The Saido Beharino saga is finally over, at least for West Bromwich Albion. After an eighteen month period from which neither club nor player can emerge with much credit, the Burundi-born striker finally sealed a transfer away from the Hawthorns, although I’m sure Stoke City wouldn’t have been a favoured destination for him when this whole sorry episode kicked off in August 2015.
While the last year and a half may have soured it to a degree, the Saido Berahino story should still be seen as a positive one for West Bromwich Albion. Saido was born in Bujumbura, Burundi, on 4th August 1993 – in October of that year, the assassination the country’s first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, by Tutsi extremists triggered a 12 year civil war that claimed the life of Saido’s father when he was just 4 years old. He travelled to the UK alone at the age of 10 to find his mother who had been granted asylum and was living in Birmingham. He spoke no English and was put into care when his mother, Lilliane, could not be located. She was soon traced, however, and they were reunited following a DNA test to confirm that they were related.
Berahino was playing for local youth side, Phoenix United, when he joined the under-12s at the Baggies’ Centre of Excellence in 2004. He is quoted as saying that his love of football helped him integrate into the local community. He progressed well at Albion and, in 2009, he got his first international recognition winning four caps for England U16 and scoring 3 goals. He went on to represent his adopted country at U17, U18, U19, U20 and U21 levels.
Back at Albion, he signed professional forms in 2011 at the age of 18, and was soon out on loan at League Two Northampton Town. He made his professional debut at Valley Parade on 22nd October 2011 as the Cobblers went down 2-1, and he scored his first senior goal three days later although he was again on the losing side, 3-1 at home to Hereford. He ended up spending three months at Sixfields, scoring six goals in fourteen games for a struggling side. He followed that successful loan with a spell with League One Brentford, bagging a pair of braces in his eight games.
He made his senior debut for the Baggies on 28th August 2012 when he came on for Shane Long in the League Cup win at Yeovil Town but was soon out on loan once again, this time at Championship side, Peterborough United, where he managed just two goals, once again as a brace, in his seven starts and four substitute appearances for the Posh.
The first that most Albion fans will have heard of Saido Berahino was on 27th August 2013 when he scored a hat-trick in his first senior start for the club, in the 3-0 League Cup victory over Newport County (left). It was a breakthrough moment for Saido and he went on to make 36 first team appearances for Albion, including 14 starts, scoring nine goals. His first Premier League goal brought him to the attention of the nation as he come off the bench to score the winner in Albion’s first win at Old Trafford since 1978.
That season also saw him make his mark at international level. After England had suffered an embarrassing exit in the 2013 U21 European Championships, Berahino was given the nod by new boss, Gareth Southgate, and scored the only goal of the former Boro’s boss’s first game in charge against Moldova and went on to score seven goals for the U21s that season and was voted as the fans’ 2014 Under-21 Player of the Year ahead of Harry Kane.
Berahino signed a new contract with West Bromwich Albion on 2nd December 2013, committing the striker to the club until the summer of 2017, a contract that proved to be his last with the club.
So in the summer of 2014, all was well. Berahino had established himself in the Albion first team, was on a long term contract, and the Baggies knew that they had a real talent in the side. It was almost a fairy tale – the child from a country torn apart by civil war, travelled to the UK alone and found refuge in football. He was taken on as a youngster by the Premier League football club, his obvious talent nurtured until he explodes into the national football conscience with a goal at the Theatre of Dreams.
Berahino started the 2014-15 season in style with a brace on the opening day, and followed that up with a run of six goals in five games in September and October. That brought him to the attention of England manager, Roy Hodgson, who named him in the England squad for qualifier against Slovenia and the friendly in Scotland. Saido sat on the bench for both those games, but it was an important step as he looked towards a target of getting into the squad for the European Championships in France in 2016.
