Quique Sanchez Flores referred to him as “the No.16”, mainly because his vastly improving English does not quite stretch to pronouncing Toumani Diagouraga just yet. We look forward to hearing how Paul Merson gets on when referring to the Leeds United midfielder tomorrow. Yet the fact Diagouraga even caught the eye of Watford’s tactically astute head coach and is in his thinking when devising a plan to counter the threat of Leeds is a compliment in itself.
“He is important player for them,” said the head coach. “He’s a defensive pivot, he has their balance in the midfield. Around him you have No.23 Cook, and No.26 Bridcutt but the No.16 provides good balance at the back of these players.”
Liam Bridcutt spent a brief spell on loan at Watford at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 but he won’t quite have the same attachment to the Horns as Diagouraga does after spending five years at the club, two as a scholar and three as a pro. The FA Cup fifth-round tie will represent only the second time he’s played at the ground since he left – the other was for Brentford last season. The walk, through the side entrance on Occupation Road, past the new players’ lounge round the corner and down the stairs, to the expansive away dressing room at Vicarage Road will be unrecognisable and new territory for Diagouraga. But then he’s come a helluva long way and been on quite a journey himself since he was spotted with holes in his boots playing on red clay in a practise game in a suburb of Paris.
“Myself, David Hockaday and Nigel Gibbs went over to Paris on a budget airline flight at 6.30 in the morning,” David Dodds, Watford’s former academy manager told us about the scouting mission in 2003. “The pitch was terrible, the goalposts were bent but straight away we thought, ‘Blimey, there are some good players here’.”
Watford had already recruited Hameur Bouazza from the same trial games in Les Ulis they used to put on, when another caught their eye.
“There was this tall and gangly lad,” said Dodds of the languid midfielder born in Paris to Malian parents. “We recognised straight away he was a decent player. You knocked the ball into him and he kept it. He had good awareness, he kept the game alive and recycled the ball. He was a very attractive player.”
Watford moved quickly to bring Diagouraga over, using sports lawyer, fluent French speaker and Watford fan Gary Duke to facilitate the move. Duke had formed an alliance with Ousmane Fall, a top European scout who played a role in discovering Anthony Martial among others.
“We put these games on around once a month,” Duke told us. “Ousmane has a lot of links with players and Hocky, Doddsy, Gibbo and me regularly went over to France. The boys would walk a couple of miles from the station to get to the stadium for these games. They’d then walk back. On this day Toumani played in the first game, for under 15s and we made him play in the second one, for the under 17s, just so we could get a good look at him. He was covered in red clay and must have been knackered but he really stood out. He had these long, long legs and I remember he was a very respectful, a very nice kid. He was from a pretty impoverished background.”
Diagouraga was whisked over the channel, signed scholarship forms and stayed in digs in Watford with Bouazza.
“There were one or two escapades but nothing you don’t see happen at every club, I imagine,” said Duke. “I remember his landlady kept telling me he needed to change his socks more.”
As the academy chief, Dodds was initially placed in charge of the midfielder’s development.
“I remember he asked if he could have the morning off as he had his driving test,” said Dodds who now looks after the under-18s at Reading. ‘No problem,’ I said. ‘Just be careful and I hope you pass it.’ Gary Duke then told me he’s been driving in Paris since he was 14!”
Amid firm interest from Chelsea, Watford moved to tie him to a professional deal but, shall we say, his smooth-passing and elegant style was not what Aidy Boothroyd, the then manager, was looking for.
“He was the right footballer at the right club at the wrong time,” said Duke diplomatically. “I think he’s one of the those players who the better the level he plays at the better player he looks.”
Added Dodds: “I thought he’d probably go on to a top Premier League club,” said Dodds. “He was a real football player.”
Now 28, Diagouraga has not gone on to scale the dizzy heights many shrewd judges expected. He took a few steps back (spells at Hereford, Swindon and Rotherham) to take a couple forward, culminating in him ending up at Brentford via Peterborough under former Watford academy boss Mark Warburton. Leeds United then snapped him up in the summer. He has certainly not seen his career fall off a cliff like other countrymen who trod the same path from France to Watford, like Michael Ainon, Marvin Homand, Johan Cavalli and Cedric Avinel.
“I’m enjoying it a lot here,” said Diagouraga when he joined Leeds. “I’ve been here two or three weeks and I’ve already seen how good the team is. ”
Diagouraga will be able to judge just how far he’s developed as a player when he comes up against Mario Suarez, the Spain international, tomorrow but whatever the outcome, he can reflect on just how far he’s come from playing on red clay with holes in his boots.
• Tickets are still on sale to Watford fans on the club’s ticket database for Saturday’s game. Click HERE for more details.