than me," said Warnock, "but I met him in the summer and, after I had told him a few home truths, we got on.
"I said I'll get him fit and he'll be surprised how good he'll be. Even a good pro like Phil Neville was so impressed he said to me after the game: 'What have you done with Dioufy?'"
The Everton captain will not be the only observer to notice Diouf's revival and he may well receive offers when his deal expires in January. Warnock believes he will reject them. "He's given me his word he'll stay with me, if that's worth anything. I think it is."
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