They called it “vivacity”; the trait which made coaches look twice at Hadi Sacko in his formative years. In 2010, when Sacko had turned 16, he was one of only two amateur players included in France’s squad for the Tournoi de Montaigu, a competition contested annually by national Under-16 teams.
The rest of the squad, the bulk of it, was filled by the powerhouses of French football: PSG, Lyon, Auxerre and the like. Sacko, who played for a little-known club by the name of Brétigny, took the vote of confidence in his stride. “If I’m here, it’s not by chance,” he confidently told Le Parisien.
That much is true of much of his short but intriguing career. Bordeaux, his first professional side, did not randomly stumble across him. Sacko was being heavily scouted when he joined as a youth-team player that year. It was not by chance that he rolled up at Sporting Lisbon with a six-year contract and a 60 million Euro buy-out clause in 2014. And by no means was Leeds United’s offer of a loan in England a wild or uninformed stab in the dark.
Sacko is raw and unfinished; electrifying in some ways, mildly infuriating in others but capable of big performances like that served up in the second half of a critical victory over Blackburn last month. His verve and “vivacity” – a word applied to him by one of his old national coaches – might already be making Leeds think about their next move. Sacko would not cost anything like the value his buy-out clause and at the right price, he is a tempting investment.
Sacko saw his breakthrough with France, an unexpected phone call telling him to link up with the Under-16s, as the point where his career properly took off. “I was 16,” he said. “It was a good experience for me. It’s really great when the gaffer of the national team calls you. I was very happy and my first game in the national team, I scored. I remember that. It was good for my confidence.”
Sacko does not come across as the archetypal ‘confidence player’. If anything, he plays rather fearlessly. At 22 he speaks relatively little English and had no knowledge of the Championship when Leeds offered him a year on loan in the league with the possibility of a permanent transfer. Sacko took up the opportunity readily and travelled with the club on their pre-season tour of Ireland.
Sporting Lisbon, on the face of it, was a dream move but his profile failed to grow in Portugal.
“I went to Sporting to play with the first team,” he said, “but I didn’t play with the first team in the league, just one game in the cup. I’m not happy but that’s normal.
“Going to Sporting, for one year and a half I played for the second team. It was difficult and it’s not my ambition. But now it’s different.”
The distinctive white flash in Sacko’s hair, the little streak of peroxide, has been his trademark for many years. For a while in Lisbon he gave up on it. “Before it was my (style),” he said. “But when I went to Portugal I stopped it. In Leeds, it’s my (style) again. I like it.”
Sacko’s performances in pre-season suggested that he could be a slow burn at Elland Road. Leeds possessed a more experienced winger in Stuart Dallas and had invested £3m in Kemar Roofe less than a week after signing Sacko. Instead, the Frenchman started the first game of the season and has played in every league fixture. He leads United’s tally of assists and is the source of most of their attacking runs. With pace to burn, criticism of him has centred around the quality of his crossing and his final ball.
Garry Monk, still, had much to thank him for after Sacko’s lung-bursting effort in a 2-1 win over Blackburn on September 13. Monk’s job as head coach was rumoured to be on the line that night but Sacko ran Blackburn into the ground, teeing up the opening goal for Chris Wood before missing a glaring chance to put the game beyond doubt in injury-time. “I need a character like Hadi,” Monk said afterwards. “He was suffering physically at the end.” Sacko reached the final whistle despite a severe bout of cramp and Leeds have not looked back from a crucial result.
“I want to play more games,” Sacko said. “I want to increase my level and for my confidence, I want to score more goals. That’s my problem now.
“When I have the ball, the gaffer tells me ‘go with your characteristics, go one-v-one and play your game, play your football.’ I’m happy here. It’s a good team with a good ambience. The football here in England, there’s lots of space for the wingers. That’s good for me.”
Before coming to England, Sacko knew Leeds United as “a grand club, a grand team”. He knew some of the story of the Champions League adventure and, aside from the challenge of playing every three or four days, was surprised only by the weather. “It’s cold sometimes,” he said, with colder weather to come. “Living in Portugal, all the time it’s sunny. But I’m good.”
Further down the line, Sacko and Leeds will contemplate what comes next for him. He has a lengthy deal in Lisbon but no guarantee of a proper career there. In a short space of time he has given United something they have lacked for too long – pace and penetration out wide. To quote Noel Whelan: “I’d back him one-on-one against any left-back in the Championship.”
“At the moment it’s good,” Sacko said. “At the moment I want to stay no problem. But one year is a long (time). My agent, he speaks with Sporting sometimes but me, no, I don’t speak with Sporting. I’m just focused on my new team.
“I just want to play and I want to score more. And get more assists too. If I work and work in training, it’ll get better for me in the statistics. I don’t always have the time because we play every three days but in this international break I’ve been working. It’s for the future.”
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