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Florent Sinama Pongolle picks Liverpool’s player of the season, questions Reds’ strength & energy, talks Istanbul memories & life on Merseyside

| 12.05.2022

In the second part of Ladbrokes’ exclusive interview with Florent Sinama Pongolle, the former Liverpool player discusses the current team and memories of his five seasons at Anfield.

The Frenchman spoke to us ahead of the launch of the 5-A-Side bet on Saturday’s FA Cup Final which you can read about by clicking on the link.

Sadio Mane has been Liverpool’s player of the season

Luis Diaz has had a fantastic start to his Liverpool career; what a player… he’s a machine! I love his spirit, I love his mentality, but it’s hard to say he’s been their player of the season.

I would say that title has to go to Sadio Mane. He’s had such an impact this year, especially when he’s been used in a more central role. He won the Africa Cup of Nations for his country for the first time in their career, but at club level he’s done an incredible job across a number of different positions his manager has requested. He’s scored in some important games – I just think he’s had more of an impact than, say, Mo Salah – who had also been brilliant, to his credit.

From what I’ve seen on the pitch, I’d go for Sadio as Liverpool’s player of the season.

Liverpool lacked strength and energy to beat Spurs, but title race is still wide open

Quite simply, there have been so many games for Liverpool to play this season, it becomes difficult to prepare your mind when you’re going for every single trophy available. I don’t think points were dropped on the pitch last Saturday, I think they were a result of circumstances where preparations and focus wasn’t completely there. And that’s because it is so difficult to maintain those levels.

There was so much pressure on them with that word: quadruple, and it’s about how you handle that pressure. When you’re at this point of the season, with so much to play for, you should only be concentrating on one thing, and that’s the next game in front of you. That’s what cost Liverpool on Saturday night.

You have to give credit to Tottenham, too. Their game plan was very clear. I saw one picture after Luis Diaz’s goal. There were 11 Tottenham players behind the ball. Have you ever seen that before? I haven’t. That tells you all you need to know about their game plan, but to their credit it worked to perfection.

Luis Diaz, Villarreal v Liverpool

But at the same time, I think it’s fair to say Liverpool didn’t have the strength or the energy on Saturday night to go all out for the win. We didn’t see any clear opportunities after Liverpool equalised, at least not for the home team. I think the crowd could feel that there was something missing, too – and as a player you can feel that.

The reassuring thing for Liverpool is that there is still time to turn things around in the league. Obviously it’s a big ask, but everything is possible in football, and Liverpool Football Club, of all teams, should know that. That one point against Tottenham could make a huge difference in Liverpool’s favour by the end of the season. We know Man City need seven points from their next three games and they’ll be champions. But that’s still a big ask, to get seven points from three games in the Premier League in 2022. In today’s game, it’s very tough to predict results in this division, especially at this part of the season.

Istanbul memories… watching in the stands gave me a perspective which will stay with me forever

Of course, our Champions League journey in 2005 will go down in history as one of the most incredible moments and comebacks of all time. I missed out on the knockout stages after I picked up an injury against Watford in the League Cup. But I always felt like I was a part of that journey, and of course I played an important role in our final group game against Olympiacos.

I knew my role within the team, and I knew the importance of making an impact whenever I got an opportunity from the bench, and that’s what I did on that night when I scored to get us back in the game after going 1-0 down. Then, I’m out wide of the goal and there were so many players around the goalkeeper, I’m able to get the ball into the box – while being in the box myself – just towards the back post for Antonio Nunez to get a header in at goal, which their keeper saved. But Neil Mellor, like he always was, was alive to it and managed to score the rebound, and then obviously Stevie [Gerrard] went and made it 3-1 later on in the game. That eventually saw us through to the knockouts on goal difference and, well, the rest is history.

Florent Sinama Pongolle, Liverpool v Olympiacos

I didn’t know when I first got injured against Watford how serious it was, but very quickly it dawned on me that I’d miss the rest of the season. At the time, obviously, we didn’t know that was going to include a Champions League final, but there was no way I was ever going to be back and fit in time for that game. But despite that, I must say I always felt like I was a part of that journey with the boys. Through my rehab I was in contact with the players, and obviously I was out there on the night of the final – and what a night it was.

Because I wasn’t a part of the squad, it meant I was in a separate area away from the players and close to the fans – and I’ve got to say I found it an incredible experience. The energy you felt from the fans was so difficult to deal with, because there’s part of you as a player that wants to be down there with the rest of the team – and when you’re down there, it’s much easier to just focus on one thing. But when you’re up there with the fans, it’s so hard because you don’t know where to look.

That was while the game was being played. At half-time, my experience of that night is actually an interesting one, because I could feel something among the supporters; it was like there was something in the air and they knew this wasn’t over. The good vibes were all coming from the stands, and I don’t think you would be feeling that atmosphere inside the dressing room, especially at 3-0 down. People were still singing, laughing and I just remember feeling like something else was going to happen, you know? I didn’t know what, but I knew there was something in the air.

I think I knew, as a player, how I’d have felt if I’d have come out after half-time to my supporters, still singing and cheering for us. Wearing that Liverpool shirt comes with so much pride, you know? I’d experienced it before, where we’d come out losing, but we were so proud of the badge we were representing on our chest and the red that we wore. I knew the team would not let themselves go down without a fight because that just wasn’t the Liverpool way. Once I started to think like this, all of a sudden I just felt so positive.

Life in Liverpool for a 17-year-old French footballer with high expectations…of course girls end up surrounding you!

I knew my role in that Liverpool team. I wasn’t necessarily an important player in the same way you think of people like Steven Gerrard – but I was an impact player, and I think in my early days with the club, the fans responded to me well because I was a young guy coming on in a rush to make something happen. I feel like I had a characteristic there which English fans love. I was fast, with quick feet, but at the same time very humble. Every time I put on a Liverpool shirt I knew what it meant to the supporters and I made sure to enjoy every moment.

