He might have been the answer to one of Liverpool's perennial problems, but the call never came. Ben Lyttleton goes in search of Anfield's wasted winger
The reception area at Nîmes stadium was heaving before France’s 1998 World Cup winners took on Marseille in a charity match in aid of flood victims in early November. The France coach Aimé Jacquet was getting stressed out at the late arrival of Christophe Dugarry, muttering: “It’s worse than at the World Cup, because with Stéphane [Guivarc’h] injured, we haven’t even got one forward.” Didier Deschamps was trying to get Marcel Desailly to speed through the traffic by promising the game would earn him a senior cap, while Frank Leboeuf was causing hilarity with his Scottish hunting get-up. And then the Liverpool winger Bernard Diomède walked in. He went to register his arrival with the receptionist, who was heard saying: “You’re a player? And where do you say you play? At Liver-what?”
Diomède played the full 90 minutes for France, but he may well have been haunted by that conversation. Since joining Liverpool from Auxerre in the summer of 2000 for £3 million, he has played only five games for the first team. At the time of writing, the last time he even figured in the squad was when he was on the bench in a Champions League clash against Roma on March 19.
It had all started so well for him. His trickery on the left wing caused the Sunderland defence problems on his home debut in early September, a 1-1 draw. He was unlucky not to score in that game, but Thomas Sorensen made a fabulous save from an overhead kick to deny him. He also looked sharp in a UEFA Cup tie against Rapid Bucharest, and set up Didi Hamann who came closest to scoring in a goalless draw. At last, it seemed, Liverpool had found a dangerous wide player capable of taking defenders on and creating chances.
But a knee injury soon after that run kept him out for two months, and then he struggled to break back into the side. “When I returned in December 2000, the team was racking up win after win and went on to win three trophies,” he remembers. “When you have 24 players of such quality, with such competition for places, it isn’t easy to get back in the team. That’s the way it is at big clubs.”
But 12 months later, Liverpool were not doing so well. Gérard Houllier was in hospital and wins were hard to come by. Diomède was expecting a run in the side: “In Gérard’s absence, I tried even harder at training but Phil Thompson never gave me a chance, when honestly I deserved one.” Houllier agreed: “If I had been there, Bernard would have played when the team hit a sticky patch in December and January. He is a good guy and a good pro with a good mentality. In his first two matches for Liverpool, he gave two assists and in his first league match against Sunderland he was even voted man of the match. Let’s just say that he’s been the victim of several twists of fate.”
Diomède now admits that his career is on hold until he leaves. “From Monday to Friday, I’m part of the squad but on Saturday I’m in the stands,” he says. “Even if people continue to encourage me, for many I no longer exist. Maybe it’s also something to do with my discreet nature. I still have matches with the reserves, but in the long term it’s tough. I never show my disappointment, I have no worries about my level of play and I don’t feel inferior to the others in training. Liverpool pay me well. I am still able to play football for a living, just not in matches.”
Last summer, Diomède was the subject of interest from Charlton, Strasbourg and the French champions Lyon. He has seven months left on his contract, and will be on offer again during the January sales. Houllier is convinced that Diomède’s next club will do well out of him. “They will be getting a good deal. For a start, Bernard is hungry. And he still has quality. With him in your team, counting assists, you have 15 goals guaranteed per season.”
Diomède refuses to question the mysterious support of his coach, who seems unwilling to use him despite his side’s obvious lack of width. He is already focused on the future, and life beyond Liverpool. “I know that the work I’m putting in will be of use to me and will end up paying off one day. I have no regrets and I have nothing to reproach myself for. It’s just a question of rhythm and getting a few games under my belt. And then it’s up to me.”
From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month