In a fairy tale world, if the story of El Hadji Diouf at Leeds was to be optioned as a film script for a sporting underdog film, then doubtless the voice-over man would be talking in his most overtly earnest, nauseating manner about “a man” embarking on “a journey” that would “forever change him and all those around him” as he sought to fulfil “his destiny”.
Leeds United don’t do fairy tales though, they were cast out of the West Stand in black bin bags, along with the tropical fish, the ‘Peter Ridsdale: My Leeds United’ DVDs and any licence to dream that Leeds supporters had left residing in the deepest recesses of their inner selves. And now, Just as we’ve started to believe again, we’ve dealt with the hatred, grudges and suspicion and have our economy class journey tickets booked (including the mandatory £1 transaction fee), it all looks like falling down again, long before the interminable middle act – that’s September through ‘til April, to you and me – gives may to the glorious May finale.
If so, that would be a real shame, as it’s already been quite a trip already…
“When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet fills the sky, and the Holy Roman Empire Rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his brother, until man exists no more”
The Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, predicted the coming of the Antichrist.
Now before I go any further I feel I must come clean; I’m not a religious man, nor are the words above an actual verse from the Bible; as much as any understanding I have of the machinations of government is fundamentally informed from spending my formative years immersed in the ‘Planet of the Apes’ franchise, my sound bites on religion are similarly, predominantly lifted from dialogue immortalised in celluloid rather than anything learned in the pages of religious text. As I credit my intimate knowledge of Ezekiel 25:17 and the path of the righteous man to Samuel L. Jackson, I have Patrick Troughton and Gregory Peck to thank for my intel on any impending Armageddon fuelled by the black sheep of Christianity.
At this juncture I need justify why I’ve strayed into a discussion of the profound influence of ‘The Omen’ and contemporary American cinema has had upon my existence; you see, the prospect of, and certainly the reaction amongst supporters to the arrival of El Hadji Diouf was akin in some quarters to the arrival of the Devil’s own, himself. In more extreme cases, I had visions of the most morally devout Leeds United supporters denouncing their own footballing religion, and others who dare turn up to the Shrewsbury game, only doing so armed with Evian bottles filled with holy water…just in case.
In theory this represented the ultimate nightmare scenario; in 1989 we kicked-off the season with our own Elland Road ‘Holy Trinity’ – Howard Wilkinson, Gordon Strachan and Leslie Silver, one corner of Beeston’s very own ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’; 23 years on and we had Neil Warnock, El Hadji Diouf and Ken Bates – to some, it was as if the ‘Unholy Trinity’ had played it’s hand, the False Prophet, Antichrist and Satan were incumbent at Elland Road, the very antithesis of the blessed three from days of yore.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed that “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”. Back in May, with the club unable to afford the transfer fee for Joel Ward, Neil Warnock found himself gazing into the abyss, then once again with the season upon him and the takeover seemingly no nearer to resolution, he gazed again…both times, El Hadji Diouf stared back. Whether in the process of making eye contact, Diouf dropped in a cheeky wink is unclear. But something resonated with Warnock; he must’ve detected something redeemable, an opportunity to re-incarnate a sewer rat as a lion – or was the situation just that desperate?
Many doubted Warnock, and initially with some justification, as despite a few nice touches and flashes of class, Diouf drifted in and out of games. Playing out on the right didn’t seem to sit well with the player or the balance of the team and the philosophy of positioning such an attack minded, and partially fit player there left Leeds badly exposed in wide areas. Then came Blackburn; the turning point.
Following what could charitably be described as a mauling during the opening half hour of the game, I like many found my tolerance levels slipping; Diouf, playing out wide on the right-hand side of midfield had twice failed to track his man, twice leaving his full-back exposed, and twice costing the Whites goals. Suddenly though, Blackburn started to drop back, high balls started to rain in on Paul Robinson and then, just before the interval, a chance for Diouf to redeem himself…he did, scrambling home from less than a yard; 2-1.
Whether it was the goal or the bollocking from Warnock, Diouf came out a rejuvenated man, the flame inside, for so long, meekly glimmering, suddenly alight again. He could’ve gone on to be the hero that day but missed glaringly from short range in the dying moments, but his time was soon to come… a couple of minutes into the next game in fact.
Two minutes. That’s how long it took for Ross McCormack to go down in a heap at the Cardiff City Stadium, and only now with Millwall upon us, is he back in contention for the first team squad. Initially that day, Luke Varney stepped into the void (yeah, I know!), but come half-time, Diouf was introduced, Varney pushed back into a position where anonymity isn’t quite as counter-productive in a side chasing a goal, and everything else is history.
Diouf started up front for the next game against Hull and on that evening and in the weeks that followed, somehow embarked on a voyage of reinvention: from sacrificial lamb, to talisman to the main man; while Becchio continued to score the goals and remained pivotal to Warnock’s style of play, it is Diouf who now assumed the role as the most integral cog in Leeds’ attacking play. Though Luciano will forever give his all, there are times when he can be almost totally nullified in games, Diouf’s ability not only to hold up the ball and bring others into play, but to see passes, to make runs few others do, to find intelligent positions, and to beat players, has set him apart.
