TO El-Hadji Diouf, Gary Speed was a father figure.
Someone whose advice he sought and always listened to. The former Leeds United midfielder and one-time Wales manager may sadly be no longer with us but his words continue to inspire Diouf.
So much so, in fact, that any Huddersfield Town fans hoping to rile the Senegalese striker during today’s derby encounter at Elland Road will be wasting their breath.
“Opposition fans always boo me but it does not bother me at all,” explains the 32-year-old when speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post ahead of the Terriers game.
“I like it and take it as a good thing. That is because of Gary Speed, who, to me, was like my father. He used to talk to me a lot and was a big help to me. He was always there giving me good instructions.”
The two men first met at Bolton in 2004, Diouf having moved to the Reebok just a few months after Speed. A close friendship was quickly struck up, with Speed, by then 35 and very much in the autumn of his career, always on hand to offer advice.
One such instance came during their third season together at Bolton and at a time when Diouf admits the constant baiting by opposition fans had started to grate and wear him down.
“We were playing against Newcastle and I had played a fantastic game,” says the Leeds striker. “I had scored two goals, we had won the game but the fans still booed me.
“I asked Gary afterwards, ‘Why after I have had such a fantastic game do people still boo me?’ He said, ‘Don’t forget, people never boo a bad player’.
“He was the first man to tell me that and since then I have always remembered those words.
“Everywhere I have been in my career, I have done everything to get them to boo me. By showing my quality and how good I am. Gary was a very wise man and one of the biggest leaders I have seen in my life.
“What happened to him was so sad and I still miss him today. We got on very well together. We used to go to the restaurant together. A great legend and a great example to all footballers. Everyone respected him and that says a lot.”
Such is the enduring popularity of Speed, a title-winner with Leeds in 1992, that his name has been sung on a regular basis at Elland Road since his untimely death almost 16 months ago.
Diouf admits to being happy when he hears his old friend being remembered by the United fans. He is also happy to be at Elland Road following a transfer that, to those on the outside of the club, still goes down as one of the most unlikely of this or any other season.
The infamous fall-out between Neil Warnock, then in charge of QPR, and Diouf in the wake of an FA Cup tie at Blackburn Rovers in 2011 is what made the two men joining forces so unlikely.
Harsh words were exchanged between the two in the immediate aftermath, most notably by Warnock when branding the striker “lower than a sewer rat”. Fast forward to last summer, however, and the pair were shaking hands over a move to Elland Road for Diouf.
Fulsome praise followed with the United chief even going so far as to describe Diouf as “my matador” during the autumn following a string of impressive performances. The Leeds fans, too, were quickly won over.
Diouf has, in fact, been a model professional at Elland Road, something his many detractors may not want to believe but is true all the same.
He is happy as well, with the signing of a new deal just before Christmas to keep him at Elland Road until the summer of 2014 making the gamble of initially coming in on non-contract terms at the start of the season a worthwhile one.
“I am happy today at Leeds because I am playing some of my best football,” said the striker, who spent last season at Doncaster Rovers. “I have scored goals and I have made goals, that makes me happy.
“Joining Leeds has been good for me. The gaffer called me (in the summer) and said, ‘I saw you play for Doncaster against Leeds (in Warnock’s first game in charge) and you were the best player on the pitch’. He then explained how he would love to take me to Leeds but wasn’t sure how the fans would react.
“I said to him, ‘Don’t give me a contract right now, let me come along and let my football do the talking’. I thought the fans would be all right once they saw what sort of person I was.
“Everyone thinks I am a bad boy and that I think only all about me. But I think the lads can see El-Hadji Diouf is a team player.
“It was hard at Doncaster. We needed a big miracle to stay up. When I arrived, they were a lot of points behind. We closed the gap a bit but it wasn’t enough and I was sorry that Doncaster were relegated.
“But this season has been a lot better for me. I love playing football, especially in front of a big crowd like Leeds United always get.
“The fans have shown me so much love as well. I doubt anyone believed that one day I would play for Leeds United. For me, it is a big honour.
“I would have loved to play for Leeds United in the Premier League.
“I didn’t get that chance but now I can help the club get back there. To help Leeds do that is one of my biggest challenges in football, and if it doesn’t happen this season then next season.”
Diouf’s words about maybe next season being a more realistic target are perhaps wise, as United sit five points adrift of the play-offs following the disappointment of only drawing at home to a lively Peterborough United in midweek.
It was the fourth time Warnock’s side have drawn during the recent unbeaten run of six games and time is starting to run out in the quest to gatecrash the top six.
Victory at home to Huddersfield is, therefore, a must. Diouf added: “We have a chance because there are nine games left. If you see the Championship, we are not far away.
“We believe we can do what Reading did last year.”