Ultimate United Articles
Louis Saha Heroes, Villains & Legends
A look at the career of a fantastic player, who had all of the necessary attributes to become an Old Trafford legend except, it seems, luck.
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
When Manchester United completed the second leg of The Treble in 1999, beating Newcastle United in the FA Cup Final, it slipped completely under the radar that a young French striker who had helped the Toon Army reach the final had been left out of the cup final squad altogether. While it probably wouldn’t have made a difference to the actual result – Newcastle were no match for the Red Devils – it is quite typical of Saha’s career. A consistent tale of what might have been.
Beginning his career with Ligue 1 club Metz, nothing about his early career suggested that this was a man who was going to become a top player, with an unremarkable record of just 5 league goals in 3 seasons. During the 1998-99 season, Newcastle United took him on loan. In 11 appearances, he scored just one league goal, although he did score the winner against Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup fifth round, helping the Tyneside club on their way to Wembley. He was rewarded with a place in the stands for the final.
A year later, an up and coming Fulham side paid £2.1 million to take him to Craven Cottage, and Saha scored 27 goals as the London club were promoted back to the top flight for the first time in more than three decades.
On the opening day of the 2001-02 season, while Old Trafford was welcoming its latest big money buy, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Saha showed Reds fans a glimpse of the future, scoring two goals of genuine quality, and terrorising the United defence all game. One of these goals was a superb chip over Fabien Barthez, and helped him win the Premier League player of the month award.
The next couple of seasons saw Saha score regularly, and show the sort of qualities that would eventually take him to Old Trafford. Early in the 2003-04 season, Fulham recorded a shock 3-1 victory at the Theatre of Dreams. Although Saha didn’t score that day, he had a hand in all three of the goals and was impressive throughout. Many pundits believe it was that performance that convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to follow up his interest. He signed him in the January transfer window a few months later.
Fulham did not want to sell their prize asset, but once United made their intentions clear, Saha pushed for the move to go through, and a £12.4 million deal was concluded. He made a goalscoring debut at the end of January 2004, netting a free kick against Southampton. As so regularly happens when a player moves to a bigger stage, within a month of signing for United, he won his first cap for France.
In his first half-season at Old Trafford, he scored seven times, with particularly impressive strikes against his former club and a double against Everton, in addition to the 15 goals he had already scored for Fulham that season. Unfortunately, he was cup-tied for the FA Cup Final win over Millwall, but the future looked positive. Saha was also called up by France to the Euro 2004 squad that summer.
Saha’s first full season didn’t exactly go to plan, as the injury issues that would blight his whole career began to surface. Added to the fact that United had also signed two other strikers over the summer, Alan Smith and Wayne Rooney, competition was fiercer than ever. The 2004-05 season was one of the dullest of Ferguson’s reign because, although United never looked like dropping out of the Champions League places, they never threatened to challenge for the biggest prizes either. Their Premiership and European campaigns disintegrated with barely a whimper. Saha made 22 appearances in total, although half of these were as a substitute and scored just twice.
Even more frustrating for Ferguson was the fact that many of the injuries that hampered Saha’s first full season at Old Trafford were picked up on International duty with France. A hamstring strain ruled Saha out of the opening months of the 2005-06 season, but he made his comeback in November scoring his first goal in the League Cup against West Bromwich Albion. He was eased back into the team gradually, and scored another two in the next round against Birmingham City, one of them an absolute screamer from 25 yards.
As 2006 rang in, so did an unbelievable run of form by Saha, whereas Ruud van Nistelrooy was falling out of favour with Ferguson. Despite the Dutchman’s incredible scoring record, the team looked more balanced when Rooney was played up top with Saha. United fans were starting to see what all the fuss was about now. He wasn’t just scoring goals, but great goals. Goals that showed exactly what a talent this lad had. His goals against Blackburn in the semi-final of the League Cup were absolutely top notch, and he bagged one in the final (which van Nistelrooy had been left out of) just for good measure. Against Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok Stadium, he netted a fantastic goal with the outside of his foot that not many strikers could have scored.
Saha finished the 2005-06 season with 15 goals from 30 appearances (10 of which were from the bench), and his partnership with Wayne Rooney looked to be blossoming. Despite a record of 150 goals in five years at Old Trafford, nobody was particularly upset when van Nistelrooy moved to Real Madrid, as it was a move which seemed to be ideal for both parties. United’s form in the second part of that season had been devastating at times.
Saha went to the 2006 World Cup with France although, despite his upturn in fortune for United, his biggest contribution at the tournament was to get booked in the semi-final for kicking the ball away, earning a suspension and missing the chance to play in the biggest game of all. Nevertheless, he returned to Old Trafford for the new season, and picked up where he had left off the previous campaign – scoring goals, netting in his first two games of the season against Fulham and Charlton Athletic, respectively.
