Steven Gerrard – My Story: “I Have Respect For Mario But None For Diouf”

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Stieve“I don’t really want to waste time thinking about El Hadji Diouf but it’s worth highlighting his wasted seasons at Liverpool as an example of how it can all go wrong.

Gerard Houllier, a very good manager and a usually wise judge of character, signed Diouf in the summer of 2002. Gerard bought Diouf for £10m from Lens – solely on the recommendation of his former assistant, Patrice Bergues, who had coached Diouf there.

I understood why Gerard rushed through the signing, but he did not really know Diouf as a person. He was one of three new signings which were meant to turn Liverpool into Premier League champions.

We had finished as runners-up to Manchester United the season before and a combination of Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou was supposed to drive us to the title. It was probably the biggest waste of £18m in Liverpool’s history.

We finished the season in fifth place and Diouf had sealed his place at the top of the list of Liverpool signings I liked least.

It seemed to me that Diouf had no real interest in football and that he cared nothing about Liverpool. For example, the way he spat a huge globule of gunky phlegm at a Celtic fan in a UEFA Cup match at Parkhead in March 2003 summed up his contemptuous and spiteful demeanour.

A few people have since asked me if I saw any comparison between Diouf and Mario Balotelli – and I’ve always said no. I’ve got respect for Balotelli; I’ve got none for Diouf.

Balotelli can be endearing sometimes — and that’s never a trait that you would associate with Diouf. The only positive aspect of the otherwise ugly signing of Diouf is that he worked hard on the pitch. He always wanted the ball, and he never hid.

But after a while I decided Diouf simply wasn’t your usual footballer. It seemed to me as if football got in the way of his social life.

At least Balotelli could still make me smile sometimes, I have a small hope that, one day, his career might work out and he can prove his potential on a regular basis.

In my last season, Brendan Rodgers came to me at Melwood one day in mid-August. We had a chat on the training pitch. He said, ‘You know we’ve missed out on a couple of signings. I’m basically left with no option but to have a bit of a gamble.’

Brendan paused before he spoke again: ‘The gamble is Mario Balotelli.’ My instant reaction was, ‘Uh-oh.’

I’d never met Balotelli but I’d heard all the stories about the indoor fireworks and Jose Mourinho describing him as an ‘unmanageable’ player. I could see that, in the right mood, he was a quality footballer but the rest of his career seemed like a spectacular waste of talent. That was my opinion of Balotelli.

But I also had to admit that, when he played for Italy, he seemed able to switch on his gift like he was snapping on a bright light. When he scored the winner against England in the 2014 World Cup a month earlier he showed all the movement which made him so difficult to mark at his best. I told Brendan that, up close to him on the pitch, you could see that he was a big, powerful guy. Brendan must have sensed my underlying reservations because he spoke a little more about why he thought it could be worth the risk. Brendan implied that Balotelli didn’t have anywhere else to go — and it seemed as if Liverpool would be Balotelli’s last chance to shine at a major club.

He would be offered a strict contract. Any bad behaviour would be punished.

I reminded myself that I had always allowed every new player to come into the club with a clean slate. Balotelli’s reputation tested that resolve but I tried my best to be open-minded. He made an immediate impression when we were doing work on our defensive set pieces and Balotelli said to Brendan: ‘I don’t mark on corners. I can’t.’

I nearly fell into the goalpost. I was thinking, ‘What are you? Six foot three, and one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen on a football pitch? And you can’t mark on a corner?’

Brendan was very firm. He said to Balotelli: ‘Well, you can now – and if you can’t then you’re going to learn.’

That was the first conflict between Brendan and Balotelli, on day one, but the manager stood up to Mario really well. From that point, Balotelli started marking on corners.

He made his Liverpool debut on August 31, 2014 away to Tottenham, and he did well. We won 3-0. He wasn’t outstanding but he worked hard and even looked like a team player. It would not last.

Daniel Sturridge was injured 10 days later, while training with England. He would be out for many weeks.

Suddenly the Mario gamble was in jeopardy – because I knew that Balotelli would simply not put in the work we needed from a lone striker.

Everything became more tangled and more difficult. Away to Basle in the Champions League, Balotelli started the game and he was hopeless.

After his promising debut against Tottenham he had lapsed in training and the subsequent games. His demeanour was very poor. I made up my mind pretty quickly after that about Balotelli.

There was no friction between us. We got on fine. I still tried to help him and I kept looking for chances to praise him.

But I could see Mourinho had been right when he said Balotelli is unmanageable.

He is very talented with the potential to be world class, but he’ll never get there because of his mentality and the people around him.

Balotelli’s always late, he always wants attention, he says the wrong things on social media.

For me, he doesn’t work hard enough on a daily basis. You’re always fighting a losing battle with Balotelli.

He does too many things wrong.”

(Source – The Daily Mail)

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