Saha's fantasies become reality thanks to Tigana

Rejection by Newcastle has only made the Fulham striker work harder to succeed
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The Independent Football

It has not taken long for Louis Saha to be catapulted into the Premiership's firmament. Two goals in a thrilling, but losing cause at Old Trafford on Sunday, and a third in Fulham's first Premiership victory on Wednesday, were like a siren call.

Thursday morning brought the ITV cameras scurrying to Fulham's whitewashed Motspur Park training base in pursuit of an "at-home" feature. The crew squeezed into his Porsche for the obligatory behind-the-wheel shot and headed for his Barnes home. Assuming they were successfully extracted on arrival, those pictures, and others of the Frenchman walking his dog along the Thames, will fill the same slot in tonight's The Premiership occupied by Fabrizio Ravanelli eating pasta last week.

Skinning Jaap Stam, prompting his demotion, and sharing top billing with the "white feather" are a long way from Saha's first experience of England's top division. That was during a six-month loan period at Newcastle three seasons ago. Hamstring and cheekbone injuries meant he only appeared in 11 League games, completing two and scoring once. Despite showing some promise, and inspiring the Toon Army into cheering on "SuperLou" with the Abba adaptation "Knowing me, Knowing you, Saha," the club decided not to take up their option to buy.

Saha's disappointment was, however, tempered by the knowledge that he had found his natural arena. He was determined to return. The fact that one close friend, Nicolas Anelka, was already shredding English defences and another, Thierry Henry, was soon to do so, further encouraged him.

"This country, with a lot of physical play and few tactics, suits me perfectly," said the 23-year-old Saha. "In Newcastle I learned a lot. Before going there, I asked a lot of questions because I rarely played at Metz. I even thought about stopping playing. So I wanted to be back in England at any price. Then Jean Tigana proposed the Fulham challenge to me."

When Saha signed for Fulham, for £2.1m, eyebrows were raised. The blurb for Fulham's own official record of last season describes him as: "some young French striker that nobody's ever heard of and who's hardly scored any goals."

Saha, having been no more prolific at Metz than at Newcastle, arrived at Craven Cottage with a record of six goals in 58 league outings. He has since scored 30 in 45 matches with another five in cup competitions. Two of those goals were against today's Premiership opponents, Derby County, when Fulham knocked them out of last year's Worthington Cup.

Saha puts much of the credit for his transformation down to Tigana who, before making Saha his first signing as Fulham manager, was his agent. "We work very hard in training," he told me before ITV whisked him away. "The manager wants me to improve my finishing every day. I am myself very critical of my finishing so I want to improve."

Though his finishing was exemplary at Old Trafford the number of chances he missed on Wednesday, before scoring with the help of a deflection, showed Saha still has work to do. But, said Terry Venables, "when he gets that right he's frightening".

His positioning is already impressive, especially for a player who began, like Henry, as a winger. "To be changed into a central striker you have to have a good manager to give you confidence and progress you in the position," he said. "Mr Tigana said to me that I was a good player but that I did not have the confidence to play."

A stunning goal on his debut for Fulham helped inculcate that and, as his compatriot Sylvain Legwinski noted yesterday, "English football is very good for Louis." Legwinski, who himself signed for Fulham this week, added: "He is very quick with good technique."

In addition Fulham's game, with its attacking emphasis, concentration on passing to feet, width and movement is suited to Saha. Through it he has struck up an intuitive and mutually profitable relationship with Barry Hayles.

Though six years older, Hayles was still combining carpentry with playing non-League when Saha was at France's Clarefontaine talent factory with Anelka and Henry. Yet, despite their disparate backgrounds, they have formed a partnership which Tigana, though actively pursuing other strikers, will think very carefully about disrupting. Their interplay caused Sunderland huge problems on Wednesday. Peter Reid, their manager, said: "They are difficult to deal with. They get in holes, make good runs and are both good footballers who handle the ball into feet. Saha also has pace."

"Sometimes you can't coach that sort of understanding," said Andy Melville, the Fulham captain, "it just happens. They stay close and run off each other really well." Of Saha he added: "He works hard as a team player, creating chances for others."

Last season, according to the fanzine There's only one F in Fulham, Saha either scored or created 46 per cent of Fulham's 105 goals. "He was the bargain of the season," said John Collins, Fulham's veteran Scottish international. "He's got all the attributes he needs to become a world-class player. He's quick, he's got a good temperament and has two good feet."

Despite the familiar trappings of sports car, braided and dyed dreadlocks and designer clothing, Saha is unassuming in the flesh. The son of a retired mechanic and a nurse he appears capable of keeping his feet on the ground. Initially homesick, he took full advantage of Fulham players' Harrod's discount to indulge in some retail therapy but is now settled in the capital with his long-time partner Aurelie. He remains in touch with his fellow Parisians Anelka and Henry and hopes to join them in the French team.

"Our families are from the West Indies and we used to hang out and speak Creole to each other," Saha has said. "We have shared holidays together at Thierry's parents' home in the Antilles.

"At Clarefontaine, we used to sit around and dream about playing at the World Cup. It was just a joke at the time." Henry made the fantasy reality in 1998. If Saha can maintain his Premiership form, and retaining his confidence may prove the key to that, next summer could see him follow suit.