Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
There are many ways a footballer can endear himself to a club’s fans: winning trophies, making bone-crunching tackles, scoring a bucket load of goals. Samassi Abou did none of these during his time at West Ham in the late 1990s, yet he remains the recipient of deep love from the majority of Hammers who saw him play.
In fact, Abou’s most memorable contributions in claret and blue were somewhat catastrophic - a decisive failure in a penalty shootout against Arsenal and a open-goal miss against Manchester United that still rates as one of the most glaring of all time - but somehow this only added to the humble Ivorian’s allure.
A £250,000 signing from French club Cannes in October 1997, Abou’s pedigree matched his price tag. A striker who had scored five goals in 37 appearances at his previous club and never received international recognition, there was little to suggest Abou would be a hit in the Premiership.
Perhaps this was why the player believed he was being roundly jeered by all four corners of Upton Park when he made his home debut. It was only after the match - a 4-1 league cup win against Walsall - that one of Abou’s Hammers team-mates explained to the new recruit that the fans weren’t booing; they were merely chanting his name.
“Aboooooooouuuuuuuuuuuu!” would become a familiar, joyously bellowed refrain around the Boleyn Ground that season. The simplest songs are always the best.
This was not the only communication mix-up Abou would encounter in England. “He don’t speak the English too good,” the famously eloquent manager Harry Redknapp once remarked about his African striker.
This manifested itself most amusingly when Abou shocked viewers of Soccer AM by swearing live on air, having been informed by a mischievous fellow player that it would be acceptable to say “f*** off” on the early morning TV show, which he duly did.
But incidents such as this merely bolstered Abou’s legend. And better still, despite his modest transfer fee and uninspiring track record, he also seemed reasonably competent with a football.
“He was a typical Redknapp gamble signing who gave us plenty to be happy about in his short time with us,” recalled one fan on the West Ham Online website.
With his short, pointy dreadlocks - think Tracy Chapman in the Fast Car years, wearing a baggy West Ham kit - and penchant for the unexpected, Abou was classic cult hero material. And all his exotic promise came to glorious fruition in one virtuoso display against top flight whipping boys Barnsley in his 11th Hammers appearance.
“We beat them 6-0 and Abou scored two and set up two others. His performance that day was on a different level. Yes, it was only against Barnsley, but he almost single-handedly beat them and gave a masterclass in attacking play. I will never, ever forget that performance,” gushed another Irons fan.
“I loved him. That display against Barnsley was sublime. I remember him setting up one goal with a mid-air backheel,” concurred a fellow Hammer, whose claim is backed up by YouTube footage of the match.
It’s fair to say that Abou never quite hit such heights again, and in the following match he was red carded for allegedly punching Yahoo Sport columnist Ramon Vega in a fiery derby against Tottenham.
“He was ripping them to pieces and they deliberately got him sent off,” claimed one still-bitter Hammer. It was another Lost in Translation moment for Abou, who initially refused to leave the field because he was unaware he had been given his marching orders.
But there was worse to come. After Abou’s incredible miss from one yard out in a 1-1 draw against Man Utd - “it was far easier to score”, said one fan - he hit the woodwork with the last kick of a dramatic FA Cup quarter-final shootout against Arsenal at Upton Park.
“His little face when his penalty hit the post went from overjoyed, as it looked destined for the corner, to destroyed as it bounced out. My heart broke for him that night,” remembered one Hammers supporter.
Others were less sympathetic. “Whilst I remember the goals against Barnsley I cannot help but be plagued by the memory of the penalty miss”, said one fan, while another added that “the shootout miss still haunts me”.
Abou scored a total of six goals in 26 appearances in his first season and Redknapp smelt a profit in the offing, but a proposed £800,000 move to Bradford City broke down when the player failed a medical.
As the ever-sensitive Hammers boss explained at the time: “The lad went home to the Ivory Coast and got a bit of food poisoning. He must have eaten a dodgy missionary or something.“ In fact, it transpired that Abou had contracted malaria.
Despite making a full recovery, his days in east London were numbered. After unrewarding loan spells at Ipswich, Walsall and Kilmarnock, Abou returned to France and disappeared into the obscurity from whence he came.
Abou’s current whereabouts are unknown, with a flurry of internet rumours that he was working as a coach driver in Basildon sadly proving untrue.
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