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Louis Saha on promotion with Fulham, Manchester United and Mitrovic’s ‘aura’

Staying on top of everything in football is not as easy as it used to be for Louis Saha.

The former France striker lists Manchester, London and Paris as his recent destinations for work as he speaks to The Athletic over Zoom from his home of the last 15 years near Cannes in the south of France.

“I don’t even take the time to read!” he laughs before being reminded he once said he hoped to write an animated film for children. “Thank for you reminding me of that too!”

But even somebody as busy as Saha has found it difficult not to be captivated by Fulham’s electric 2021-22 season under Marco Silva, which resulted in his first permanent English club returning to the Premier League and securing their first league title since Saha’s era two decades ago.

“The stats are unbelievable,” he says. “The tricky part will obviously be (doing) that in the Premier League. In the Championship, it was a joy to watch. Not only the goals, but the flair that they had up front. All those midfield players — young ones but also those who have been as famous or successful before.

“It could provide some surprises (next season) because those players have the level to shine in the Premier League.”

Saha knows a thing or two about winning leagues in a Fulham shirt. He was the star of Jean Tigana’s title-winning side in the 2000-01 second tier, then called the First Division, who were famed for outclassing opponents with their stylish attacking football. They racked up 101 points in 46 games, a total Silva’s Fulham could not quite replicate in 2021-22.

The current crop did, though, fare better in front of goal, scoring 106 times to the 2000-01 side’s 90. Leading the charge last season was Aleksandar Mitrovic, the most prolific striker in this corner of west London since Saha.

“He’s very impressive,” says Saha. “You ask any striker (and) it’s about goals. But he’s got this aura where he feels like he knows that he’s going to score.

“You know that if he’s fed the right way he’s going to score, because he anticipates the mistakes from defenders, he anticipates the tricks from his own players. He anticipates the tempo that the team needs. He’s a very dedicated player and a very smart lad. You always need that kind of arrogance as well, when you play at the top.

“He’s got every attribute. He can hold on to the ball, he can twist and be the guy that can surprise you with a trick because his touches are very good. Without having the fastest speed, he’s still very dangerous in every aspect of the game.”

Mitrovic mustered an astonishing 43 league goals from 44 appearances for Fulham, outdoing Saha’s 27 in 2000-01 and leapfrogging the Frenchman on the club’s all-time top scorer list along the way (96 goals to 63).

The two players were very different in style. Saha was quick and athletic, always able to escape on the blindside of a marker as well as leap impressively to attack aerial balls. But both struck fear into defenders’ hearts.

“It’s a combination of your attributes,” reflects Saha. “Speed, strength or finishing or whatever. And you are able to kind of optimise those elements and make sure that you are always dangerous. You know that you are in the mind of any defender and that gives a lot of confidence to your team-mates. You know how to be very dangerous. Some can be very vocal or use body language. He’s got all that.”

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Mitrovic led Fulham’s promotion charge last season (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Mitrovic has built up an excellent relationship with manager Silva, and Saha can relate. He says of Tigana: “He was immense; someone I really admired as a player (and) as a manager someone I trusted. It was very important because I was changing position. I used to be a winger. I wanted to play as a striker. He gave me the confidence to do that.”

Saha knew Tigana well before joining Fulham from Metz back home. “He was my agent,” he says. “When he decided to go to Fulham, he said he wanted me to join the project. Obviously he couldn’t be my agent any more. But he gave me the plan, the vision, and I bought into it.”

But Saha says their relationship was so effective because Tigana would challenge as well as support him.

“Mitrovic will need competition up front to make sure he still raises his game,” he adds. “Whatever his age, he still has to work harder and make sure he doesn’t think that, because he scored that many goals last year, he deserves a guaranteed place.

“After scoring all my goals, Tigana asked me, ‘What do you think about another striker?’ So I understood that competition will be there. He bought players like Steve Marlet to compete.

“At first, I was not totally happy because I didn’t understand. But he made me improve. I worked harder, and I became the player I became because of that. When I look back I say, ‘OK, he got me out of my comfort zone’. That was very important.”

Saha joined Fulham in the summer of 2000 after an unsuccessful loan stint at Newcastle in 1998-99, and initially stayed in a Wimbledon hotel before moving out to Epsom in Surrey and later to Harrods Village in Barnes, on the River Thames in west London.

He enjoyed learning English and was helped by the French-speaking contingent at the club, including Tigana, his assistants Christian Damiano and Roger Propos and Luis Boa Morte.

Boa Morte is now back at Craven Cottage as Silva’s assistant, forming a direct line between the past and the present.

“He’s someone I really, really admire because he’s always kept his positivity, his craziness, always a smile,” says Saha, who keeps in touch with his old team-mate. “An amazing guy, and very deadly honest.