Saha also carried this impressive form into United’s Champions League campaign, grabbing two against Celtic and the winner against Benfica at the Estádio da Luz. There was, however, a ridiculous turn of events in United’s return game with Celtic at Parkhead. With the Reds one down Saha found himself through on goal, but hesitated as though he thought he was offside, when what he really should have done was just blast it into the net. This seemed to affect his confidence, as a few minutes later United were awarded a penalty, which Saha promptly saw saved by Artur Boruc.
He responded by opening the scoring in Uniteds top of the table clash with Chelsea, a superbly accurate strike in which he bent the ball around both Ricardo Carvalho and Carlo Cudicini. It seemed like the wait was starting to pay off, as Saha ended the calendar year of 2006 with 23 goals for United.
The Injury Jinx Strikes Back
Unfortunately, that was where it seemed to end. No sooner had 2007 arrived and the French striker saw his injury curse strike again. While United took Swedish football legend Henrik Larsson on loan, Saha scored just one more goal in the remainder of the campaign, missing both the Premier League title run in and the 2007 FA Cup Final against Chelsea.
United bolstered their firepower over the summer of 2007, adding Carlos Tevez to a front line that already boasted Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even when fit, Saha saw his first team chances limited in what would be his final season at Old Trafford, during which he scored just five goals. Although he was an unused substitute for the 2-0 win at Wigan which clinched the Premier League title, he was not named in the squad for the 2008 Champions League Final win against Chelsea after declaring himself not to be 100%.
During the close season of 2008, Ferguson decided to cut his losses on a striker who, as he later described in his autobiography, was a great player but one that he “could never plan around”. It makes sense as well; how are you supposed to build a team around someone who is never fit? He was sold to Everton for an undisclosed fee, thought to be around £1.5 million. An absolute bargain, if you can keep him injury free.
As United invested a club record fee of £30.75 million in Tottenham Hotspur striker Dimitar Berbatov, Louis Saha slipped out of Old Trafford almost under the radar. He moved to Goodison Park, and spent three and a half years there, scoring plenty of crucial goals for them. He even scored the fastest ever FA Cup Final goal against Chelsea in 2009, although Everton would go on to lose the match 2-1.
In January 2012, David Moyes granted Saha a free transfer to Tottenham, and he signed a six month deal at White Hart Lane, as the London club unsuccessfully pursued a Champions League place. Released by Spurs at the end of that season. The 2012-13 season would be his last in professional football, in which he played for both Sunderland and Italian side Lazio, but didn’t manage to score for either. He announced his retirement from the game at the end of that season.
He should have been a legend
In terms of ability, Louis Saha was as good as any striker seen at Old Trafford in the Premier League era, a fact acknowledged by Ferguson in his most recent autobiography. The talent this lad had meant he was a born United player. Because he missed so much action through injury, it’s easy to forget about him, but the fact is that his unreliability in this area was his only weakness. He was strong, two footed, great in the air, had pace to burn and could score goals from inside or outside the box. His range of finishing was fantastic and he never seemed to suffer from confidence issues in front of goal. His belief in his own ability bordered on arrogance.
When he came back into the side during the 2005-06 season, his form and the different options he gave United meant that Ruud van Nistelrooy, a man who was the darling of the Stretford End and had scored a ridiculous amount of goals in five years with the Reds, found himself on the sidelines. The truth is that United looked a better team with Saha, as he didn’t expect the team to just feed the ball to him in the box, and be built entirely around him. He worked for the team as well.
What went against him was that, as Ferguson also mentioned, if he was feeling any kind of injury, if he wasn’t 120% fit, he wouldn’t play. This type of attitude cost him appearances in the 2007 FA Cup Final and the 2008 Champions League Final.
From 124 appearances for United, Saha scored 42 goals, which is a perfectly respectable record considering that a third of those appearances were made as a substitute. Had he not been so injury-prone, you would have to think that he would have doubled both of those tallies.
You have to wonder If Saha looks back over his career, and wonders what might have been. After all, he won two Premier League titles during his time at Old Trafford, when there are plenty of players who would love to be able to say they have won it once. But you have to think that he could have won so much more, as United continued to do after Saha left, and what’s more he could have been a key part of those successes.
Most United fans remember Saha with great affection, but in reality they only got glimpses of what he could do. If this fella had fulfilled his potential we could, and probably would, have been talking about a United legend.
Added by Philip Meese on 01/09/2018 13:00:03