Louis Saha is fast approaching 14 years in English football – eight of which were spent in the black and white of Fulham and the blue of Saturday’s opponents Everton.
At Craven Cottage, where he scored 64 goals in 144 appearances between June 2000 and January 2004, the Frenchman is recognised as a modern-day hero.
A loan spell at Newcastle United came in advance of his time in SW6, and it’s on the banks of the Thames where many believe Saha made his major breakthrough and shaped his love for English football.
“I think that’s probably fair to say,” said Louis to fulhamfc.com. “It’s where I really found my feet as a footballer and set my career on what has been a very memorable path. I was quite young at Newcastle, where I didn’t start too many games.
“But at Fulham I was given a chance and it’s where I really believed that English football was for me. I’ve now played for six different clubs in almost 14 years, so I’ve lived and breathed English football.
“I like the week-in, week-out desire to win games and be as good as you can. Home or away, the atmosphere inside the different grounds has been amazing. The support is incredible in this country. On top of that, the passion of the fans is also something that stands out.
“Looking back, Fulham was the ideal place for me. I went to the final game of the 1999/2000 season and watched the Team play. Straight away I liked what I saw, and I felt that I had something to offer – it was a good fit.
“Mohamed Al Fayed had laid out his plans to get Fulham into the Premier League, and I wanted to be part of that project. It was an exciting opportunity and to be part of that Team that eventually went up was very satisfying.”
Back then, the name Saha was emblazoned across the back of many a replica shirt. In fact, if you look closely as the masses move through Bishops Park and along Stevenage Road, you can still spot a few such was the player’s popularity.
“It gives me great pride, I’m happy that I had the respect of the fans,” he said. “But I like to think I’ve had that wherever I’ve played because I’ve always given 100 per cent. I had a good rapport with the Fulham fans, and from day one they made me feel very welcome.
“We went through a lot together; everyone will remember the season that we went up as Division One champions and into the Premier League. It was a great year and a very special time for all that were involved.
“Why did the fans take to me? It’s a difficult question to answer, but the goals obviously helped. The players around me made things very easy though and I have a lot to thank them for. Players like John Collins, Lee Clark and Luis Boa Morte had great technique and I was just fortunate to be on the end of their moves. For me, it wasn’t ever about one player, it was about the collective. Yes, we played some fantastic football, but that team spirit and togetherness also took us a long way.”
As Fulham went up as champions, Saha notched 27 goals in 43 appearances. Two goals against Manchester United in Fulham’s opening Premier League fixture followed in what was a period that, if the rumour is to be believed, first caught the attention of Alex Ferguson.
Legend has it that, when sat in his training ground office with then-Everton manager Walter Smith, Ferguson made a bet with his old friend that he wouldn’t be able to name the striker that topped his ‘most wanted’ list. “The boy from Fulham” proclaimed the United manager. “If I could have one striker in the world, it would be Louis Saha.”
In January 2004, Ferguson had his man, with Saha joining in a £12.8m deal. The Parisian would go on to win two Premier League titles, one League Cup and a Champions League.
“I definitely left with a heavy heart,” admitted Louis. “But it was a difficult move to turn down. Perhaps it was a little selfish – but I wanted to win trophies and that was a possibility at United. Even still it was a difficult choice.
“My time at United was good, although it was a period of many ups and downs, but I like to think about the positives. I played with some incredible players, under a great manager and improved as a result.”
Despite enjoying a largely successful four-and-a-half years at Old Trafford, it was a period punctuated by a series of injuries with the striker suffering with problems to his knee, ankle, calf and hamstring. When Everton’s David Moyes tempted him to Goodison Park in September 2008, many saw it as a gamble.
But just like he had done before, Saha proved to be a regular source of goals and endeavour for the Toffees. He still holds the record for the quickest-ever strike in an FA Cup Final after scoring just 25 seconds in the 2009 showpiece at Wembley.
“I loved my time at Everton and I scored a decent amount of goals,” said Louis. “Which for a striker is important. I knew what I was capable of and what I could offer, so for me, at least, it wasn’t really a gamble.
“The spirit at Everton was a lot like what we had at Fulham all those years before; it’s a very warm, family orientated club. It has a lot of history, and they have worked hard to get where they have.”
With two of his former clubs meeting on Saturday, the 34-year-old insists that he isn’t at all surprised to see Fulham and Everton turning heads this term.
“If you look at previous games between the two, of late, there hasn’t really been much between them when they have faced one another,” added Louis. “Everton look really good again this season, and they’ve certainly impressed. They have a great manager, and some very talented players, not to mention a lot of character – for me, come the end of the season they could well be pushing for a place in the top four.
“I think Fulham can use Everton as an example of what is possible. There are quite a few similarities between the two clubs and Fulham are in form too. They’re scoring a lot of goals and Martin Jol has them playing some really good football.
“It will be interesting to see how they get on, because like Everton, they’re one of the clubs that is making the Premier League even more exciting right now.”
From the Hammersmith and Gladys Street ends, fans of both Fulham and Everton hold Saha in high regard. Having left Everton last January, he joined Tottenham Hotspur on a short-term deal before taking residency at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light in August.
“My aims and targets now are different to the ones I had when I first came through,” admitted Louis. “I like to think I’ve still got something to give, and having arrived at Sunderland a little after pre-season it’s been a case of playing catch-up.
“I’ve gradually got back to where I want to be and I’m feeling good. Having talked about my time at Fulham and Everton, hopefully I can play my part again and make a difference for Sunderland.”
With the Black Cats visiting Craven Cottage in little more than two weeks’ time, having netted six goals against us since his departure, if involved, Fulham fans know only too well of the threat he brings.