My Favourite Player: Mustapha Hadji

– by Calum Fuller

Coventry City would seem to some an unlikely place to find technically gifted players. Ask most fans of English football about the Sky Blues, and they’ll simply tell you that they were once part of the furniture of England’s top-flight, but after a 34-year stay, the removal van arrived. Since then, they have been fulfilling the same role in the second tier in what is now the Championship.

However, Highfield Road (which was knocked down in 2005 when Coventry moved to the Ricoh Arena) has seen Robbie Keane, Craig Bellamy, John Hartson, Gary McAllister, George Boateng, Steve Froggatt, Youseff Chippo, Peter Ndlovu, Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby all don the Sky Blue shirt at one time or another.

Mustapha Hadji also plied his trade at Aston Villa. Photo: Bradley King

The most mercurial of these talents, though, was – in my opinion – Morocco international Mustapha Hadji, whose pace, wonderfully skilful runs and eye for goal ensured that a day at Highfield Road was always far from dull.

Hadji arrived in the West Midlands having claimed the 1998 African Footballer of the Year award after his exploits at the France ’98 World Cup. He had enjoyed a largely successful stint at Spanish giants Deportivo La Coruña, but it was at Highfield Road where he really made his name before defecting to Villa Park, where he would spend three torrid years struggling with injury.

Sky Blues boss Gordon Strachan spotted the Moroccan’s talents as the defences of Norway and Scotland were run ragged in Montpellier and Saint-Etienne respectively during the only World Cup of his career.

It proved a shrewd judgment on Strachan’s part. What struck me most about Hadji was his vision. Here was a player operating on a completely different plain to many of his colleagues. Hadji would often be two or three steps ahead of both his team-mates and the opposition defences he so regularly tormented.

His technique and trickery was ideal for the emerging talents of the emerging youngsters Robbie Keane and Craig Bellamy to learn from and thrive on, and – for a time – Coventry City appeared to challenge for more than just Premier League survival, with Hadji the fulcrum of their busy, fluid, menacing attack.

What Hadji provided the Sky Blues faithful with more than anything was excitement. Alongside Gary McAllister, Steve Froggatt and compatriot Youssef Chippo in midfield with the precious Bellamy, Keane and Cedric Roussell in attack, City posed a very real threat.

Under Hadji’s orchestration, the Sky Blues put Arsenal (3-2), Newcastle (4-1) and Sheffield Wednesday (4-1) to the sword as the former AS Nancy man helped himself to 13 goals in his first season in England.

However, perhaps Hadji’s most important quality was his commitment to the cause. During Coventry’s ill-fated 2000-01 campaign and following the sale of the prolific Robbie Keane to Internazionale for £13 million, focus fell on the former African Player of the Year. He never replaced Keane’s goals, but his effort, determination and inventiveness ensured that he had a place in Sky Blue hearts.

When it came to the final day of the season, it was largely down the efforts of Hadji and John Hartson the Sky Blues had a chance of retaining their Premier League status with a win over bitter rivals Aston Villa, who ironically the Moroccan would later join.

In a spirited and frenetic opening, Hadji helped himself to a brace inside the first 25 minutes, appearing to save City until David Ginola’s introduction spoiled the end-of-season party.

City fans have not seen the likes of Hadji since. Former Internazionale midfielder Khalilou Fadiga fleetingly offered a semblance of the Morocco international’s inventiveness during a brief stint in 2007, but woeful finishing and a heart defect ensured his stay at the Ricoh lasted just six games.

In truth, the Sky Blues had never recovered from the departure of Robbie Keane and Mustapha Hadji. To this day, they lack the killer instinct that unlikely duo offered. In that wonderful 1999-2000 season, Sky Blues fans felt that their team could hurt any other in the country. Since then, at various times, they’ve had to pin their hopes on Dele Adebola and Kevin Kyle.

How times change.

– Calum Fuller is a Journalism student from Northamptonshire, currently studying at the University of Lincoln.

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