Saha's reddy made

Saturday 13 April 2002

Fulham's flamboyant French striker is famed for his extravagant flair and his crazy hair.

But after a difficult season as Fulham made their Premiership debut, Saha has lost his image as a ruthless batterer of defences.

The man who topped the First Division goal charts with 32 last season has typified Fulham's struggles in the top flight - bundles of talent but not enough end product.

Saha sprang on to the scene as a beaded Venus Williams lookalike in the summer of 2000 and later adopted a bleached-blond barnet.

If Fulham defeat arch-rivals Chelsea in tomorrow's FA Cup semi-final, Saha reckons he will dye his locks bright red for the trip to the Millennium Stadium.

But the likeable Parisian insists it will then be time to get serious.

Not just because he will become a father for the first time next month but because he is sick of his image as the Mr Cool of Craven Cottage.

Many have questioned Saha's commitment because of his laid-back demeanour.

And Saha, 23, said: "It has been the case with every manager that they think I look too nonchalant, too relaxed - but it's so wrong, it's simply not true.

"There is something about the way I look on the pitch that suggests I am too cool and casual and that I'm not committed enough.

"I know some of the supporters think that but they must realise how much football means to me.

"When I first came here I was concentrating totally on my football and this season my biggest mistake has been never thinking about anything else.

"I've become obsessed with the game and, for seven months, never took a break to see friends in France and talk about something other than football.

"It's always football at training or at home - and my girlfriend is fed up with it."

Long-term partner Aurelie is due to give birth to their first child next month. And Saha said: "It's a boy and I already know he's right-footed from the way he kicks.

"He's going to be a striker. I will have to start being sensible when I become a father - but if we get to the Cup final, I will dye my hair red.

"I like to change my haircut all the time but it will all have to stop soon."

Tomorrow's Villa Park showdown with Chelsea is arguably Fulham's biggest match since their only previous FA Cup final appearance - a defeat to West Ham back in 1975.

But Saha admits his side's precarious Premiership position is still a major worry - they are 16th, just four points above the drop zone.

The Frenchman netted his ninth goal of the season to earn a priceless point against Newcastle at St James' Park on Monday night.

And he admitted: "If we get into Europe but go down to Division One it would mean nothing.

"We deserve more than just survival this season. We deserve to win something because we've worked so hard.

"We drew at home with Chelsea and lost 3-2 away but we played well, so it is our turn to beat Chelsea and we believe we can."

The semi-final is likely to pit Saha and strike partner Steve Marlet against fellow Frenchmen Marcel Desailly and William Gallas.

Saha said: "I was with Gallas at the French national academy in Clarefontaine for two years and we also played together for France Under-21s. We keep in touch in England.

"It's very important for me to do well against Desailly and Gallas. They have very high standards and it is good to measure yourself against them.

"But confidence is very important for a striker and it has been difficult for me because I have not scored enough goals this season.

"I have been happy with the chances I have been getting but I've been hitting the bar or missing open goals - sometimes I've been unlucky and sometimes just not good enough."

Fulham boss Jean Tigana was a hero in the football-crazy Saha household for his role in the great France side of the 1980s.

Saha's father, who acted as his agent during his £2.1million move from Metz, was gobsmacked when he first heard from Tigana.

The striker said: "The first time Tigana phoned my father and said he wanted me, my father thought it was unbelievable.

"My family talk about nothing else but football. My brother is 11 and he is quality - I think he'll go to Clarefontaine too."

As Saha chats away, he is sitting beneath a photo of Gordon Davies, Fulham's all-time record scorer with 159 goals.

Saha is intrigued to hear about his predecessor's exploits and the fact Davies now makes his living as a pest-control man.

He added: "Did he really get 159 goals for Fulham? That is surely too many for me to overtake."

Just one winning goal against Chelsea, Louis, and you'll rank alongside that little Welsh rat-catcher in Fulham folklore.