As Albion struggled in the run up to Christmas, so did Berahino. The club had opened negotiations on a new contract but, in the early hours of 22nd October, Saido was stopped by Cheshire Police when travelling at 110mph on the southbound M6 and found to be over the drink-driving limit. It didn’t impact his England call-up but Albion put the contract negotiations on hold.
Whether the pending court case was a factor is unclear, but his form suffered. He scored against Chelsea on 25th October but then went on a barren spell and, by the time next found the net, at West Ham on New Year’s Day, Alan Irvine had been sacked and Tony Pulis was watching in the stands ready to take over.
In Pulis’s first game in charge, Berahino scored the second hat-trick of his senior career as he bagged four against non-league Gateshead in the FA Cup but failed to celebrate any of the goals. Berahino appeared in court in mid-January and was banned from driving for 12 months.
The club then abandoned the contract talks and made it be known that Berahino would be available for transfer in the summer for the right price. He went on to score a total of 20 goals in the 2014/15 season, with the total of 14 in the Premier League. As the summer started, he was called up to the the England U21 squad for the European Championships in the summer of 2015, but had to withdraw through injury, and Albion fans were anticipating his departure.
In July 2015, it was reported that Berahino had sacked his agent, Aidy Ward, who had been so outspoken in the contract negotiations of another of his clients, Raheem Sterling. While Ward won few friends at Liverpool with his tactics in the run up to Sterling’s transfer to Manchester City, he did get the job done. Berahino opted to leave Ward, reportedly under the advice of Tony Pulis, and he joined with the Stellar Group. Ward had reportedly garnered interest in signing Berahino from both Newcastle Utd and Manchester City in the run up to the summer, but Tottenham always seemed keenest and Stellar’s close ties with Spurs chairman, Daniel Levy, having been involved in Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid, may have been another reason for the switch.
As the summer went on, the deal didn’t appear to get closer. To my mind, the longer it went on, the less likely a deal would happen purely because Albion would need to find a replacement. One of the biggest issues was the personalities involved – a battle between two of the most stubborn Premier League chairmen in the business was never going to be easy. In hindsight, it is easy to say that Jeremy Peace should’ve accepted Spurs’ deadline day offer of “£25 million” but, when you consider that the reported deal only offered £5 million as an initial down payment, it is easier to understand why the deal was not done. How were Albion supposed to fund a replacement, particularly with so little time left?
Saido took it badly. He has been portrayed differently from various quarters from being an arrogant Big Time Charlie to being troubled and misunderstood. It seems clear that he can be easily influenced, and whoever had his ear in late August and early September 2015 didn’t do him any favours. His incendiary tweet that he would “never play Jeremy Peace (sic)” made national headlines and cast him very much in the “Big Time Charlie” role.
That very public display of what can only really be described as petulance was the start of a wasted season for Berahino. Had he been properly advised to put it behind him and buckle down to doing what he does best, score goals, even that tweet could’ve been forgotten. But his apparent attitude over the next few months put paid to any chance he might’ve had of making Hodgson’s squad for France, and left Baggies’ fans angry and frustrated in equal measure.
There were one or two highlights, including Berahino scoring the winner over Aston Villa in September, the first of three goals in four games, but he failed to make the starting line up from the beginning of November until mid-February, including another frustrating transfer window for Berahino. The only public offer was from Newcastle United but, whether he would’ve fancied a spell in the north east to get away from Jeremy Peace aside, no deal was done.
There was an apology from Berahino for his attitude and he was back on the scoresheet in February. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Saido Berahino’s last goal for West Bromwich Albion was what proved to be the winner against Crystal Palace on 27th February 2016. It put Albion 3-0 in a match that eventually finished 3-2. He finished the season with 7 goals from 34 appearances, of which 15 were from the bench, and with all Baggies fans waiting for the deal to be done once again.