I believe that in the UK – in particular at Liverpool –  if you’ve got this kind of mentality where you’re so focused and hungry, you’ll go far, and you’ll be taken in by your supporters.

Listen, there’s also the other side of things when you’re a young guy like I was, moving from another country like I did. That social and lifestyle part of the game was tough, and sometimes you had to learn the hard way, but you need to keep your feet on the ground. In a city like Liverpool, everything revolves around football, and it’s fantastic. After a while with the club, I’d go out with my family or friends, and I could feel the eyes on me, you know? People thinking they recognised you and deciding whether or not to come over to you.

Of course, as a youngster as well, there’s the other side of things when you’re out with your friends. There’s the press, the newspapers, the crazy stories that come out about you. You start getting paranoid! You know, you’re wondering which girl is going to come and talk to you, and why, and where it’s going to end up! I was 17, French, I’d just moved to the UK with a lot of expectation for my future, so of course you’d have people around you a lot. Girls would want to be around us, to be seen with us, and at the same time you have guys who want to be seen talking to you.

You just need to find a balance, and you need to make a decision about your close circle; that was always the most important thing for me. Surrounding myself with people I know I could trust was so important. Honestly, if you’re in that position and you’re by yourself, you’re f***ed! It’s so difficult but you’ve got to build a strong team around you off the pitch.

Michael Owen was my reference when I joined Liverpool; here’s how he helped me settle

Michael Owen was great for me when I first signed for Liverpool. First of all, I thought we were quite similar in our styles; not too big, not too physical, but confident, quick and good with the ball, good at taking people on and making quick decisions. He was my reference when I arrived at the club. He’d just won the Ballon d’Or, which was another reason why I obviously tried to learn from him.

I was so impressed with the way he prepared, how he dealt with pressure, the impact he had on the team and the relationships he had with his team-mates. I think above everything, though, I learned to enjoy myself because of him; you could see the joy he had when he was playing football. He enjoyed training, he enjoyed being around the team, he enjoyed every aspect of the game, and it made me see things differently; he’s the one player I learned the most from.

Michael Owen, Liverpool

That mentality is something I’ve tried to keep with me throughout my career, both on and off the pitch. I was 17 years old and I saw these big stars, Owen and Steven Gerrard, setting this example and staying so humble and grounded. They were always so kind and great with fans. I never saw any of them turn their backs on kids asking for autographs or pictures.

I learned a lot on the pitch from the two of them, in particular Owen – but what I learned the most was about the attitude you need off the pitch. At the end of the day, your football career is so short, so what’s important is what’s on the inside; what you’re like as a person, and I’ve got Michael to thank for that.

Memories of El-Hadji Diouf… 1am calls, dressing-room joker

El-Hadji Diouf; what a guy. Honestly, he is a great, great character. He’s the kind of guy who changes how he is depending on who he’s with. First of all, he’s very respectful and kind. Quite often he would be over at my house in front of my parents, and he’d be this shy guy, almost backing away from conversations. He’d call my mum Madame Sinama Pongolle, or ‘aunty’, he had this cute way about him, I suppose you could say. But at the same time, when he was in a more comfortable environment, like in training or around anything to do with football, he was absolutely crazy!

I mean, you almost can’t take him seriously because everything became about his ego. He’d attack you for anything. He used to say my name sounded like a brand of sneakers, stuff like this, you know? Just stuff he knows is going to wind you up. That was his style. You’d just think ‘how are you like this?’

He loved to play games with us, man. I know sometimes people might misunderstand him, but that was Dioufy. It was never about disrespect, and he never wanted to upset anyone – it was just his way of living. He loved giving punchlines, he always carried this adrenaline with him and he loved it when you were talking about him. You read crazy stories about him all the time and he’s done some crazy things, but I have so many good memories with him.

With someone like Dioufy, you need to understand what you want personally with him. If you want to, you can have some really good times with him, and he loved you for that. If you wanted to get into his lifestyle, be sure you’re strong, and able to handle that negative view you’d get from other people.

El-Hadji Diouf, Liverpool training

Dioufy loves life, you know, you’ve got to remember we’re talking about something from years and years ago, but there was one time when he turned up at Anthony [Le Tallec]’s house at 1am, ringing the doorbell constantly.

“What do you want, man?”

“Let’s go out!”

“What do you mean let’s go out? We have training tomorrow!”

That was Dioufy, though – he was a really good guy.

He splits opinions and, let’s be clear, in the dressing room you’re not always friends with everyone, you know? You are team-mates with the same target, but I’ve always said the same thing when it comes to football. Ultimately you want to be playing more often than the guy who plays in the same position as you. You might be my friend, and I might want you and your family to do well but I want my family to be better than yours. That’s the way it is – it’s life.

Afterwards you may be friends, but in those moments, the most important thing for me has always been about making sure everyone is trying to achieve the same thing as a collective team, and that’s success. That way, we’re all winning; the more we’re winning, the more success we’ll have, the more trophies we’ll have and the better contracts we’ll get.

Match Info

Where: Wembley

When: 16:45, Saturday 14th May

How to watch: BBC 1

View the latest football odds

All odds and markets correct as of date of publication

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Author

Alex Apati

Alex has been with the Ladbrokes PR team since 2017 having previously worked for the news department. From sparring with Peter Fury to talking interviews on the Duke and Duchess' baby names, he's covered a range of sports and novelty events.

A frustrated West Brom fan who is no stranger to an oche, Alex is originally from Dudley, although he's worked hard to rid himself of the Black Country twang.