Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Much a-Diouf about nothing

El-Hadji Diouf seems to have made light work of what seemed to be an incredibly tough situation almost two months ago. When the news broke that the ex-Liverpool striker was training with the first team squad at Thorp Arch, a predictable split between the fanbase sparked a war of words across the United forums. The controversy tested the most resolute of opinions. 

'I'd rather see us be relegated', 'This is brilliant, he epitomises Dirty Leeds' and 'I'll never support a thing he does' just to name a few. Of course, the latter was me. And here I am, bashfully going against my word, swallowing my pride (and with that, a little bit of dignity). I'm starting to like El-Hadji Diouf.

It'd be remissive of me to not defend my previous stance on the situation. Back in April, when the rumour mill churned out the connection to Diouf, the most obvious problem was the relationship between player and manager. Suffice to say, there's going to be an air of tension when comparisons to sewer rats are made. Apparently, though, that air could be cleared in the space of ninety minutes.

That hour and a half ran solely on Neil Warnock's criticisms and disputes that he felt should be put forward to the Senegalese forward. It'd been a brave decision by the United manager to give El-Hadji the time of day, but also a commendable conversing act to accept these biting blows in order to reconcile. I can't imagine that frosty reception came with a free drink, either.

Our first problem is quickly resolved; Though in football, negotiations aren't that black and white. In business, a contract is agreed between two parties and signed to complete the transaction. Here, the process is followed by critical assessment from thousands of ferociously loyal followers, to no objective end. Divisions of opinion spread like wildfire through supporters. El-Hadji Diouf only adds petrol to the flames.

Whilst some were supportive from the start, it's more than easy to accept the reasoning behind why so many were sceptical, or even disillusioned. Just weeks after the departure of talisman, captain and star of the side Robert Snodgrass, we were treated to a convicted felon with moral baggage to boot (all on a free transfer and small wages, too. That one almost passed unnoticed, nice try Kenneth). 

Three cases of spitting towards players and fans, dangerous driving without a license, caught in a nightclub brawl, proposing sexual indiscretions to a strangers' daughter and threatening behaviour towards fellow team-mates isn't really the list you want to reel off when your new co-workers ask to 'get to know you better'. This is what El-Hadji has to work with, though, and as such will always face the dilemma of never having unanimous support. 

It's a lot to accept when welcoming anyone to your club. There's no point trying to cushion any blows here; Football matters to the supporters, so accepting such a questionable character into the club can be a genuinely tough feat. What comes off as an unwilling mentality to back the team really is just a difference of opinion in what is best for the football club. It's a sad state of affairs that decisions like these can cause divisions on the concourse, but at least it shows there's fire in the belly yearning for the very best at Elland Road. 

It is only until you've been on both sides of the coin that you truly realise that each side has the same intentions. Prior to this, it was near impossible to gauge how having a player bring such controversy would be worth having at the club. At least with these divisions, the fans are still pulling in the same direction; For the best of Leeds United. It's hard to argue then that El-Hadji Diouf isn't a valuable asset for causing these divisions when despite them, we're still all hands on deck.

And so all that's left to consider is application; How does El-Hadji Diouf work in practice. It turns out quite well. On the field he has been a revelation. Despite shades of mediocrity away to Blackpool and Peterborough (where fitness remained an issue) it's hard to argue with the quality Diouf still holds. It feels almost impossible to shrug him off possession. His ability to cross is consistently superb, whilst his contributions to aid the performances of the younger pro's has been commendable. 

As for anything lacking, I still remain sceptical regarding his pace and his composure in front of goal, attributes that have given a more human touch to his all-round play. It's that lacking yard that was present a couple of years ago which makes me doubt if he holds the credentials to still succeed at the highest level. But let's not get ahead of ourselves; For this standard of football, you'll not find much better.

Praise for El-Hadji doesn't stop there. Question marks over his temperament seem almost void. Opposition fans and players haven't changed their ordinary routine of targeting a reaction, yet they've been left unsatisfied. Albeit early days, Diouf has risen above any attempts to rile him, and rather channelled the aggression into fuelling his performance further. As he approaches thirty, is it possible that Diouf has finally matured?

Whatever the case, it's clear that El-Hadji is revelling in his new role at Elland Road. Reminiscent of his days at Liverpool, he's surrounded by the essence of a big club again. The burden of stepping outside of that comfort zone into more humble beginnings hasn't raised it's head. His gold Cadillac would seem more out of place had it been parked outside of Oakwell. Luckily, they wavered any option to sign him earlier in the summer.

That pretentious monstrosity played token to the pantomime of El-Hadji Diouf, a symbol of all that has been. That arrogance and degradation isn't welcome flaunting around Leeds United. As I write this now, I'm constantly reminded of the possibilities under Diouf. Should you write 'Diouf' into Microsoft Word, it offers the auto-correct of 'odious'. Coincidence? Back in April, I'd have thought not. Even Bill Gates had him sussed.

But now, after two months, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. On the pitch, he's as hard-working as they come, battling on every blade of grass. He's a patron to his own charity foundation, working wonders over in Africa. His middle name, Ousseynou, supposedly brings meaning to accepting change, travel and new experiences. These aren't the characteristics of a psycho looking for a tear-up. These befit a man wearing elbow-pads and tweed.

As much as this new found maturity could simply be a ploy to win over the fans, it's difficult to envisage a return of old under Neil Warnock. Should consistency set in now his fitness levels have peaked, it's hard to imagine El=Hadji's stay at Elland Road being cut short. That is sure to delight many an advocate of the forward. Surprisingly, that includes me. At least I'm not alone when dining on some humble pie. Now pass me a fork.