"… Sunderland have wanted me for ages, even before I turned pro. That is what tipped the decision in their favour …"
El-Hadji Ba said that in July 2013, having just signed a 3-year contract with Sunderland AFC. Nobody expected the 20-year old to work miracles. Nobody thought he’d even play every week. But now, two years later, it seems nobody really cares anymore; as the former French starlet looks set to depart the club, as just another flop prospect who didn’t prove otherwise.
Or, should that be couldn’t? After all, it was only back in August 2011 when the Senegalese descendant was making all the right noises in Ligue 2 with Le Havre AC. Ba – this Abou Diaby-inspired, all raw and green, 6-foot tower of energy – had avoided a near-certain move to Tottenham Hotspur to make his mark with ‘Les Ciel et Marine’; and his club cautiously nurtured his talent in both the senior and youth squads for the 2011/12 season.
The midfielder didn’t even make his senior debut until six months later: as an 83rd-minute sub against EA Guingamp at the Stade Océane. Even by the end of the 2012/13 season; he’d started 9 of only 13 league appearances for Le Havre, scoring once against Tours FC in November 2012, as his club finished 6th in Ligue 2. He appeared once more in February 2013, in defensive midfield, for the Coupe De France Round of 16 loss to Évian Thonon Gaillard FC.
The buzz surrounding Ba focused mainly on his competency in possession. He had talent, no doubt, and the scouts knew it. But having played just 815 minutes in Ligue 2 (or less than 10 matches-worth of experience), the midfielder still hadn’t had that run of consistency to match his very real strengths. Johann Louvel – Le Havre’s Education Centre Chairman – referred to this in March 2013, when he insinuated how Ba was physically way far off his true potential.
It was instead Ba’s international experience that complimented the midfielder more. He made no great shakes in the France U18s and U20s, but stepped up greatly in Pierre Mankowski’s effective U19 squad. Through 2012, Ba played in the 6-0 thrashing of Netherlands U19s, to the semi-finals of the UEFA European U19 Championship in Estonia; rotating midfield shifts with Geoffrey Kondogbia and Paul Pogba.
Regardless of his domestic criticisms, Ba had enough potential to justify the reported €400,000 compensatory fee Sunderland coughed up in July 2013 for his services. A stint in the Barclays Asia Trophy also added further value to Ba’s reputation as an unafraid youth with good aerial presence and a tendency to rush for goal. It’s also where his value to the club ended.
In the 2013/14 Premier League, Ba was benched for 9 matches. His one appearance – as a 19-minute substitute – came in May 2014, in the final match-day loss to Swansea City. His sole highlight in the senior squad would occur in January 2014, when the midfielder scored in a 10-minute FA Cup 3rd Round appearance against Carlisle United. He would start against Kidderminster Harriers in the 4th Round later that month. However, despite playing 450 minutes for the club, only 96 minutes were with the first team.
The remaining 354 minutes of Ba’s inaugural Wearside term were spent in the U21 Premier League. The Frenchman played 6 fixtures between October 2013 and April 2014, partnering Martin Smith and Louis Laing in midfield. Again, Ba looked capable in the victories against Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur, but for his performance over the season, he had an unspectacular year.
His 2014/15 season was no better. After so-so pre-season performances against Darlington 1883 and Hartlepool United, Ba was loaned to Sporting Club de Bastia in August 2014. His opportunity to flourish in Ligue 1 started good; with Ba partnering Guillaume Gillet in defensive midfield, and starting 7 of 9 fixtures until October that year, when a leg injury busted Ba’s season on 540 minutes. After a 6-month absence, Ba returned to the club for 3 fixtures with SC Bastia II, in the Championnat de France Amateur 2 – France’s fifth division.
And that huge step backwards brings us to now, and whatever talent El-Hadji Ba once had in 2013 apparently has no place at Sunderland in 2015. His 3 senior appearances for the Black Cats is nothing unexpected of youth players at the club, but his record of 24 senior appearances since August 2011 is a brutally unwanted record for the 22-year old. It has had a disastrously adverse affect on his once-thriving international career too, as Ba has not played for his country since March 2013.
Not that Sunderland are at fault for this. Nor is Ba himself. Unfortunately, the Frenchman’s recruitment on Wearside may have always been doomed to be a poorly-timed, low-budget gamble. Take Sunderland’s forced transitions – rotating Head Coaches with new playing styles and ideologies – that have made recent seasons an awkward time for young talent to prosper. Relegation struggles have made it even less likely for untested players to be relied upon; and Ba’s recruitment occurred at a time when relegation was a foregone conclusion.
For Ba specifically, his positioning has been a notable hindrance too. He may be an ‘okay’ central midfielder, but would he ever be picked ahead of names like Cattermole, Gardner, Colback, Ki, Larsson, Gómez and Rodwell? It would take something significant for him to remove that surplus tag.
And this all adds up to perhaps a lesson that Lee Congerton can take on. Four years ago, Ba got a lot of fanfare off very few matches; and for all good intentions, the hindsight is that the club made a bad call with the midfielder. To sign an unproven player on such hype again is an unaffordable luxury so long as Sunderland sit at the wrong end of the Premier League table.
That said; Dick Advocaat has the savvy mind Poyet and Di Canio don’t. If there truly is a place for Ba at Sunderland, then the Dutchman would surely use him. Alternatively, if Ba has a promising long-term future but no foreseeable short-term use at the club, then don’t expect the player on Wearside beyond August. Either way, Ba could be a great player one day, but it probably won’t be for Sunderland.
Recently, Black Cats Analects called on the unfortunate matter of Charis Mavrias – that there is seemingly no right time to play him. For El-Hadji Ba however, maybe there just never was.