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Louis Saha: When The Dream Becomes A Nightmare

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Much has been written about Louis Saha, online and in the press about his injury history. Something that has bothered him for a vast portion of his career. He's been knocked down because of it by fans across the country, others have suggested he's lazy and not as injury prone as is made out.

What would Louis say about all this? Do we really know what it's like to miss games and sit on the sidelines? We don't, as much as we like to think we know everything, we really don't.

Now we can find out though, as prior to signing for Sunderland, earlier this summer, Louis Saha wrote and published his exceptional book "Thinking Inside The Box".

Our kind friends at Vision Sports Publishing have a great offer for Roker Report readers. If you follow THIS LINK then you can get a SIGNED copy of Louis' book for the knockdown price of £11.99. All you have to do is follow the link (HERE), and enter the code "ROKER" at the check out.

To see just why you should buy this excellent book, we have a sample of it. It's concerning his time at Manchester United and missing the Champions League final with Chelsea through injury. It also provides an incredible look into the life of Saha, and having read the book, I can tell you it's more of the same.

What follows is a fairly long read, but one you'll thoroughly enjoy...

Destination Moscow: a city steeped in Stalinist history. I picture myself in the Luzhniki Stadium, which looks just like a huge flying saucer. The pitch will be invaded by television cameras from all around the world. I visualise the teams running on to the pitch and hear the distinctive music of the Champions League ring out. More inspirational than the Rocky Balboa theme tune, better than the American national anthem, it's unmistakable. It's like a rallying cry announcing the gladiators' arrival into the fighting arena. It's perfection. When this anthem strikes up, it's hard not to show how much your heart is racing. You feel as if the people in the stands are vibrating to the rhythm of your pulse. I think of the little Chinese boy sitting cross-legged in his home, the good Muslim between his five daily prayers, the old chief of an African tribe stroking his long white beard, the small-time gangster in his Brazilian favela, even the triple Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt, a big Manchester United fan, all lining up in front of their TV sets to watch the match they have looked forward to all year: the Champions League Final. I dream about it standing up, sitting down, awake, asleep, on the bench. I think about it 25 hours a day.

Football is simple at Man United: score goals, put on a good show and above all win for the Red Devils. There is just one problem: my temperamental right knee. It swells and deflates without warning. One day everything is fine and the next it triples in size. It feels like needles are knitting up my ligaments. I'm not able to play the way I like, or to be myself on the pitch. You need mental strength and an intense love for your sport. To carry on playing under these conditions is hellish. When the ball is passed to me on the right, I have to be mindful to avoid putting too much pressure on my right leg. When the ball is in the air and the defender is behind me, I fall back towards him and try by every means possible to control the ball with my chest. But from that position I can't trap the ball. I can't jump or take off like a rocket as I once could. My years at Fulham are far behind me now. I used to run deep, pull up sharp and change direction in a flash. I played without a care and felt indestructible. Now I have to be crafty and concentrate hard, which has never been my strength. The medics tell me it's my synovial joints reacting badly after an operation I had in the United States. Doctor Steadman, the world-renowned specialist knee surgeon who saved the careers of Alan Shearer and Michael Owen among others, had wanted me to have another longer and more complicated operation, but I had chosen the shorter, easier option. My competitive spirit refused to accept that my knee could react badly.

The mythical pitch at Old Trafford is the best place in football to have fun. The 80,000-seater stadium is a field of dreams, with its fantastic atmosphere, avalanches of goals, style of play, highly motivated players, stoppage-time goals, 60-odd trophies, years-old rivalries and jealousies. To wear the same beautiful red jersey as Cantona, Best and Keane did before me is a dream come true. These legendary players have inspired so many football lovers to play for, or support, Manchester United. To survive in this club, you need to work hard to maintain your optimum level. You must be good enough not to be relegated to the subs bench, which

is already well garnished with international players. They may be big stars in their country, but the bench at Man U still isn't so bad. There are so many world-class footballers at the club that one below-par performance is enough for a player to get thrown onto tomorrow's transfer scrap heap.

