It could have all been so different.
September 28th 2013, West Brom are at Old Trafford playing Manchester United for the first time since the incredible 5-5 game, with United now managed by David Moyes. Morgan Amalfitano, a new signing for Albion, had put he Baggies 1-0 up with an incredible solo effort. Rooney had immediately pegged it back to 1 all. Then 10 minutes later, a goal by Saido Berahino. Albion go on to win 2-1.
In that moment, Berahino started to become a star at the club. He was clearly still learning his game, still finding his strengths, but he had an ‘it’ factor about him. There was a feeling that this boy could go on to be something special.
And what a story it would have been. Berahino and his Mother fled a war-torn Burundi being granted political asylum in the UK. Berahino, aged 10, made his own way after his Mother. He spoke French, knew nobody except the few of his family that had also made it, and had to start life again. His Father was killed during the Burundian Civil War when Berahino was only 4. It’s an unimaginable start to life. To go from that to scoring the winning goal at Old Trafford was…still is…inspirational.
A year after coming to the UK, Berahino was spotted by coaches from the Albion and signed up. From age 11, he started to develop his game for the club and, over the years, reportedly rejected advances from other clubs. He scored goals, he was becoming a good striker. By 2009, he was playing for the England U16s team. He would work his way up through each age bracket of the England set up with tremendous stats. When he got to the Under 21s he was paired with Harry Kane – 11 games, 10 goals – and, for some time, it looked as though he would progress further than Kane would.
Once he’d signed a professional deal in 2011, the decision was made to loan Berahino out to lower league teams to help build his experience. His records were good, scoring 6 in 15 for Northampton Town, 4 in 8 for Brentford and a couple for Peterborough in the Championship. Behind the scenes, though, the signs were there that Berahino could play up.
While at Brentford, his loan was cut short. The reason was revealed that Berahino had been having parties in his hotel room, even trying to get tequila sunsets paid as part of his hotel expenses by Brentford. There was also an occasion where his hotel room was soiled, probably following one of his parties…and that was the final straw. When he returned to the Albion, there was talk of him being dismissed by the club. Dan Ashworth, sporting and technical director, wanted him out. He was talked around. It was to become the first of a number of chances Berahino would have.
More controversy surrounded Berahino in 2012, when he was arrested for being drunk in charge of a vehicle. Driving convictions start to come hand in hand with Berahino from this point. But the club stood by him, and by the start of 2013 Steve Clarke, then head coach at Albion, had decided that he wanted to try to make Berahino Albion’s main striker.
His first start for the club came against Newport County in the League Cup. He was brilliant, scoring a hat-trick and showing the fans the promise that he clearly had. This was his breakthrough season, the goal at United cementing that he had landed…but it wasn’t without controversy. By March, he’d had a (now infamous) bust-up with James Morrison after Albion drew 3-3 with Cardiff – reportedly resulting in Morrison throwing a punch at Berahino – and then, only 2 weeks later, news broke of Berahino inhaling laughing gas (“hippy crack”) after a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United.
Those incidents alone became frustrating to so many that supported Albion because everybody could see the talent and knew how far he’d come. I remember watching him and seeing this news thinking “if he isn’t careful, he’ll lose it all”. And we all wanted him to succeed. His upbringing was well known by supporters, he worked his way through the academy…he had the potential to be an Albion hero.
If the 2013/14 season was a breakthrough year for Berahino at West Brom, the 2014/15 season was truly the one where he became a household name to supporters of other clubs. Albion, now managed by Alan Irvine, started the season against Sunderland. Berahino opened his account scoring two goals. He then doubled his tally with another two when Albion destroyed Burnley 4-0 at The Hawthorns. The club started to discuss a new, much better paid contract with him…but controversy struck again.
Once more, Berahino found himself arrested for drink driving, with allegations that he was also doing more than 110mph before being stopped on the M6. The club put contract talks on hold. When Tony Pulis joined the club, Berahino showed what he could do, scoring 4 goals in the FA Cup against Gateshead. He didn’t celebrate. He then did an interview stating that he was playing to get a transfer to a bigger club. Tottenham were showing interest and you could see his head was being turned. The Albion stopped contract talks and said they’d consider offers at the end of the season. Despite this, Berahino had a great year, scoring 20 goals in all competitions and ending as the Players’ Player Of The Year.
