Comparisons with Tony Yeboah show just how far Souleymane Doukara has come since a summer when it seemed only Garry Monk had faith in the Frenchman’s potential. Phil Hay reports.
It was not quite Tony Yeboah against Liverpool, not quite the same level of technical genius, but the fact that Souleymane Doukara drew that comparison said it all. “You won’t see many cleaner or better strikes,” said an admiring Garry Monk after Doukara’s top-corner finish against Nottingham Forest. Doukara has never scored anything like it.
It goes down as the best goal of Doukara’s career and one of the best Elland Road has seen in recent memory; a crisp, first-time volley which threatened to burst Forest’s net. David James, the unhappy victim of Yeboah’s famous thuderbolt in 1995, always maintained that he should have saved the Ghanaian’s shot. Goalkeeper Stephen Henderson had barely moved before Doukara’s crashed past him.
“If you’re sat there watching then you sit and applaud,” said Forest caretaker Gary Brazil after his side’s 2-0 defeat. “You can recognise the quality.”
For Doukara, it extended the revival of a one-time misfit who has found himself at Elland Road with Monk’s help and patience. The Frenchman’s capacity to surprise has been notable this season and never more so than on Wednesday night.
His 75th minute goal – a strike from the edge of Forest’s box after Michael Mancienne cleared a corner towards him – put Leeds out of sight with a two-goal advantage but, for a split second, the scoreline was forgotten as the crowd craned to watch the replay on the scoreboard.
“It’s the best goal I have scored – for the moment,” Doukara said. “I hope I can score more like that in the future. Yeboah against Liverpool was maybe better than mine, I don’t know, but mine was a good goal. I was very happy for the three points.
“My position at the corner was to stay at the edge of the box. As the ball came to me I could either shoot or cross the ball back in but the ball was just too good and I decided to shoot. I’ve not hit a ball as sweet as that. I’ve had a few goals I’ve enjoyed – there was one against Norwich two years ago, I liked that one – but this was better.”
Doukara has five goals for the season, a tally far below Chris Wood’s haul of 20 but a valuable return in its own way. Wednesday belonged to Wood as he reached a notable milestone but Leeds have won all five of the games in which Doukara has scored and among Monk’s players, only Wood is outscoring him. His form has vindicated Monk’s decision to retain him in a summer when many expected Doukara to follow Tommaso Bianchi, Giuseppe Bellusci and Casper Sloth out of Elland Road.
Doukara, 25, blamed a lack of fitness for his slow start to the season – a start which saw him play in three league games before his decisive cameo in a 2-0 win over Burton Albion on October 29 – but his summer was also affected by a family bereavement which the forward decided not to publicise. Monk, nonetheless, saw enough ability in him to justify keeping Doukara on board at a time in July when Leeds were cutting several of Massimo Cellino’s old signings from their squad. It gave another chance to a player who had previously interspersed short purple patches which long spells of inactivity.
“At the beginning of the season I wasn’t fit,” Doukara said. “I’d come late for pre-season and the first thing the manager said to me was ‘get back fit because we need you in this team. You can help us to achieve something’. That was good to hear and it’s what I did. I went training every day and worked very hard on my own. I wanted to get back in the team.”
It is not a secret that Leeds are a happier camp now than they were in either of Doukara’s previous two seasons with the club. There is no sign of factions or divisions or any of the issues which undermined previous head coaches. Monk’s squad regularly socialise and are reassuringly close. United’s head coach spoke on Wednesday about assessing potential signings “physically, mentally, tactically and socially as well.”
“We did that very well in the summer,” Monk said.
Doukara, who was new to England when he signed from Catania as a 23-year-old in 2014, has seen a change. We had a good team in the first two years,” he said.
“There’s not much difference this year, apart from we now know each other and play together. We’re all agreed we can do something this year. That’s the big difference.
“But game after game we have to stay focused. Don’t look too far ahead. The manager tells us that every week and he’s right. We cannot think about (the end of the season) and how many points we want. We just look at the next game and that’s Sutton in the FA Cup.
“If you think about promotion, you start to get frustrated if you lose a game like Barnsley. It can affect you.”
Leeds’ 3-2 loss at Oakwell on Saturday, a rare defeat, was negated by Wednesday’s win over Forest, taking Leeds past 50 points and moving them closer to a top-six finish. The game had originally been due to be staged tomorrow before United reached the fourth round of the FA Cup and Monk’s decision to push for prompt rearrangement paid off as planned.
A good result against Forest allowed him to focus clearly on Sunday’s cup tie at Sutton United: a meeting with a non-league club on an artificial pitch at Green Gander Lane. Despite reaching a League Cup quarter-final against Liverpool in November, it is plain where United’s priorities lie this season, but Doukara said: “It makes no difference to me what the competition is. Sunday’s important because it is the next game. If we win, we can go play another big team. We want to win every game.
“Liverpool was good to play but if we want another game like that then we have to first win on Sunday. It will not be easy.”