On 19 August 2001, A young 23-year-old Louis Saha sold himself to the world. Fulham were playing away to Manchester United in their first ever Premier League game and Saha was a key part of a side that had easily clinched promotion with five games to spare in the First Division, the season prior. The Frenchman who had been signed for £2.1 million from Metz had scored 27 goals in Fulham’s promotion campaign and would carry that form into the top flight of English football.
United’s home record in the league under Sir Alex Ferguson had been pretty phenomenal up to this point. They’d only lost 12 games at home in the eight seasons that the Premier League had existed and it was extremely rare that a newly promoted side would even put up a fight, let alone try and win. Fulham almost did that though and it’s what took Saha’s career to the next level.
Just four minutes in, Saha silenced Old Trafford. Sean Davis sent a long ball over the United defence and Saha beat Gary Neville to the ball. Saha took a touch to bring the ball down and then curled the ball over the bewildered and lost Fabien Barthez who turned round to hopelessly see his side go 1-0 down, in their first game of the season.
United fought back through a David Beckham free-kick to bring the score back to 1-1 at half time but Saha would cause havoc all afternoon for Ferguson’s side. Just three minutes into the second half, Steed Malbranque played Saha in again and Neville couldn’t keep up with him. After easily fighting off the tackle from the United full-back, Saha managed to get a shot away with the inside of his right foot from just inside the United box.
Bahrtez this time at least made an attempt to save the ball but it rendered useless. Saha’s effort found the bottom-left corner of the goal in front of the Scoreboard End, to re-give Fulham the lead.
United came back in the end to win the game 3-2 but Saha had now announced himself on a global stage. It was a really impressive performance against a defence that included the likes of Jaap Stam and Mikaël Silvestre. More performances like this one against the best sides in the league would eventually lead to his transfer to United. Saha scored two against Chelsea as well and ended the 2001/02 season with nine goals and a player of the month award to his name.
This strong start to life in the Premier League and more goals in the next two seasons would ultimately lead to his move to United. Saha played his part in Fulham’s UEFA Intertoto Cup triumph in 2002, scoring against Greek side AO Egaleo in the Third Round and in his final season and a half at Craven Cottage, Saha scored 22 goals.
It was enough to persuade Ferguson to sign him for £12.4 million in January 2004. Despite United already having the likes of Ruud Van Nistelrooy that could play up front, Ferguson had seen enough of Saha to spend big money at the time on him. Another good performance from the Frenchman at Old Trafford where Fulham beat United 3-1 earlier on that season, proved to be the final catalyst for him moving clubs.
United were getting a different option to Van Nistelrooy. Despite the Dutchman being one of the greatest natural finishers to have played the history of the club, he lacked pace and there was no one yet (Wayne Rooney joined the following summer) that could step up when he wasn’t in the team. Ole Gunnar Solskjær had been plagued by bad injuries, Diego Forlán for all of his cult hero status was struggling for form and Daniel Nardiello had been loaned out and was far too inexperienced to be relied upon as a second choice in the team.
Saha offered something different. He could scare defences with his pace and didn’t need the same amount of service as Van Nistelrooy. Ferguson obviously saw this by starting Saha in his debut Vs Southampton just seven days after he signed. This ended up being a dream debut for the Frenchman. A deflected free-kick from Saha gave United the lead after 17 minutes, and it was Saha’s strong shot that was pushed out by Antti Niemi 20 minutes later into the path of Paul Scholes, which led to United going 2-0 up. Southampton played a high press which let Saha get into areas behind the defence.
More teams that Saha came up against were also struggling to control the agile Frenchman. In his next game against Everton, Saha scored another two goals and by the end of the 2003/04 season, Saha had seven goals to his name in 12 appearances. The season may have been a disappointing one for United in being beaten to the title by Arsenal, but for Saha it had been great. He had even got one over against Fulham by scoring on his return there in a 1-1 draw.
Although it didn’t count for much in the end, A late equaliser against Arsenal at Highbury in March showed that big matches with a lot at stake were something that Saha was not phased by. A call-up to France’s Euro 2004 squad was a fair reward for someone who had hit the ground running halfway through a season.
However, 2004/05 would be difficult and would end up being a sign of things to come for Saha. United signed Rooney in the summer from Everton which meant that Saha was already going to have to compete with two of the best strikers in the world. Injuries also meant that he barely got a run in the side. A knee injury in September whilst playing for France would rule Saha out for a month and then just as he was starting to recover, he got injured again. In the same place. This time it was more serious and Saha would be out for two months.
