'Judas' chants as Saha half-enjoys the homecoming

French striker experiences mixed emotions on his return to Fulham. Alex Hayes gets the fan's-eye view
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The Independent Football

Poor old brother Louis. Yesterday he returned to the place he calls "my spiritual home" hoping for a warm welcome, but left with boos ringing in his ears.

At the final whistle, Saha seemed as disappointed with his new team's draw as with the greeting he received from his one-time supporters. Not that the Frenchman was ever naïve enough to think that his controversial £12.825m transfer to Manchester United wouldn't divide opinions. "It's OK," he said after the game. "I knew I would get some stick, but I still love the Fulham fans and I wish the club well. Hopefully, they will soon realise I had to go."

After doing the rounds of the ground for most of the afternoon, it was clear to this journalist that while some fans accept that Saha deserved the chance to better himself, most believe he abandoned their club too easily. Predictably, the latter group were by far the more vocal at Loftus Road.

Not that they were by any means ferocious. One wonders whether the presence of a Fifa delegation unnerved the Fulham faithful because, at times, the protests sounded almost apologetic. It all started 90 minutes before kick-off, when a handful of supporters greeted Saha's arrival with a ripple of boos. Saha did not even seem to notice his detractors. Nor would he have seen the banner which read "Saha, you're a disgrace" that was unfurled as the teams ran out. Again, perhaps because of the Fifa presence, the marker-pen message was promptly removed by two security men.

"Judas, Judas," came the cries from the home fans, only for their United counterparts in the School End to respond with a chant of "You only came to see Saha". They were right, of course. Since his arrival at United in January, Saha has blossomed. And the Frenchman proved his worth again yesterday.

He very nearly netted the opening goal straight from the kick-off, as his right-foot shot only just missed Edwin van der Sar's far post, and might have been awarded a second-half penalty when he appeared to be tripped by Van der Sar. "If that isn't a pen," Saha said, "nothing is." Then, with 15 minutes gone, the inevitable happened. United had been defending a free-kick deep inside their own half when goalkeeper Roy Carroll released Cristiano Ronaldo down the left flank. The Portuguese international looked up and found Saha, who was rushing through the middle. Even after his terrific first touch, there was still much for Saha to do. But do it he promptly did, brushing off a double challenge from the scrambling Fulham centre-backs before coolly slotting past his former keeper. Suddenly, those boos sounded a lot tamer.

"It's always great to score against an old team," Saha said, "but it would have meant so much more if we'd hung on to win the game. The title is slipping away." Indeed, Sir Alex's purchase of Saha has solved only half the conundrum that has dogged United's season. Despite some improvement yesterday, the United defence continue to look vulnerable. The selection of the club captain, Roy Keane, in the centre of defence alongside the shaky Wes Brown would normally breed confidence. On this occasion, it smacked of desperation. The ploy did at least work during the first half, and Brown even started to look comfortable, making an excellent block on Luis Boa Morte after 42 minutes.

However, the young centre-back's turn in fortune did not last long, as he found himself horribly exposed by Boa Morte 20 minutes after the restart. When the Portuguese forward gained possession on the edge of the United penalty box, there seemed to be no immediate danger. But, within seconds, Boa More had turned Brown, beaten him for pace, and scored the goal that might end the defending champions' Premiership ambitions.

This was by no means the perfect return for Saha, and yet one senses he will quickly recover from the Fulham fans' disquiet. Not only did the 25-year-old - having been given a word of advice by Sir Alex before the game - suspect what was coming his way, he would have realised that he need not be too concerned about what people think of him. Brother Louis is a big boy now.