By Phil Hay
Leeds United’s experimental signings split easily into two categories with no significant grey area.
In one group are those who blossomed impressively: Jermaine Beckford, Luciano Becchio and to a lesser extent Davide Somma. In the other are deals which amounted to nothing: Filipe da Costa, Robbie Rogers, Sebastian Sorsa and more. There are diamonds hiding in the rough of world football but chunks of broken glass too.
It is down to Habib Habibou, United’s latest recruit, to decide how he is remembered by the club’s crowd: as a remarkable find or a waste of money. Unheralded in Leeds before he surfaced as a potential target last month, his transfer on loan from Belgium’s SV Zulte Waregem was another adventure for a striker whose life and career have taken him to two different continents, four different countries and five different clubs.
When he signed for Leeds last week, his reputation in these parts was patchy. The internet defined him as a tall, powerful footballer whose Kodak moment involved a confrontation with a duck and a subsequent run-in with animal rights campaigners. But his background is that of an African-born and deeply religious man who moved to Paris at a young age and gained his footballing education at Paris Saint-Germain and France’s Clairefontaine academy.
“Growing up in Paris, he played with his friends in the street, learning tricks and so on,” says Gary Niblock, an online blogger and an expert in Belgian football. “He describes himself as a street footballer which is a little strange for a player who had his education at PSG and the renowned Clairefontaine academy.
“But that’s how he sees himself.
“The potential is there and he’s a natural talent; good in the air with a powerful shot. He runs the channels and he’s very strong as you can see that from his build. But consistency is lacking.”
Habibou made his debut for Leeds as a second-half substitute in last weekend’s defeat to Cardiff City, two days after completing his transfer an hour-and-a-half before the January deadline.
The 25-year-old made hard work of touching the ball and left the crowd at Elland Road none the wiser about his suitability for the Championship but he has two-and-a-half months to convince Leeds that the option they negotiated to buy him in the summer is worth taking up.
Habibou is recognised as a centre-forward but his formative years and his earliest taste of senior football at Charleroi saw him used in the main as a left winger – “a very dangerous player,” as Niblock recalls: “He had an eye for goal and caused problems.”
He completed loans at AFC Tubize, another Belgian side, and Romanian powerhouse Steaua Bucharest, whose coach described him as the “new Adebayor”. Intrigued by Habibou potential, Zulte Waregem signed him in 2010.
Since then, Zulte Waregem and their current coach Francky Dury have found much to admire in his ability and were anxious not to lose him last month, so much so that they handed Habibou an extended contract before he left for Elland Road. His parent club have covered their back one way and the other, ready to sell to Leeds in a few months’ time but more than happy to take Habibou back if United withdraw their interest.
Dury argued strongly that Habibou should remain in Belgium until the end of the season and, as he put it, get games under his belt, score a lot of goals and improve his CV.
“His coach didn’t want him to move, though partly for selfish reasons,” Niblock says. “Zulte Waregem are second in the table (Belgium’s Pro League) which is a major surprise. They’re going for the Champions League qualifying spots. But he also had a hamstring injury earlier in the season and came back a little too early. Dury said it would be better for him to recover properly from injury. He’s often had his career interrupted by injury.”
The earliest parts of Habibou’s career with Zulte Waregem were dominated by a groin strain which required surgery. The forward refused to have an operation for as long as the threat of relegation hung over the club but the cost of his decision was a spell of more than six months in the treatment room.
There were other moments of difficulty too, none more bizarre than his treatment of a duck which appeared on the pitch during a 1-1 draw with KSC Lokeren. While other players watched from a distance, Habibou grabbed the bird by one wing and threw it over the advertising hoardings, leaving it dazed but apparently unharmed. His actions drew a pointed response from Global Action in the Interests of Animals, an animal rights group founded in Belgium.
“I heard the commentator say that GAIA will not be happy and he is correct. What the footballer did is not on.”
Habibou apologised and, after scoring twice in a victory over Sint-Truiden the following weekend, celebrated with a Donald Duck flag brought into the ground by Zulte Waregem’s supporters. “There was a lot written and said about me but I let my feet do the talking,” Habibou said.
It was clear for some time that Habibou hoped to let his feet talk in England. He had trials with Brighton and West Ham in 2011 and linked up with QPR before joining Leeds for several days’ training at the beginning of last month.
“He came over for a trial a few weeks back and I liked what I saw,” said United manager Neil Warnock. “Financially it’s not a lot of money so it’s a no-lose situation for us. He’s a big target man and it gives us another option.”
Unlike many of United’s previous leftfield recruits, Leeds have not committed heavily to Habibou’s potential. He was given 19 games to prove himself - 20 if Leeds progress any further in the FA Cup - and United are not obliged to sign him permanently. He did, however, give Warnock the additional forward he was looking for in January.
In all, Habibou has scored 20 goals in 57 appearances for Zulte Waregem and six in 13 games this season.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a world-beater but he’s not a bad player, said Niblock. He’s just not someone who consistently lit up the Belgian leagues. Perhaps that’s why Leeds have taken him on loan. It’s not a guarantee.”