Saha's season so far

Friday 8 March 2002

When Louis Saha netted two beauties at the home of the champions during Fulham's Premiership bow on the opening weekend of the season, he couldn't help thinking to himself: "Well, if I can beat Barthez twice at Manchester United, maybe I can score every game. . ."

Nothing seemed out of bounds right then for these fresh-air boys, not least for the exotic Parisian striker who, more than anyone, seemed to epitomise the rich elan and promise of Jean Tigana's revolution. United may have won the game 3-2 but Fulham delivered a statement of intent. "There was so much confidence from everyone," Saha recalls.

So much, indeed, that he could even allow himself the idle thought that, if he carried on in this same irresistible vein which had made him the country's leading marksman the previous season, he might yet find himself on the plane to the World Cup alongside his mate Thierry Henry.

"It was a step up everyone was expecting," he ponders.

Now here we are, seven months on, and Saha is at the club's Motspur Park training ground, musing over why it has somehow not quite worked to plan, for either himself or his club.

"I've played only to 50 per cent of my capability," he says. "My season? It's the same as Fulham's. I can do better and so can the team."

The night before, he had scored twice against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, playing with so much of his old lightning verve that it was hard to credit that it was only the third game in his last 25 in which he had found the target. Still, he also missed a sitter and Fulham had lost. "A symbol of our season," he shrugs.

It is said not with despondency, but a rueful "c'est la vie" smile. The engaging Saha is so popular with everyone at the club that there were more than a few prayers being silently muttered for him on Wednesday as he stepped up to take that first-half penalty which ended his recent torment in front of goal.

Not that he seems remotely tormented himself. "I've had a very strange season but I always remain the same even if things aren't going so well," he says. "I like smiling."

He may get more practice on Sunday night should Fulham negotiate yet another tricky away day at West Brom and thus book their first FA Cup semi-final date since losing to West Ham in the 1975 Final. It's the sort of game, he concedes, on which seasons are made or broken.

"We really need to do something this season and, personally, I think we deserve something," says Saha. An outing at the Millennium Stadium would underline the fact that, for absolute beginners blinking in the top flight, Fulham have actually done as well as anybody might reasonably have hoped, with mid-table security offering a base for a more concerted assault next season.

Thinking back about his own high expectations at the start of the season, Saha can now see that they were perhaps "unrealistic". Yet for all that this has been a swift, steep learning curve, he still cannot help thinking that, down the line, the team have let about 15 points slip away through missed opportunities in front of goal - 15 points, he did not need to add, which might have seen them challenging for a European spot.

This perfectionist pleads guilty to his own failings. He has scored eight this season when it should have been at least 15, he admits.

"I think we've still played some lovely football but every time, the same story. We've missed at least two or three chances every game - if not me, Barry (Hayles) or Steve (Marlet). Sometimes, it's about lack of concentration. Sometimes, the last pass may be too short or too long."

Sometimes, maybe, it has been down to too many bad breaks. He asks himself why shots which 12 months ago would have gone in via the woodwork now seem to strike a post and trickle away to safety - and he is flummoxed. All he knows is that it's been "very, very frustrating".

The spirit remains willing, though. Saha, whose father used to be Tigana's number one fan when he was painting masterpieces in the French midfield, seems just as enamoured of his boss, talking about the "magic touch" which he has brought to making life at the Cottage seem a mixture of hard slog but great fun.

He comes across as effervescent as Tigana is reserved, yet you can sense how the master's cerebral approach must rub off on his charges as Saha offers a thoughtful analysis of what Fulham need to take the step up towards the elite.

"We need strengthening in every department," he says. "We need a bigger squad, and maybe, how do you say, a mad player, a motivator who's very strong in the head, a Paul Ince-type player to help us communicate better."

In other words, someone to bring a bit of devilment amid all the pretty patterns.

Saha is a fan of Andy Melville's leadership, yet obviously still thinks the absence of his predecessor, Chris Coleman, following his car crash last year, has left a hole at the team's heart. "We've missed him so much. He could lead and help a player who's maybe down with good talking. Honestly, I think he helped make me score goals."

Through his trying season, Saha has discovered that "you learn more during the difficult times". Even if those start-of-season comparisons with Henry have become rather redundant now that his old French Academy pal has discovered his own planet to play on, Saha has not lost belief in his own rare ability to one day join him - and, perhaps, to even upstage him.

Saha enjoys a night down at Highbury - "I'm not a supporter, but not far from that," he smiles - and he and Thierry have already been joking that, even if the shared flight to Korea may be off, the prospect of a date on 4 May most certainly is not.

"Fulham-Arsenal. Oh, that would be great. Where's the Final being held?" Saha asks, proving that nowhere can ever quite replace Wembley. Still, if Cardiff should eventually prove the venue for King Louis to properly announce his second coming, he will remember all right. The man who likes smiling may never stop.