PICTURE the scene. Liverpool go big and go early on a young talent to bolster the forward line, the African Player of the Year no less. A big money deal is signed, sealed and delivered on the first day of June. No messing about.
Said player — who is headed for Anfield at the expense of an on-loan striker with Premier League pedigree liked by players and fans alike — then stars for a little fancied country at the World Cup, helping his team to defeat defending champions France and go on to secure an unexpected place in the quarter finals.
Liverpool’s early business is heralded as a smart move and a potential money-saving one at that, despite only being £1million short of the then club record, with the 21-year-old forward named in FIFA’s All-Star Team of the Tournament.
A Premier League debut follows, with Liverpool’s manager left purring about a player that could play “in four positions”.
The first time he graces Anfield two goals follow. And even the masterful John Barnes offers praise for his dribbling skills.
It all started so well. The player had so much promise. We had dreams and songs to sing for the lad. We welcomed his flamboyance and thought we had a star in the making…
A shame then that El Hadji Diouf turned out to be such a bellend at Liverpool that the mere mention of his name sparks furious anger from so many in 2017.
It is worth revisiting those early days though. Because how Diouf is perceived now is very different to how he was perceived then, by fans and the wider public at least, if not his team-mates. To us, he wasn’t always the spitting gobshite that so regularly rattled the cage of two of Liverpool’s most loyal servants, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.
In fact, early indications were that Gerard Houllier had made a worthwhile signing in Diouf, who was later named in a list of the best 125 people of all time to play football by Pele. No, really.
Diouf had pace, he didn’t lack confidence, he could beat a man with ease, and initially the World Cup star excited the Anfield crowd — so much so that he was even afforded his own terrace ditty, the dubious: “Diouf, Diouf, Diouf is on fire.”
After that early starring show on his home debut versus Southampton, Houllier, who had passed up on signing Nicolas Anelka to go for Diouf, purred: “I said El Hadji Diouf was something special. No one here had heard of him before the World Cup. Everyone has now.”
Diouf, however, did not kick on from the promising start. Either sub, or substituted, full games were at a premium. In fact, after playing the 90 minutes of a Charity Shield defeat to Arsenal at the start of August 2002, Diouf didn’t chalk up another full game for the first team until October 19, an away win at Leeds when his significantly less-talented compatriot Salif Diao was the unlikely match-winner.
Carragher, who has labelled Diouf the worst player he played with, claiming he didn’t care if he won or lost a game, revealed in his autobiography Carra that he had his doubts from the get go.
“I arrived for pre-season training anticipating my first view of the players who’d turn us into title winners,” Carragher said. “I returned home the same evening in a state of depression.
“Do you remember being at school and picking sides for a game of football? We do this at Liverpool for the five-a-sides. Diouf was ‘last pick’ within a few weeks.”
A third goal in red for Diouf didn’t arrive until the November, followed by a fourth in December. Both were strikes in the League Cup, underlining his early relegation to the periphery of a squad that also boasted Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and Milan Baros in the goalscoring positions.
Injuries eventually afforded Diouf a chance in January 2003, and the Senegalese started 19 games in succession from the turn of the year, including the League Cup final when Liverpool defeated Manchester United 2-0 in Cardiff.
By now though, Diouf — a £10m buy recommended by Houllier’s former assistant Patrice Bergues to play up front — was being deployed on the wing, and while he sometimes whipped in a decent cross, he ended the season with just six goals to his name from 47 appearances.
He also ended that season tagged as a troublemaker after infamously shaming Liverpool with his fan-phlegming antics at Celtic Park in the UEFA Cup; his spitting at supporters costing him a fine of two weeks’ wages from the club, £5,000 from the Glasgow Sheriff Court and a two-match ban from Europe.
The following season Houllier continued to show faith in his big-money signing but there was little in the way of stand-out performances or memorable moments. Diouf ended the season without a single goal to his name — the only player to wear the number nine at Anfield to manage that unenviable feat.