All I want is to train, to play and to take advantage of any opportunity to make further progress. I am surrounded by some of the very best talent there is to work with. I want to reach the brightest of stars. Ever since I was a kid all I ever wanted was to play football. My sport. My passion. I want to play, no matter how badly I perform. I would rather be criticised for a bad performance than not play. Because of my damaged cartilage, vipers' tongues say that I can't be bothered to play and have lost the will to score goals and win matches. They don't even begin to understand the suffering and the despair you feel when you're accused of a crime you haven't committed. I find it hard to believe that people could think a player was crazy enough to say he was injured when he is not and so miss out on the most beautiful moments of his sporting life. Is it a psychological injury? No way, it's purely physical! I search for explanations, answers, new ideas, new treatments, new types of training and the only answer I have is prayer. I've been unlucky, that's all. Why would I not want to experience the best years of my game?

Even Sir Alex Ferguson has a go at me. Despite this mistake on his part, he is the only person I can not allow myself to criticise. Deep down I know why he reacted and acted like that. The thirst for victory. The will to win. The reasoning behind such allusions is certainly one of the many factors that contributes to his phenomenal track record. The disappointment of not being able to satisfy his burning desire for his team to succeed on a collective and individual basis. He wanted so much for me to be a winner and to score goals.

I return from my umpteenth trip to see a specialist, my umpteenth comeback, my umpteenth physical preparation. I feel good. I am inspired and on top form. My dream is still real and my chances of becoming part of club history are possible once more. I can't feel my toes. My boots are often too tight, but my feet do exactly what I ask. Confidence permeates every move I make. Hard work pays off. I've sweated like a dog in the gym and taken loads of whey protein shakes. I've followed to the letter all the physiotherapy and co-ordination exercises. I'm completely re-motivated thanks to the help of legendary Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who is retired from football due to serious injury, but always smiling and full of positive energy. Mike Clegg, one of the trainers back then, also helped me hugely with his circuit training. I've proved that everything I've done while waiting to come back from injury was tougher than messing about during training with the coach. I've added broccoli and vegetable soup to my diet. It feels like my blood has turned to firewater. I am truly alive and kicking and more than ready for this global event. I'm ecstatic to be back just in time and to feel so sharp. I am convinced that I will have an important role to play in the final as I have just what it takes to put Chelsea in danger. Your team-mates' confidence when dribbling or making controlled passes to you is inspiring and you have to learn how to make the most of it. You must play your game and contribute to the best of your ability, as well as have the burning desire to win all together as a team. I, in turn, have what it takes to inspire confidence. I'm more than capable of scoring a goal simply by being prepared for one of those sensational Ryan Giggs combinations of chop, step-over, and perfect cross. And then there's Paul Scholes: that little red-headed genie with a whole range of incisive passes. I'm also just as capable of scoring a goal on my own.

The alarm clock blasts me out of my sleep. I'm fresh as a daisy and can't wait for training. The sky is overcast, but the sun makes an effort to shine through the haze. The light dazzles. The players' shirts are drenched in sweat because of their efforts, not the sun's rays. At Carrington, Manchester United's training ground, every- thing is ready to help us achieve the league and Champions League double. The staff attend to our every need. The training camp is bubbling with excitement. The green grass of the pitch is primped and primed by the groundsmen who are working on it well before the players' alarm clocks wake them up.

After a warm up and some exercises, we play a five-a-side game on a scaled-down pitch. I score two goals in quick succession and the goalies hardly get a chance to touch the ball other than when they retrieve it from the back of the net. Everything's going my way: goals flow one after the other and the coach's feedback reassures me. I feel so good. I'm happy and free. I'm back! I strike, I dribble, I jump, I turn. I'm sharp. The doubt that had been circulating in my veins is replaced by confidence and a hunger for victory. It's unbelievable. I'm back. One minute later it's all over. Here I go, off to the infirmary. I'm back alright: back in the medical room.