The summer of 2016 was different, however, in that it saw Jeremy Peace step down as chairman with a deal agreed to sell the club to the investment company headed by Chinese entrepreneur, Guochuan Lai. Would the departure of Peace lead to a change of heart by Berahino? The club once again attempted to open contract talks with the player, but no success. Bids from Stoke City and Crystal Palace were rejected and perhaps the club should have realised that this was the time to do business. The Potters’ bid was reportedly £17 million rising to £20 million and, given the figures that have eventually been agreed, it certainly appears that the deal should have been done last summer.
But Albion were hoping to reinvigorate the striker and he started the first three games of the season. Soon, however, his commitment and fitness were being called into question by Tony Pulis, and he played his last game for Albion at Dean Court on 10th September 2016. Trips to fitness camps in France aside, Berahino became a forgotten man, particularly as Albion’s form improved and the goals were flowing well. A January deal was always in the offing.
For a player with six months left on his contract and the potential to move abroad for nothing in the summer, the £12 million rising to £15 million deal works for all parties, but no one comes out of this story with much credit.
There will always be the sense of what could’ve been, both for Saido Berahino and West Bromwich Albion. It is a cautionary tale, one that both players and clubs can learn from. Berahino tried to force his way out of the club, not quite by going on strike, as Dimitri Payet is currently trying, but through a lack of application. Unfortunately for him, he came up against a club, or a chairman at least, who wasn’t prepared to be manipulated. However, had Daniel Levy not tried to get him “on the cheap” back in 2015, this whole sorry saga could’ve been avoided and Berahino could well have been playing for England in France last summer.
It obviously raises the question of player power, and shows that if a club is prepared to accept the financial consequences of an unhappy player, as well as any impact that may have on the dressing room, players do not always call the shots.
Albion may have lost out in terms of the transfer fee, but Berahino is the bigger loser. Not only has he effectively lost eighteen months of his career from a football point of view, but he has also lost out on eighteen months of a higher salary and the possibility, for now, of representing England at a major championship. His Albion contract was for around £15,000 per week which, while much more than he was earning when he burst onto the scene, and much more than the vast majority of Baggies fans can imagine, it is well below what the average Premier League wage has become over the past couple of years – indeed, even Albion’s average wage is reportedly around £35,000 per week.
Furthermore, footballers always have the threat of injury hanging over them – Saido is only 23 and potentially has the bulk of his career ahead of him but, while career-ending injuries are much rarer than they used to be, every footballer is looking to maximise their playing time while they are fit, and he has lost 18 months when a more mature approach would’ve seen him playing regularly and may well have got him his move earlier.
And then there is the destination. Berahino felt he was good enough to sign for a top club and will obviously feel that he could’ve been part of the Spurs squad that challenged for the title last season, and is doing so again this year. Jeremy Peace may have scuppered that dream initially, but it was his attitude the effectively ended it.
Now he has the chance for a fresh start, and I really hope he takes it. He is obviously lacking in fitness but all Baggies fans know the talent he has. Many extremely gifted footballers have wasted their talents through lack of application (Jason Koumas, anyone?), and Berahino looks a prime candidate to go the same way, but I hope that the last year and a half has taught him something, and that he doesn’t just blame the club but accepts his own share. As a committed Christian, Berahino needs to realise that he has a God-given talent but needs a measure of humility to succeed.
If Berahino is properly managed, both by the club and his agent, and the player shows the right level of commitment, Stoke City have a wonderful player at a knock-down price. He has the ability to score many goals at Premier League level, and to get into the England squad. Berahino has come a long way from his roots in war-torn central Africa, and West Bromwich Albion have played an important part in that – he needs to remember the first eleven years of his Albion career that brought him an England call-up, learn from the last season and a half, and take full advantage of the new opportunity he has. It was Gareth Southgate that gave him his opportunity for the U21s, and if he can regain his form from the 2014/15 season, a full international cap might not be too far away.
While I am disappointed at how Berahino’s time soured at the Hawthorns, it is only one chapter in what has been a remarkable story so far, and I’m looking forward to watching how the next one will unfold.