Arguably the most refreshing aspect about Diouf is that he’s the first player of proven class and ‘know how’ that the club have actually signed in for many years; it’s not that we haven’t had the good fortune of being able to witness any players of ability in recent years, it’s just that in each case, they have graduated through the Academy or been picked up as raw young players, only to be sold (usually to Norwich) long before they’ve had the opportunity to reach their prime and develop into savvy, experienced pros.
Rehabilitation through performances has been Diouf’s most potent methodology, but learning from others beloved in LUFC folklore has also proved a highly effective tool. Like Andy Hughes, Diouf has always been there leading the applause of the supporters come the final whistle of games, typically the last to leave the pitch and mindful to reciprocate with an appreciative gesture any backing made during the course of the game. He’s even taken to greeting disabled fans from time to time, as Vinnie so famously did back in happier times. In Warnock, he has been blessed with a consummate role model for anyone wanting to know how to stage a charm offensive to win over doubters, and how he’s taken every single suggestion on board.
The evidence of his success is apparent both in the stands and the dressing room. At Monday night’s Lorimer’s Bar event, fellow players were quick to praise their team mate, talking of the positive influence he’s had upon the dressing room and what he’s brought to the side; supporters meanwhile were lapping up his tongue in cheek tales of checking into more upmarket hotels than the others for away trips and him only owning 6 cars…such claims, if made by a John Terry would spark distaste – it seems that Diouf has the charm and force of personality to get away with it. The Leeds dressing room has sorely lacked characters since the departure of Prutton and Hughes; it seems we now have a natural heir.
With all that accomplished, you might then ask yourself how Diouf could possibly now fail; Leeds fans have always immortalised rogues as long as they’re giving it all for the cause. Eric Cantona was a cult hero before even kicking a ball, purely down to the reputation he established and the carnage he left on his native shores of France. Had some of Diouf’s most recent sins not been committed against LUFC and Warnock, then you wonder whether – doubts about his ability to play, aside – he may have been embraced immediately, in much the same vein. The recent outlandish claims by the Senegalese FA that an angered Diouf (on the grounds of his non-selection) was responsible for a riot during their last international, having supposedly paid for 1000 hooligans to attend, can surely only add to his aura.
In many ways, Diouf has become the personification of how many outsiders view our club; stereotypes and attitudes we so revel in; a “sewer rat” and a baying crowd of “vile animals” – the synergy is undeniable. Like Leeds fans react to “We all hate Leeds Scum!” chants with mockery, and just as Warnock bats away the abuse of opposition supporters, we also now have Diouf looking those same detractors in the eye and laughing in their faces. Ask anyone who saw how he dealt with the recent barracking he received from the travelling Forest and Barnsley contingents.
So what of the future? I dare not speculate while there is a contract extension yet to be signed, and in the weeks immediately preceding the takeover announcement, it did appear that the same old Leeds United problem has again reared its ugly head – the wages, the ambition… mercifully since then, the noises have been more positive and it must be hoped that the new owners succeed where the departing owners so often failed.
After all, how damning would it be of GFH if the first thing of genuine substance they were to do on their watch was to bid farewell to another key player, much in the fashion that our current tyrant has become so accustomed to? In Diouf, it would be also be more than just letting another important cog in the faltering Leeds machine go, it’d represent a lost opportunity to achieve something unique; for Leeds United to rehabilitate a ‘bad un’; the club have created enough, embraced many, but perhaps with the exception of Vinnie – but he was on upwards curve and always struck me as a pussycat at heart anyway – we’ve never salvaged a player from the dark abyss and seen them depart, a hero. This could be our one great opportunity, pissed away!
That said, even if Diouf does stay it could all of course still go wrong; everything destroyed in one single flashpoint. But I get the impression that our adopted Senegalese bad boy has mellowed somewhat – who couldn’t have, following a spell at Doncaster? Perhaps the Keepmoat experience was a revelatory, enlightening experience; a re-birth, as opposed to a precursor of football pestilence up the road?
El Hadji Diouf it seems is not the Antichrist, nor is he the Messiah… just a very naughty boy. His spell at Elland Road could yet rescue his reputation (well, okay at least to a degree); he could prove to be the cut-price catalyst to a promotion charge. Or then again, it could go very wrong and make Neil Warnock’s decision to bring him on board as flawed as Dennis Wise’s decision to make Kevin Nicholls the club captain; but doesn’t that just make the whole thing more exciting?!
I close my piece by returning to the Bible, and this time a passage that actually does reside in the Book of Revelation – albeit, again my source was ‘The Omen’ – it states:
“Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666” Book of Revelation (13: 18)
El Hadji Diouf – United’s 21.