It's hard to believe that my calf could give out because of such an insignificant move. I'm convinced that it's nothing serious. Just a little twinge. A blocked nerve. An adhesion of the fascia. A spasm. Whether it's serious or not is not the point. It's my dream and I cannot re-live the nightmare of 9 July, 2006. Missing that final was too difficult to get over; to forget. To come close to such a big competition and watch it as a spectator. Again. No, it's impossible. Unthinkable. My body can't let me down. Again. I'm limping, but in five days it will be fine. Everything will work out just as in my dream. I believe it. I believe it so fervently. I pray. I touch every bit of wood I walk past. I want it so bad. I've seen it up close in my mind's eye: the cup with those huge ears which will be my pride and joy. I touch it and lift it up: happy as can be.

When we arrive at the hotel in the centre of Moscow I'm not walking right, but manage to hide it from my teammates. Rio Ferdinand has faith in me and tells me so. There are others who remind me of the importance of being at the top of my game in this final. There are numerous players like me who dream of these privileged moments. It's the evening before the match and the maestro must compose his match squad; his first team and his subs. Each player is chosen according to their versatility, their experience, their mental capacity, their skills and the ability they have to make the difference at any given moment. There isn't one player at Manchester United who isn't gifted with at least two of these characteristics. The choice is agonising for the manager since the players have been so authoritative throughout the whole competition, yet, despite everything, some will be sacrificed. The group is too well-stocked. There are just 18 players on the team sheet. The squad consists of 30 players of the highest level. I have a major problem. In fact I have a quite a few. I'm injured and it's unlikely I'll recover before the last training session. The one in which the commander chooses his battalion.

This match against Chelsea has a huge element of rivalry, of a battle for supremacy, since the two best English teams will fight to be the best club team in the world. Each play two such different styles and yet are equally effective in getting results. Victory and confidence flow in abundance through the veins of all the players. Chelsea v Manchester United is not the classic battle of David and Goliath. It's Goliath dressed in blue versus Goliath dressed in red. As a Champions League final it's a clash of the titans. There will be duels, opportunities, noble gestures, few mistakes and lots of action.

It's the evening before the match. I work out with Nemanja Vidic on the exercise bike in the hotel gym. The others have gone to training and are giving everything they've got to show that they have what it takes to be in the final group or the first team. Vida has a bad calf too and doesn't look like he's fully fit. A calf strain is a difficult injury to manage. A match at this level demands myriad little twists and turns, jumps and frequent pushing off. I'm still limping after 20 minutes on the bike in the little gym on the top floor of our hotel. I have a searing pain at the top of my calf like an electric shock every time I make an ill-judged move.

The scan I had a couple of days before showed up as nothing more than a build up of fluid and some tearing of the tissue. For me, it hurts to jump. Now, I can no longer even walk normally.

On the morning of the match, when I go back to my room after the midday meal, I know that the noose is tightening fast. After our usual 4.30pm snack, I ice my calf yet again. I rest. I pray and ask God for help, one more time. Within a few hours I must prove that I can take my place on the bench. One solution is to do what Nemanja will do: have a steroid injection. I'm ready for anything. My desire to contribute to my club's Champions League victory is at fever pitch.

I call my wife who is staying at another hotel in the Russian capital. I want to hear her comforting voice and ask her advice even though I already know full well what I'm going to say to the coach. She senses straightaway that it's not good news and I'm close to losing the plot. Someone who is normally calm and relaxed, I can't hold it together. I feel a knot twisting in the depths of my stomach. I am tense and pessimistic. I speak fast and loud. I can't breathe properly. How did I get into this situation? If it's not my knee it's something else. Unbelievable. Black magic crosses my mind. This is too much! Who's wishing this harm upon me? Who is playing with a voodoo doll of me? I have never wanted anything but the best for people. I don't understand anything anymore. I've had enough of bad luck.

