Sewer rat or pussy cat He's flash and brash but there is a softer side to Diouf
22:35 GMT, 29 October 2012
At the start of this season, Neil Warnock was asked by a member of his coaching staff if new arrival El Hadji Diouf would be making his debut for Leeds United the next day.
‘Oh no, Neil!’ gasped Warnock’s wife Sharon, overhearing the conversation. ‘Tell me you haven’t signed him!’
‘I’m afraid I have, love,’ said the Leeds manager. ‘I was going to break it to you before he went out on the pitch tomorrow.’
Unlikely partners: El Hadji Diouf has linked up with Neil Warnock at Leeds
It says everything about the two sides of Diouf that a player once branded ‘a sewer rat’ by Warnock is now his talisman at Leeds.
When the Saints of Southampton line up for Tuesday’s Capital One Cup fourth-round tie at Elland Road, they will do so against someone who has never been depicted with a halo over his head.
El Hadji El Diablo more like. He is one of the most controversial figures British football has ever seen. But dig a little deeper and there’s a different Diouf. Far from perfect, but not quite the figure of hate people might have you believe either.
For every despicable spitting incident, the acrimony he left behind at Liverpool, the mayhem in Glasgow and the untidy departure from Blackburn Rovers, those who have worked with him behind the scenes will tell of a cheerful, carefree individual who never turns down requests for personal appearances even though he is heavily involved with his own Dioufy Foundation that raises money for charities here and in Senegal.
This is not an attempt to sanitise Diouf. He knows what he’s done and how he’s perceived. In fact, he embraces the role of villain because it makes him play better.
Splashing the cash: Diouf is known for his expensive taste in cars
‘I love to get the crowd going so it doesn’t bother me if they shout bad things,’ he told Sportsmail.
‘I always remember what Gary Speed used to tell me, and that is a crowd never boos a bad player.
‘People judge you on your car, your tattoo and they judge me because of what they have heard or seen but they don’t really know me.’
Diouf, 31, speaks warmly about handing out presents at the children’s hospital in Chorley each Christmas dressed as Santa, and of the money his foundation has raised to buy incubators in Senegal and care for the handicapped. Recently he arranged a charity football match at home in Saint-Louis.
‘We charged a small price for tickets and raised over 6,000 to pay for the machines and stocks of blood because it’s very expensive for the people there,’ he adds. ‘Without it they’re dying.
‘People don’t see that side of me. Maybe they don’t want to see it but I’m comfortable in who I am.’
This would be easy to dismiss as ‘charidee’ media spin were it not widely corroborated by those who remember Diouf’s generosity and sense of humour.
At Bolton, he was known to give tips to everyone from the apprentices cleaning his boots to the training ground chef.
Nasty side: Diouf spits in Arjan de Zeeuw's face after his claims for a penalty were ignored
When Gary Megson walked in to meet the players on his first day as manager he found Diouf sat in the corner wearing a big ginger wig.
At Blackburn, he once handed over a wristwatch worth several thousand pounds to a kitman who had been admiring it but could never afford one.
Diouf’s gaudy jewellery and outlandish velvet African-print tracksuits have become the stuff of legend.
His Blackburn team-mates would wait until he had changed for training before putting on his clothes and joining him for breakfast to see if he would notice.
When he returned from a loan spell at Rangers flaunting his medals for winning the Scottish title and League Cup they saw the funny side but Steve Kean’s backroom staff did not. He was marched off the premises and banned from the club’s training ground.
Yet some who got to know him describe an insecure character far removed from the brash image.
Sue, the player liaison officer at
Bolton, effectively became his full-time personal assistant, such was
the need to organise (some say mother) a man who had no idea how to pay
the bills and fund his lifestyle.
Old Firm hate: Diouf clashed with Neil Lennon during a spell with Rangers
If the behaviour was sometimes outrageous, so too were the cars — the huge gold Cadillac Escalade with Diouf’s initials on the headrests and wheels, and his favourite 420,000 Mercedes SLR McLaren that would change colour every few months.
Both vehicles became a magnet for parking tickets in the more trendy areas of Manchester and Liverpool. But it would be wrong to excuse Diouf as an extravagant showman who is simply misunderstood.
The arrogant, confrontational side is never far from the surface, and earlier this month he used an interview in France to brand his former team-mate Steven Gerrard ‘selfish’.
‘Gerrard was jealous of me back then as I had the world at my feet,’ claimed a bitter Diouf.
He has never forgiven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher for the way he felt they shut him out of their Anfield clique as a 10million move turned sour. ‘He was always the last one to get picked in training,’ Carragher once said.
Since then the rap sheet and tales of indiscipline have been extensive.
While at Liverpool, Diouf was fined
for spitting at Celtic fans during a UEFA Cup quarter-final — an offence
he was to repeat twice while playing for Bolton.
Taunts: Diouf mocked Celtic fans during his time at Liverpool
It was alleged that he once threatened to stab his Sunderland team-mate Anton Ferdinand following a post-match bust-up.
After being accused of racially abusing a ball boy when Blackburn played at Everton, he responded by claiming to have been pelted with bananas even though no evidence was found.
An appearance in the Old Firm game on loan to Rangers was an accident waiting to happen, and Diouf duly took centre stage in a furious Scottish Cup fifth-round replay in which he clashed with Celtic boss Neil Lennon and had to be stopped by police from throwing his shirt into the crowd after becoming one of three players sent off.
Then, of course, there was the fall-out with Warnock when QPR played at Blackburn in the FA Cup in January last year and Diouf taunted Jamie Mackie as he lay injured on the pitch with a broken leg.
‘For years I have thought Diouf was the gutter type,’ said Warnock afterwards.
‘I was going to call him a sewer rat but that might be insulting to sewer rats.’
When the two crossed paths in the
summer after Diouf had ended a brief spell at Doncaster and was headed
for the Middle East — with even his staunchest ally Sam Allardyce
deciding that it was too risky to take him to West Ham — Warnock revised
his opinion of the player and offered him a short-term deal until
January worth 5,000 a week. ‘We talked a while and he understood me,’
says Diouf, who is now expected to extend his stay at Elland Road.
Settled Diouf (left) appears to be fitting in at Elland Road
‘He knew I wasn’t the bad guy. I was very happy when he called me and it showed that he is a big man, a good man.
‘We are two big characters. I’m a bad loser and so is he. We had a beef but that’s a thing of the past and now we have a good future together.’
In many ways, Diouf is a perfect fit for the ‘nobody likes us and we don’t care’ mentality at Leeds.
‘This is his stage,’ says Warnock.
He can still play at the highest level too, as Everton found to their cost when they lost there in the third round of the Capital One Cup last month.
Victory over Southampton would put Warnock’s side into the quarter-finals of the competition, but winning promotion back to the Premier League is what really matters.
Achieve that, and Diouf really would become a Leeds hero. Even Mrs Warnock might learn to like him.