If Louis Saha is affected by the increasing speculation linking him with a move to Manchester United in the January shop window, he is not showing it. Sitting back in a swivel chair at Fulham's impressive training base in Motspur Park, the Frenchman is a picture of calm and happiness.
So he should be. Fulham have made an impressive start to the new campaign, thus banishing any further talk of impending gloom on and off the field. Saha admits that there have been "very tough times" at the club recently - not least the sacking of Jean Tigana in March and the subsequent talk of the chairman Mohamed Al Fayed walking out - but believes that Fulham are finally in a position to fulfil their potential.
"Everything is in place for me to stay," says Saha, who will be offered a new contract in the next couple of weeks. "We've had a great start to the season and I am in a superb position at Fulham, so there is no reason to think about going anywhere."
No one doubts Saha's loyalty, but one wonders how he copes with the growing rumours surrounding a possible transfer to Old Trafford or today's League opponents Arsenal. "It doesn't worry me at all," is Saha's nonchalant response. "I see these stories every day and it just drives me to play better for Fulham. I like hearing that big clubs are interested in me, because it makes me knuckle down and work even harder."
Saha concedes that his feelings have changed radically since August, when the new manager Chris Coleman was about to embark on his maiden season in the hot seat and Fulham seemed to be heading for another difficult League campaign. "It's true that it would have been difficult to stay had things continued the way they were," says Saha, referring to Fulham's brush with relegation at the end of last season. "Every player here has ambitions and wants to play at the highest level. Going back down to the First Division would have been a disaster."
Playing matters aside, the 25-year-old striker was also very upset about Tigana's sacking. Saha, along with the likes of midfielder Sean Davis - who has only just come off the transfer list - felt that the architect behind the club's recent success had been disposed of far too carelessly. "I think that each and every player was disappointed by the manner in which Jean left," says Saha, who still keeps in touch with the man who brought him to the club in June 2000.
"Jean was responsible for taking us to the top, and he deserved better. It was very tough for us and I could certainly understand why certain players like Sean [Davis] wanted to leave. But we're a group again now, and I think that everyone at the club wakes up with a slightly wider smile every morning."
Unity seems to be the new buzzword at Fulham, thanks in the main to their fledgling manager. In keeping with that fresh spirit, Saha is quick to point out that his eight goals in 13 League games are the product of his team-mates' endeavours. "The reason why I've had a much more regular campaign is that everyone at the club is giving their all at the moment," he says. "So far as spirit and combativeness are concerned, we're performing at an unbelievably high level. I'm getting the goals, but this has definitely been a team effort."
Saha is being modest. True, Fulham have pulled together, but he deserves credit for the way he has reinvented himself as a lone striker. "Now that we play a 4-5-1 system," he explains, "I have to be a much more complete centre-forward. I have to hold the ball up better, make more runs, come to get the ball a lot deeper, and take my chances when I get them. It's been a real challenge, and I've had to work hard to adapt, but I think I'm there now and I've enjoyed it."
Coleman believes that we are now seeing "the real Louis Saha", the Saha who terrorised defences and scored 32 goals when Fulham won the First Division title in 2001. "Louis is realising his potential," the top flight's youngest manager says. "He understands how the Premiership works, and that's made all the difference to his goal scoring. But he deserves his success. He's always the first on the training field and the last off. He's been different class for me."
Saha will have to perform at his very best again today, when Fulham travel to Highbury to take on an Arsenal team who put five past Internazionale at the San Siro in midweek. "This may sound strange," Saha smiles, "but I think it's almost the best time to play them because we have nothing to lose. We will be away against a great team, so I think we'll be totally liberated. We won't be scared, and I feel we could repeat our result against Man U."
The key to that 3-1 win at Old Trafford earlier this month was keeping Ruud van Nistelrooy quiet, and the same discipline will be required against Thierry Henry, who has been shortlisted for the World Player of the Year award. "He's the most complete striker in the world right now," says Saha, who was at France's national academy in Clairefontaine with Henry, and hopes to join his friend with the senior team one day. "I am not surprised by his success. Mentally and physically, he is a monster. He is a real competitor and, with his ability, he could score five goals every weekend."
Saha, for his part, would settle for one today.
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