There are three types of hate figure when it comes to top-level football. Those hated by opposition fans, those hated by their own fans and those hated by both. El-Hadji Diouf, for the most part, falls into the third category.
The Senegalese international arrived in England with a lofty reputation, signing for Liverpool ahead of his role in an unlikely World Cup quarter-final run in 2002. But six English clubs later (plus one in Scotland), only a handful are able to point to the well-travelled striker as a fan favourite.
While the 36-year-old is by no means the only player to be followed by controversy, few players will be able to boast a Wikipedia pages with sub-categories for controversies in France, England and Scotland. Indeed, few politicians could lay claim to such a triumvirate.
The Red and White Kop Liverpool forum has individual threads for former players, where fans can share precious memories and vent their frustrations at anyone from Steven Gerrard to Emiliano Insua. A Harry Kewell thread has 11 pages. One for Maxi Rodriguez has 37. Diouf’s thread has 117. That’s more pages than the number of games he played for the club.
It could have been so very different, though, as Liverpool fan Tom Beynon recalls.
“Ultimately he was a mix of the two worst things in football, a terrible person and a wasted talent,” Beynon tells me.
“The fact he’s moved around the clubs a bit shows him up to be a player with genuine talent that people will take a chance on but not the work ethic or the personality for anyone to want him to stick around too long.”
The flashpoint for many was the moment that Diouf spat at a Celtic fan during a European game, something which put him in Bhoys fans’ bad books long before he made what feels like an almost inevitable move to Rangers in 2012.
I mentioned this feature to my friend Ally Moncrieff, a Celtic fan living in Edinburgh, and asked if he might want to share some memories. “Yeah of course, that sounds good,” he replied. “He really was a piece of shit.”
“Despite not making much impact on the pitch during his time at Ibrox, Diouf will always be a figure of genuine hate for the Celtic fans,” says Ally, describing the Senegalese as his second most hated Rangers player behind Nacho Novo.
“To be fair to him he’d given himself a head start by spitting at a Celtic fan when he played for Liverpool and then spent his entire time in Glasgow just being a complete prick.”
Indeed, as Beynon notes, by the time of the spitting incident things were already going downhill and that was more or less the final straw as far as Diouf’s Liverpool career was concerned.
“Spitting showed a horrendous contempt towards the people the game needs the most, the fans, and his LFC career was over at that moment really,” he says.
Diouf hasn’t helped himself with his comments since leaving Anfield, with Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher among his targets.
In a 2012 interview with L’Équipe, he accused Gerrard of jealousy when he joined from Lens in 2002, saying “there is no greater egomaniac than him”. If there were some Reds fans still willing to give Diouf the benefit of the doubt up until that point, the situation soon changed. In that aforementioned 117-page thread, comments range from calling Diouf ‘deluded’ to accusing him of being ‘a disgrace to the proud name of LFC’.
There can’t be too many players with as many spells at marmite clubs under his belt, but Diouf can count Sam Allardyce’s Bolton, Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn and Neil Warnock’s Leeds United on a varied CV.
That the latter two exist alongside one another is something of a minor miracle, given Warnock’s labelling of Diouf as “lower than a sewer rat” after the then-Rovers man allegedly taunted Jamie Mackie during an FA Cup game when the Scot – playing under Warnock at QPR – went down with a broken leg.
When there was talk of Allardyce signing Diouf for a third time, however, the response painted a picture of the former African Player of the Year’s broad unpopularity.
With newspapers claiming Big Sam was looking at bringing in his former charge to bolster West Ham’s promotion bid, a poll of more than 600 Hammers fans on the Knees Up Mother Brown messageboard produced an overwhelming 80% opposition to the signing.
Of course it didn’t help that West Ham fans have long memories – memories which include a second alleged spitting incident during Diouf’s Liverpool days – but phrases like ‘no’, ‘no, obviously’, ‘no’, ‘we can’t have this person at our club’ and ‘no’ all featured when fans were asked if they supported Allardyce’s plans to reunite with him.
It was a similar story at Leeds, where he did eventually end up a few months later (via a short spell at Doncaster), with MailOnline journalist and Leeds fan Amitai Winehouse telling me, “The attitude was very split between ‘he’s a c***’ and ‘he’s a c*** but he’s our c***.”
“Warnock was in charge too so it was arguably the most “exciting” of the signings but lots of people wouldn’t have anything to do with him,” Winehouse continues. Considering Leeds’ other signings in the summer of 2012 included Luke Varney, Adam Drury and Paul Green, you can see where he’s coming from.
That certainly seems to be the running theme with Diouf – the sort of player who can anger large swathes of fans but is just as capable of hitting that sweet spot when the right set of fans come along. And that moment arrived, without doubt, during his Bolton spell.
“Bolton were a team who the neutrals hated because of Big Sam’s style of football, so with Diouf being a universally hated figure it was a match made in heaven,” explains Dan Murphy of Bolton fansite Lion of Vienna Suite.
“Big Sam made his name by taking talented players whose career had stunted and rejuvenating them. Diouf was yet another and he became a cult hero with the club, and was/is widely loved. [It’s a case of] ‘He may be a scumbag but he’s our scumbag’.”
Lion of Vienna Suite editor Chris Manning concurs, suggesting that – during his time at Bolton at least – Diouf had plenty of redeeming qualities on and off the pitch.
“We fell in love with him within 10 minutes,” Manning says, describing the player as “our kind of bastard”.
“His reputation precedes him to this day but I found him to be incredibly approachable and warm with fans, always happy to have a chat or a photo.
“His presence in local nightclubs is legendary as is his generosity. He might well have been a bellend, but he was our bellend and he was loved.
But one man’s bellend is another man’s…well, he’s their bellend too, but the phrase is used less endearingly.
I’ll let Ally Moncrieff have the final word, in relation to a game which literally brought about an Act of Parliament – something which few other footballers can lay claim to.
“Diouf (unsurprisingly) was at the centre of the nonsense. Sent off after the final whistle, he whipped his top off and marched defiantly to the Rangers fans, fists clenched and attracting howls of derision from the Celtic support.
“It later transpired that he’d started a rammy in the tunnel at half-time by shoulder-charging the Celtic physio. Celtic fans hated him and Rangers fans loved him because of it.”