The name Papa Bouba Diop has been one Premier League fans have enjoyed saying for almost six years now. His move to Fulham in 2004 – largely off the back of an impressive World Cup in 2002 – was a huge success, although eventually trailed off, ultimately landing him on the south coast.
Indeed, back in 2004, then-Pompey boss Harry Redknapp battled it out with the Cottagers for the Senegalese international before losing out at the final minute. Diop’s start to life in England was superb with suitors such as Manchester United and Arsenal lining him up by the time the season was out, touting him as a possible replacement for the mercurial, but then waning Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane. Heady transfer fees were also being touted – along the £12m-£13m mark – as Diop began to cement himself as one of the Premier League’s finest defensive midfielders. His 6’4” frame saw him nicknamed the ‘Wardrobe’ and that presence along with his tough tackling and immense athleticism had many predicting his future lay with the league’s elite, but sadly that never materialised.
Diop’s form plummeted, injuries took their toll, and as Lawrie Sanchez took the reins at Craven Cottage, Diop found himself as one of many to head through the exit door. This is where Redknapp finally got his man – now in his second spell at Pompey – he landed the tough tackling midfielder at a decent price and still with a few years in his legs yet. Unfortunately, the Diop of three or four years ago never quite pulled on the blue of Pompey, instead Redknapp acquired a lumbering, wasteful and often clumsy midfielder who ultimately failed to recapture the form he once showed. This campaign has easily been his worst – mostly because injuries have curtailed much of it – but his performances have been poor, and when Pompey have needed the quality and experience a player of his sort has to offer, that has been a huge setback. Indeed, barely 12 days ago, Diop showed why many at Fratton Park won’t be losing any sleep over the Senegalese’s inevitable summer exit, after he dallied around on the ball in his own penalty area, before losing out and lunging in on Aston Villa man John Carew – handing the visitors a cheap penalty.
The fact Diop spent most of that same game cheaply squandering possession and simply failing to have any impact on any of the proceedings, firmly spelt out that he is far from the player he once was. At 32 years of age, he looks unlikely to ever get near that level he once did, and these final few weeks of this season look likely to be his last in English football. Reports suggest that various French clubs have been sounded out about taking the highly-paid midfielder off Pompey’s books this summer, surely at minimal cost. Diop remains one of only a handful who played a part in their 2008 FA Cup triumph, appearing as a late substitute in an attempt to see out their narrow victory. Whether he will get a shot at their latest attempts at the infamous trophy remains to be seen, but on current form, he’s a fair way down in the pecking order. In all honesty, that says it all about his Pompey career. Despite being signed in the heady days of ambition and a quality littered team, he has failed to nail down a starting spot, even since the stars have departed. In short, his demise has not only coincided with Pompey’s recent downfall, but he’s somewhat surpassed it.
Strangely, such defensive midfielders as the likes of Diop tend to improve with age, with the benefit of experience and understanding of the game in such a position vital. For Diop, a final swansong in France may well be a fitting end to his rather strange career. Whatever has happened since arriving in England, you will always find his name in World Cup and indeed Senegal folklore, following ‘that’ goal that stunned reigning champions France in 2002. It proved the catalyst of his career, one such he never could quite galvanise on the south coast.
The Senegalese international will be one of many to exit Fratton Park this season, but he will be one few fans shed a tear for. The big man, on big wages yielded too few big performances.