"Sweetheart what have I done? What should I do? I'll never get back up again after such a disaster. It's just too much."

My wife senses my anguish as droplets of sweat glide down the length of my body, which is in a state of extreme nervous pressure and stress. She tells me to tell the physio that I'm ready to take any risks necessary. That it will be fine. That's what I had already decided to say. As soon as I was injured I could have gone to see him and tell him the same thing.

I call Rob Swire, the physio, to ask him if I can try the anaesthetising shot. I dread going on to the pitch, then having to come off because I can't hold it together. This catastrophic scenario playing through my mind is such proof of my egotism: there are players in the squad who are in full control of their abilities. We're a tight unit and I'm in pieces. Picture this: the substitute who is supposed to come on and make all the difference has to come off after 10 minutes because of an injury that he had before he went on to play. So the team finds itself with 10 men against 11. Ridiculous. A disaster. Vida's situation is less problematic for the manager to deal with. He'll start and if he can't continue, he'll be substituted. Rob and the doctor tell me that I can't use the anaesthetic as it's potentially dangerous for asthmatics. I curse. I rage. It's a living nightmare. It's all over.

In just a few minutes I have to face the manager who I have respected all my life. I would love to say to him: "Coach, I can play." I can play and shoot for goal. I want to lift up the cup by its big ears just like in my dream. The maestro has to know soon, so he can put together his orchestra, his game plan, his tactics, his strategy. A little before the final meeting I have to talk to the manager and the medical staff to let them know my feelings.

I stay a long time in my room praying to God, hoping he could stop the clock to give me a little more time to recover. I never dreamed I'd find myself in this situation. Taking such a decision is horrendous, but it's taken. I'm overwhelmed by a selfish desire. I want to play. I must play.

I'm confronted by a face which is frustrated, despairing and so human, yet so determined to win. The coach tells me I will not be part of the team as he cannot take that kind of risk. He doesn't need me anymore. I understand and I accept his logic completely. The decision is fair, but it feels as though my blood has stopped flowing in my veins. My nostrils flare and my pupils dilate. My breath quickens. My heart races. Nothing. It's too late now for God to stop the clock. As I write these lines I am aware of my suffering and notice how the scar still cuts deep. I didn't realise it immediately, but my career with the Red Devils ended that day.

So today, in Moscow, it's a repeat of my failure in the final of the 2006 World Cup. Once again, I must support my team and cheer them on from way up in the stands of the stadium. It sucks, but there's nothing I can do other than sit there powerless. I'm crushed. I get changed and set off with my teammates, but I'm not really present. I'm on the bus, but the pre-match tension that normally builds up from then on digs a grave for my footballer's joy.

I hear the Champions League anthem, but it destroys me as I'm not on the pitch. I picture Usain Bolt, the R'n'B singer Justin Timberlake and the other supporters in front of the screen, but I'm not on the pitch. I had seen myself score a magnificent goal. I visualise all those who would have supported me, but am not really in the stadium; I'm just a ghost. I sense the excitement and the pressure, but the cameras are not angled towards me. I'm just another face in the crowd. In the changing room before the match my stomach fights a great lump of sadness which rises up inside me, ready to burst. My teammates offer me consoling looks. I still see myself scoring that magnificent goal, but I'm not wearing my special Champions League boots customised with the number 9. I hear the crowd shout my name, but I'm just in the stands. When I take my place I am crying in my wife's arms. I cry like a little boy who has just seen his favourite Christmas present smashed before his very eyes. A present that he has waited and waited for. It's terrible. My stomach churns.


Amazing, I'm sure you'll agree. To get your hands on our exclusive offer - a SIGNED copy of the book for the reduced price of £11.99 - just follow THIS LINK and enter the code "ROKER" at the checkout.

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