Take your pick of the stories which El Hadji Diouf’s team-mates will tell you bear out Steven Gerrard’s eviscerating assessment of the player’s brief career at Liverpool.
There was the Sunday morning at Bolton Wanderers when Diouf was still proclaiming himself the victim of an unjust sending-off in a heavy defeat the day before, though TV replays had revealed otherwise. An infuriated senior player – who must remain nameless – chased Diouf around the canteen.
And then there was the time at Liverpool when a 20-year-old Neil Mellor, on his debut and told by manager Gérard Houllier that he would take a penalty if one was awarded, had the ball wrenched from his hands by Diouf.
It is the stories from behind the scenes, rather than the more notorious examples of Diouf’s behaviour – the spitting at Celtic fans during Liverpool’s Uefa Cup quarter-final or taunting of QPR’s Jamie Mackie as he lay on the pitch with his leg broken – which are the ones that make you wonder why Diouf seemed so surprised that Gerrard let him have it in his new autobiography.
Jamie Carragher’s own autobiographical analysis of the Senegalese, seven years ago, was even more unsparing. Carragher adored Houllier, his first Liverpool manager, but he, like many at Anfield, has always felt that the Frenchman was rushed into signing Diouf on the basis of a scintillating World Cup for Senegal in 2002, when he excelled in the opening day defeat of champions France.
Many at Liverpool feel Houllier returned too early after heart surgery and did not investigate the big claims about the player being made by Patrice Bergues, his former assistant, who was managing the striker at Lens.
“I arrived for pre-season training anticipating my first view of the players who’d turn us into title winners,” Carragher writes in Carra. “I returned home the same evening in a state of depression. Do you remember being at school and picking sides for a game of football? We do this at Liverpool for the five-a-sides. Diouf was ‘last pick’ within a few weeks.”
Carragher, who knew a few players at Liverpool, reflected that he had never met one “who seemed to care less about winning or losing”. He relates the story of the FA Cup defeat at Portsmouth in 2004, which effectively sealed Houllier’s fate. Michael Owen, who had missed a penalty, was in a state of desolation at Melwood the following day. Diouf drove in with rave music blaring out of his car and “danced across the car park” into the building. “You’d think we’d won the Cup, the way he carried on. His attitude disgusted me,” Carragher wrote.
If Houllier had only inquired, he would have found that Diouf was already a liability at Lens. There had been spitting incidents there before he left for Merseyside. There was hope when Sam Allardyce took him to Bolton that the smaller club might suit him better, feeding his own need for the celebrity status he still enjoys in west Africa. One of the player-liaison staff at Bolton effectively became his full-time PA and eventually went with him to Blackburn. But while Allardyce knew he could play – “he could be brilliant in the final third, winning free-kicks, holding on to the ball,” says one of the manager’s staff – there was nearly always trouble. From week to week, no one knew whether he would be interested.
And it seems there was never any telling him. His default position when one of them called him out was evidently the same as when he was stopped by a police officer late at night. “That person was always a ‘rah-cist’,” says one source, remembering the player’s enunciation. No one seems at all surprised that Diouf has levelled the same accusation at Gerrard, in light of the autobiography.
Allardyce tried dropping him periodically. He felt there was enough of a mutual understanding to take him to Blackburn, where Gerrard’s distaste for Diouf can only have deepened when the player taunted Liverpool fans at Ewood in January 2011 during the 3-1 defeat that led to Roy Hodgson being sacked as manager. This time, it was Gerrard who missed a penalty.
When Allardyce was dismissed, Diouf went on loan to Rangers, returning to the Ewood dressing room wearing his Rangers title medal around his neck. Manager Steve Kean ordered him out. When Kean instructed him to train at irregular hours, he refused. The Professional Footballers’ Association was called in to mediate.
There was another side. The Bolton staff will tell you that he was always the last player to leave charity appearances. The Blackburn players loved his cars. He had his Cadillac Escalade “wrapped”, allowing him to change the colour every few months. Gold and silver were favourites. But it is hard to find a player to argue with Gerrard and Carragher’s assessment that buying him was a big mistake.
Towards the end, Neil Warnock found his experience useful at Leeds on the big occasions which Diouf loved – most notably a League Cup upset against Everton at Elland Road in 2012. “He loved the spotlight,” says one source acquainted with that period. “He liked the bigger occasions. But he didn’t generally do away games.”
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