For other strikers in the Albion’s Premier League era, a season that gave 20 goals would see that player held in especially high regard amongst the fanbase, kids with the name on their shirt. However, with Berahino, it just didn’t happen. His attitude, his conduct…it had prevented him from being held anywhere near as highly as his goals would normally allow. Everybody knew he wanted out, but many knew he wasn’t really ready for it. For all his goals, Berahino was still a very raw talent. He needed another season to develop. He could have improved his game, increased his value and increased interest. But his head had already been turned.
The Summer leading to the 2015/16 season was full of speculation around Berahino. Tottenham had placed a bid of £15m for him that was rejected. Jeremy Peace, chairman at the time, set an asking price of £25m. A few more bids came in, Spurs now bidding £23m in instalments. Again, rejected. Berahino put in a transfer request. It was turned down. Peace and Albion were not budging. Berahino took to Twitter, stating he would never play for the club again.
It was a threat that never came to light. Berahino featured 35 times for Albion, but it wasn’t the same. In several games he seemed missing. He (understandably) received mixed receptions from supporters. After scoring 20 goals the season prior, he only hit 7 in the 15/16 campaign – only 4 in the league. Salomon Rondon was the preferred striker, and Berahino’s stock was falling. Tony Pulis appeared to try to take a bit of a father figure approach, meeting with Berahino and his Mother to try to improve things. It just wasn’t to be. Eventually, Pulis stopped starting him at all, even claiming he was lucky to be in the team at all. But, still, Albion rejected bids for him. Newcastle attempted to sign him in the January window for £21m – rejected. And, then, after the season ended, Stoke bid £17m. Again, rejected.
I remember thinking when Stoke went in for him that we should have accepted it. I remember thinking we should have let him go to Spurs or Newcastle. He had become a negative energy. Peter Odemwingie had a spell on Twitter where he’d argue with Albion fans but you always felt that there was a reason for Odemwingie’s frustrations – more than any ‘normal’ fan would ever know – but Berahino would incite anger on Twitter from fans and his reasons just simply felt like greed. By the end of the year, the fans had turned. The boy with the absolutely incredible, inspiring story – coming out of desperate personal grief, leaving his home country to become a top Premier League player – had lost touch. When he first broke in to the Albion team, many would comment that he was humble…it sounded as though he was a good kid…but by the end, there was no good feeling towards him.
The 2016/17 season was to be Berahino’s last at the Albion, featuring only 5 times and not scoring any goals. Fairly early in the season, Berahino was dropped and sent to a training camp in France. The club gave the reason that he was overweight, and this was to help build him back up to full fitness. Reality was, however, that he had failed a drugs test. Found positive for MDMA, Berahino was banned for 8 weeks. In covering it up, the club had tried to protect him and his reputation, but this was it. Enough was enough, and he was sold to Stoke for a potential £15m.
Some months after news broke about the failed drugs test, Berahino did an interview claiming it was because his drink was spiked. This may have been true, but it’s sadly so often the way with Berahino – for every wrong, there’s an excuse and a denial. When people criticise or point the finger (even to the extent of WaterAid claiming Berahino’s charity hadn’t donated the money it promised), he always denies and says it’s been exaggerated. The only admissions of guilt come when there’s no other possible story. It’s not a good character trait.
I will always have the frustration with Berahino that, beneath it all, there is a really good footballer in there. Had he kept his head down, stayed out of trouble and just concentrated on his game then I honestly believe he’d be regarded as somewhat of an Albion icon. His story alone would have given him that. Instead, he left the club he joined as an 11 year old and spent 13 years with as a villain.
There was a time when Saido Berahino was considered a brighter prospect than Harry Kane. He could have had it all. He blew it. Two years after leaving Albion, he has had yet another drink driving conviction and that, plus his attitude, resulted in Stoke sacking him. He now has another chance at redemption, this time in Belgium with Zulte Waregem…and part of me, the part that still thinks of that academy built player scoring the winner at Old Trafford, really wants him to succeed. He has to, because this is surely the very last chance he has altogether.
Saido Berahino. Through all of his own doing, a wasted talent.
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