Gerrard wrote in his first book: “Being around Melwood and Anfield I knew which players were hungry, which players had Liverpool at heart. Diouf was just interested in himself.
“His attitude was all wrong. I felt he wasn’t really arsed about putting his body on the line to get Liverpool back at the top.”
The former skipper followed that up in his second book by claiming football seemed to get in the way of Diouf’s social life. Ouch.
Houllier was sacked at the end of Diouf’s second season, being replaced by Rafa Benitez, and soon Diouf was on his way, too. The new manager clearly had little time for the player, omitting him from the pre-season tour and not even giving him a squad number.
Come August, he joined Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, initially on a year-long loan before a permanent deal was struck despite Diouf serving a three-match ban for spitting at Portsmouth’s Arjan De Zeeuw
More controversies followed. He was fined for spitting at a Middlesbrough fan before later being at the centre of allegations that he was racist towards a ball boy at Goodison Park, which he countered with claims he had bananas thrown at him (none were ever found by police).
Neil Warnock later compared Diouf to a “sewer rat” when he appeared to abuse QPR’s Jamie Mackie as he lay on the floor with a broken leg.
Later in life, the man who spent nine years in the Premier League with Liverpool, Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland began to aim a series of increasingly deluded and bizarre public statements in the direction of Gerrard and Carragher.
“I carried the national team for many years, 14 million fans on my shoulders. When we won, it was thanks to me, when we lost, it was my fault,” he said last year.
“What I represented for Senegal, he [Gerrard] never managed 100th of that for England. He has never done anything in the World Cup or the Euros.
“When I arrived at Liverpool, seeing as I just did what I wanted, he thought that I did not respect the club.
“But he downright killed his team by slipping against Chelsea. If Liverpool has never won the Premier League, it’s no accident. What goes around, comes around.”
Around the time of Gerrard’s retirement, Diouf described him as “nothing at all” in a fist-biting TV interview. That’s Gerrard, 710 games for Liverpool, 186 goals for Liverpool, seven major trophies for Liverpool, 114 caps for England versus Diouf, 80 games for Liverpool, six goals, one trophy and 69 caps for Senegal.
On Carragher, Diouf said last year: “The difference between Jamie and me is that I am a world-class player and he is a shit. The type of shit that writes a book and mentions me all the time. Me, in my book, he does not warrant one phrase: he’s a fucking loser.”
That’s Carragher, 737 games for Liverpool, seven major trophies, and as the man himself pointed out, four league goals for Liverpool — one more than Diouf managed for the club.
Diouf hasn’t even done a book!
The most hated player to have played for Liverpool then? It’s a concept that jars — you like to think of the good times when it comes to anyone who had pulled on the red shirt. Most players had something, a moment, a goal, a flashpoint, a tackle. At the very least, more often than not, they show respect for Liverpool, even if it didn’t work out for them at Anfield.
With Diouf, a man who you feel a psychologist would have a field day with, he didn’t so much burn his bridges as dismantle them into mush and spit them all over Liverpool before offering two fingers for good measure. He clearly revels in his notoriety and loves to stir the pot. In fact he’s probably due a fresh pop at either Carragher or Gerrard sometime soon.
For someone who had talent with a football at his feet once upon a time it’s a sad state of affairs — he’s been reduced to a pantomime villain whose opinion is ranked alongside Comical Ali.
So, yes. Yes he is the most hated Liverpool ex-player. Because what is there to like? Who has got a good word to say about him on Merseyside?
His fellow countryman Sadio Mane is the answer. He has described Diouf as his Premier League idol. It’s a certainty he’s the only person of the 54,000 inside Anfield on match-day that holds that particular view.
Today, June 15, is the date Diouf was officially transferred from Liverpool FC in 2005. The experiment was over and we waved goodbye (or something like that). Today is a good day. Ta-ra, Diouf. You’re a Bolton legend.