Cult heroes: Why Youssef Safri really was Moroccan all over the world
Archant © 2005
In the first of our series on Norwich City Cult Heroes, Chris Lakey recalls the impact and character of midfielder Youssef Safri
The programme cover for Norwich City’s home game against Newcastle United in April 20, 2005 featured Dean Ashton and Youssef Safri.
Well, they both ended up scoring in a 2-1 victory for City – and for Safri, it will go down as a night to remember.
This is a series about Cult Heroes, not great goals, or great people. But Safri has a bit of all of those elements.
Perhaps we ought to get the goal out of the way first before we look at the man himself.
It was 0-0, and City were reeling after the failure of Darren Huckerby, through illness, to emerge for the second half. But on 68 minutes, Safri provided a welcome tonic.
There wasn’t much danger when the Moroccan midfielder took aim with his right foot from midway inside the Newcastle half. Everyone watched as the ball turned one way, then the other and then dipped, just before it got that extra bit of the spectacular when it hit the underside of the bar and then the net. Top right, never in doubt. Cue eruption.
It was a magnificent way to score your first league goal for Norwich - and for such a likable player too.
Ashton got the winner, but all the talk was of Safri’s goal.
Norwich manager Nigel Worthington said: “Safri’s strike has got to be a contender for goal of the season that’s for sure.”
So, to the man himself. I was lucky enough to be covering City around that time, mainly on player interview duty, and would often come across Safri post-match. His English wasn’t great, but my Moroccan is terrible. “Top man”, he would shout to me. I, of course, responded in kind. Because he was. We’d often chat before he went home. Us media types used to hang around in the concourse to ambush players before they went through the press room and upstairs to the bar. (Those who hadn’t played so well crossed the pitch and nipped through to the car park behind the South Stand). Sometimes, if you wanted to talk to the official man of the match, you’d sneak upstairs to the Gunn Club and wait at the entrance as said player went through official duties. Once, after he’d won the weekly champagne, Safri stopped on the way out and chatted, with a big smile, as usual. A few yards away was Andy Hughes, growling a little. “Hurry up, Saff, you’re my lift home.” Thankfully, Safri made Hughes wait.
Safri did everything with a smile, certainly when he dealt with the media. And he wore his heart on his sleeve sometimes.
Word has it that on the way back from a 3-1 defeat at Plymouth, he and Dickson Etuhu traded blows on the team coach. Not true... it was on the training ground in the days leading up to the game.
Chief executive at the time, Neil Doncaster revealed there had been “a reaction to a physical challenge” at Colney.
The Sun had quoted a ‘Canaries insider’ as claiming: “There has never been any love lost between Safri and Etuhu. They are always having a go at each other in training. But their feud boiled over on the coach. They were having a real go at each other.”
Really? A Canaries insider? Goodness me.
Safri was quite mild-mannered, but he did have an edge, no doubt. And while today’s media-trained players say little controversial, Safri definitely had his moments.
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In March 2007 he had to deny claims he over-reacted to a tackle to get an opponent (Stoke’s Andy Griffin) sent off.
“Safri was rolling on the pitch but was injured so badly that 30 seconds later he was across the pitch to take the next free-kick,” said Stoke boss Tony Pulis.
But when you wanted someone to put their foot in, Safri didn’t hold back. You didn’t mess with him.
And the fans loved him for it. “Here we are, here we are and here we go, Youssef’s better than Juninho, Moroccan all over the world!” they sang.
And he played up to them, appealing to their good nature when things weren’t perhaps all happy within the camp.
He was signed by Nigel Worthington, had a bit of a running battle with his successor as manager, Peter Grant; in December, 2006, he basically said, “if you don’t play me, I’ll go”.
“To be honest if it stays the same I think I have to look for somewhere to play because I think if I stay on the bench for a long, long time my career is going to be destroyed,” said Safri.
“If it is going to be like that for a long, long time I think I have to go somewhere.”
What sparked it? Grant hadn’t been at the club two weeks when he subbed Safri 35 minutes into a Carling Cup match at Port Vale. On Boxing Day, after a 30-minute appearance against Southend, he threw his shirt into the crowd as he left the Carrow Road pitch. He said the next day it was intended simply as a gift for a young spectator.
The fans had chanted his name when he came on to replace Carl Robinson. And there’s the thing, the fans had a ready made good guy, bad guy - Robinson didn’t have anywhere near the relationship or the personality that Safri did.
Working the crowd, Safri said: “I was really pleased with the reaction of the fans and the players and from the staff after Southend. After the game they said I had done well and everybody was happy with me and I was pleased with myself because I know the work I have done.... but I am Youssef Safri as well. I want to play every game for everyone. I don’t think anyone in the world can have such a reception from the fans – that’s why I am here, honestly.”
But Safri left City, rather abruptly, for Southampton in August 2007 after a massive fall-out with Grant. Safri missed training and the subsequent annual club photoshoot - for which he claims he was only five minutes late. Grant said he had been disrespectful. Safri’s response: “I was very sad to read the comments Peter Grant made about me and I was very hurt. I was hurt and laughing at the same time. I am not going to be as unprofessional and make any comments about that. Before I never had any reasons to look for another club. My heart has always been with Norwich City.”
Once again, Safri was clearly the good guy, Grant not so.
City’s first home Championship game of the 2007-08 season? Southampton.
“Norwich will always be a special place for me,” he said ahead of the game. “The fans have a special place in my heart and I will never forget them.”
So, does this story have a happy ending? Well, perhaps not. My Monday match report included the lines: Youssef Safri, who achieved the remarkable feat of being the most hated man in the ground.
“Booed from start to finish and wasn’t the most influential of players. High point? The corner which led to Saints’ goal.”
That’s football for you... Cult Hero? Yeh, I think so... don’t you?
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