Saha only made two more league appearances that season than the season prior where he had joined halfway through. One goal to his name would not be enough to compete with the likes of Rooney who had been scoring goals for fun and bagging hat-tricks in the UEFA Champions League.
A third injury to his hamstring that Saha also picked up in the summer would mean that it would be November until we saw him back in a United shirt. Time was running out for Saha as Rooney and Van Nistelrooy were now firmly established together in the squad.
It would be the Carling Cup that would give Saha the opportunity to establish himself back in the first team. West Brom in the Round of 16 would be the springboard that Saha was desperate for. He needed something to build his confidence back up on after what had been such a disappointing season before. A goal and an assist in a 3-1 win was exactly what he needed. It wasn’t a remarkable performance but it just gave Saha that extra bit of confidence that he needed to come back with. More goals followed in the Quarter-Final against Birmingham and in both legs of the Semi-Final against Blackburn.
United had reached the final and now Ferguson had a dilemma on his hands. Who does he pick up front for the final? It was against Wigan Athletic and United would probably win no matter who they had up front so it had turned into dressing room politics.
Saha had played every game bar one in that competition and had played a big part in his side reaching the final whereas Van Nistelrooy had only played both legs of the Semi-Final and his relationship with Ferguson was beginning to fray after interest from Real Madrid wasn’t going anywhere. Saha ended up forcing his way back into the team and it was Rooney that would pair up with Saha in Cardiff. Van Nistelrooy had been dropped to the bench.
Saha was now back. He scored as United easily tore apart Wigan 4-0 and he picked up his first silverware for the club in the form of the three-handled Carling Cup. (He didn’t get an FA Cup medal in 2004 as he was cup-tied.) This game was the start of the journey to the 2008 Champions League final. A squad that was in transition was now starting to slowly form into shape and come the start of the 2006/07 season, Saha was in that starting eleven. Seven goals in the league in 19 appearances also equalled the tally he got in his debut season.
Van Nistelrooy’s transfer to Real Madrid had given Saha a place back in the team and he was becoming one of the best poachers in Europe. The emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo had changed United’s style of play which just didn’t fit Van Nistelrooy. Saha now started up front alongside Rooney with Ronaldo out wide.
This would be Ronaldo’s breakthrough season. This is where the floppy haired ‘show-pony’ would turn into the player that would absolutely terrorise defences with his skills and pure speed. It should’ve been Saha’s as well. Again, injuries would set back his career. He started the season well, scoring against Fulham and Charlton in the first two games of the season and he signed a new three year contract. Everything seemed like it was finally going upwards for Saha. Just as he was starting to establish himself in the team, he got injured again.
Groin, hamstring and knee injuries would prematurely end Saha’s season. He missed United’s 1-0 defeat in the 2007 FA Cup final against Chelsea and only scored one goal in the second half of the season. United’s last game of the season was to West Ham United and just like Saha did six years prior, a certain Carlos Tevez shocked Old Trafford by silencing the crowd by giving West Ham the lead inside the first half. The goal ended up saving West Ham from relegation and Ferguson picked up Tevez in the summer on a two-year loan. He was losing patience with Saha and his injuries.
By the time the 2007/08 season had come around, there was no chance for Saha to force his way back into that side. He was approaching 30 and injuries were now beginning to take their toll and he was losing his most important asset in his pace. Tevez had joined up with Ronaldo and Rooney and together they had created one of the best attacking trios the Premier League has ever seen. Saha was being left out a lot more and was deteriorating. His hamstring injury ruled him out towards the back end of the season and despite being fit for the Champions League final against Chelsea, he wasn’t even in the squad.
Injuries once again had stopped him from being a part of one of United’s most historic games in the Ferguson era. He missed France’s World Cup final as well in 2006 due to injury and this was another occasion where he had missed out on a massive game just because of bad timing.
If Saha was just a bit more lucky with consistency and injuries then there is no reason as to why we wouldn’t be talking about a front three of Ronaldo, Rooney and Saha instead of Tevez. If he’d had stayed fit he would’ve fitted in perfectly into that line-up with his pace and agility. Unfortunately, Saha only scored five goals in the 2007/08 season and it would be his last at the club. A move to Everton in the summer would end his time at United.
Saha on his day was unplayable. Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville both admit that he was one of the hardest players they’d ever played against in training and he was a very useful player against certain sides that would press high. 28 goals in 86 PL appearances isn’t a bad return but it could’ve been so much more for someone that promised so much when he first joined.