Had things worked out differently for Demba Ba, he might be preparing to face Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley in a couple of weeks.
Instead, a failed medical at Stoke in January means the Senegal striker will be acquainted with Roberto Mancini's men tomorrow in the colours of a West Ham United side facing not just one but four "cup finals", to use the language of teams mired in the battle for Premier League survival.
Fortunately, Ba is not a man to get down on his luck. "Stoke made a decision and I respect it. West Ham made another decision and it was a good one for them, I think, and a good one for me," says the 25-year-old, who grew up in a family of 10 in the south-west suburbs of Paris.
Ba's philosophical stance befits an individual who survived a string of rejections as a teenager seeking his way in the game – first by Lyons and Auxerre in France, and then by Watford, Barnsley and Swansea City in this country. "I didn't doubt myself or think about not making it in football, it was more 'OK, this one is not the right one – let's take the next one'," he recalls.
His five months as an 18-year-old in Watford's academy help explain his excellent English – the London accent may also have something to do with his friendship with Carlton Cole – and it also taught him "about movement, about fighting spirit and about the English mentality. It helped me when I came to West Ham".
He certainly took little time in making an explosive impact there with four goals in his first four games though that also had something to do with lessons learned during the circuitous career path he took between leaving Vicarage Road and his eventual return to England.
Ba's fortunes began to turn during a week's trial with French fourth-tier side Rouen in 2005, when he was pushed up into attack. "I had been playing more in midfield – on the right or in the centre. The manager said, 'Look I think you have more quality to be a striker' and it worked."
After a year at Rouen, Ba, at 21, moved into the Belgian top flight with Excelsior Mouscron. Although he suffered a fractured tibia there, he recovered in time to hit seven goals in the final seven games of the campaign – earning himself a transfer to Hoffenheim in Germany. "People were thinking it wasn't the best move and on paper it might not have been, but when you see what happened it was the best move I could have made," says Ba, who played his part in the rags-to-riches rise of the expensively backed village team from south-west Germany, scoring 14 league goals as they won an historic first promotion to the Bundesliga in 2008-09.
At Hoffenheim he worked under Ralf Rangnick, now coach of Manchester United's Champions League semi-final opponents, Schalke. "I had a really good relationship with him; he's a good, honest person. What he did with Hoffenheim and what he's doing with Schalke at the moment is absolutely brilliant. I learned a lot about how to press. He had an unbelievable pressing technique; tactically he was very good." He learned something else in Germany – a Dutch friend passing on his love of darts. "I improved slowly. I am not doing 180 in every shot, I just like to enjoy it."
Ba left Hoffenheim in the same month as Rangnick, the collapse of his proposed £6m transfer to Stoke opening the door for West Ham to sign him in a deal whose cost is largely dependent on appearances.
Not surprisingly Ba is eager to play down the severity of the much-reported problem with his left knee – a problem, he says, which dates back to the surgery he underwent in Belgium on his fractured tibia.
"That is when the problem started but I can handle it. I handled it the whole time I was in Germany and here as well. Every player has some little injury and keeps on playing with it their whole career and it is the same for me. It is not really an injury because when you're injured you don't play and if you look at the fixtures this year I've played 30 [club games]."
He may have lost his darts en route to London but he brought his scoring touch. At 6ft 2in and with the strength to shield the ball and two good feet, he appears well suited to English football. He struck twice on his full debut to help West Ham claw back a three-goal half-time deficit in a 3-3 draw at West Bromwich.
The catalyst for that comeback was Scott Parker's stirring half-time speech. "It was the speech of a captain," he says of the Football Writers' Player of the Year. "He mobilised every player – 'wake up and go outside and play'. We went out with another mentality that we needed."
They will need that mentality in their remaining four matches. Ba offers an emphatic "yes" when asked if the bottom-placed Londoners have the belief to stay up, despite a run of four straight losses. Looking ahead to tomorrow's visit to Eastlands, he draws confidence from last week's performance at Chelsea that did not warrant a 3-0 defeat. "We'll try to have the same performance as against Chelsea – unfortunately for us against Chelsea we weren't lucky with our last pass or shot but hopefully in Manchester it will be different. Maybe we will have fewer chances and play badly and win the game, who knows?"Reuse content