“I wasn’t surprised (to see Boa Morte become a coach). He’s the type of guy that is easy-going, always making fun and makes you feel comfortable. That’s really important, especially when sometimes you have a manager who needs to detach himself from the players. He is going to be the right number two to do that, because he could be aggressive as well. He could say what you don’t like. All those things attributes were natural to him.”

Boa Morte was also the type of tricky, niggling player Saha believes Fulham will need to have in their squad next season if they are to avoid another swift return to the EFL.

“Fulham is a nice club, a family club,” he says. “But there has to be a bit of aggressiveness — not dirty, but able to be scrappy. And win the difficult games. Like Liverpool now, they are recognised as hard to play against, but they have flair players.”

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Saha playing for Fulham against future club Manchester United in 2001 (Photo: Mark Leech/Getty Images)

Saha scored 27 league goals and 32 goals from 48 matches in all competitions in the second tier. He stepped up to the Premier League and made an immediate impact with Tigana’s title winners, scoring twice as they went down swinging in a season-opening 3-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford and then again in a 2-0 home win over Sunderland in Fulham’s second game. He was voted Premier League Player of the Month for that August, his first month performing at that level, and ultimately helped Fulham comfortably stay in the Premier League.

“It was amazing,” he says. “It was a really fun moment in our careers. The competition, the hard work, and fun is something really rare in our game. So winning a trophy is the reward, but to score goals, and feel like we’re having fun at the same time, it’s just an amazing feeling — and a privilege. I appreciated every moment.”

Saha left Fulham for Manchester United, having impressed repeatedly against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. The decisive game was in October 2003, when Fulham secured their first win at Old Trafford in 40 years, with Saha shining.

“Against them, I played really well,” he reflects. “You had some players on the other side, like (countryman) Mikael Silvestre, telling you that, ‘Yes, the interest is real’, and some defenders from the club were trying to convince or add weight to the move. It was nice to see.”

Fulham were flying in the Premier League in 2003-04 under Chris Coleman, sitting two points off fourth place on New Year’s Day. Saha was hitting his best form, scoring 15 goals from 22 appearances before United signed him for £12.8 million.

His exit was unsavoury. Fulham announced they had rejected a bid in the December, and matters became very public. Saha threatened to run down his contract, while reports suggested a falling out with Coleman as the club tried to hold onto him. Saha says the nature of his departure stung.

“It comes to a point where you get frustrated, and it’s nothing to do with ego,” he says. “I think it’s more about when you have been told that you will have the door open, when the offer is coming, and you start from one price and it goes to another… and you can see very easily that this opportunity can (slip) away.

“So I was frustrated, because I knew it. It was the move I wanted. So I felt trapped in a way. All the people in the club obviously respected that.

“But sometimes I was portrayed in a bad way. So I was really upset about it because I was committed more than 100 per cent to the club and then to the fans. So I felt hurt.

“I realised it’s normal in this industry. I don’t think that anyone can look back at the situation (and not) totally understand why I left.”

The saga did not taint his reflections of Fulham — “I have absolutely no bad memories” — but he has concerns about the current state of Manchester United.

“I think the first thing to do to really rebuild is to make sure that whoever is playing with United understands that they need to be humble,” he says. “They need to recognise that whatever titles (they have won) or however many games they have played before, the goals they have scored, they should be understanding that nobody is guaranteed any places.

“From that humility, you build the really strong understanding about the core value that you want to spread in the game.

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Saha with Gary Neville in 2006 (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

“The style needs to be understood by everyone. There is no half a second where you have to think to play left or play right. (You) know we play for the team. Players need to have a good understanding, whatever they’ve been paid, or if the transfer fee is £100 million, they are still not bigger than the club.”

Saha is an ambassador for United now and is trying to help athletes as they move on from their sporting lives through Axis Stars.

“It’s important, because whether it’s trying to represent the players, or to protect the players, or helping the players in some way, they can’t really do it with full transparency,” he says. “What we are doing now is spread what I have learnt, what I had as an opportunity, to make sure that the young lads, or those just retired, can have access to those things without someone creating a barrier to actually providing expertise, providing advice, or a contact.”

He will be keeping an eye on Fulham, though.

“It is difficult for the clubs in the Premier League already,” he says. “You can see Manchester United, Everton, all those clubs are struggling to find the kind of platform where they feel secure.

“Any clubs coming into the Premier League from the Championship will have to start really well, and not have too many injuries. Mentally you have to be strong, but at the same time, you have to be very lucky in some way to convert your chances.

“If they find the right way to start the season, it’s going to be interesting.”

(Top photo: Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images)

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