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Football is filled with tales of what might have been, players who shone brightly, but flickered and dimmed, then flared again all too briefly, before a promised brilliance faded and they were lost; talents wasted wantonly or perhaps it was a case of a manager being unable to see the unpolished talent and fully develop it. One wonders how the history of football would be if so many of those players with an abundance of talent, but perhaps a suspect temperament had found the right coach, the man with the light to illuminate the path to greatness, a mentor to guide the way. Sadly, for many, that didn’t happen, and the story of Adel Taarabt, albeit still less than 30 years old at the time of writing, seems to be a case in point.
Born in Morocco, but brought up in France from a young age, Taarabt first came to notice whilst playing for Racing Club de Lens, mainly in their B team. In fact, he only played a single first team league game for the club. The player himself suggests that the original plan was for him to leave France for North London, but to sign for Arsenal, rather than Spurs. Initial contact was originally made by Damien Comolli who, at the time was scouting for the Gunners.
As the deal progressed though, the Frenchman moved to become Director of Football at White Hart Lane, and persuaded Taarabt to change direction also. He alleges that the sales pitch Comolli delivered was that Spurs were recreating the club in the form of the Gunners with young talent being promoted. Taarabt would later contend that he had been convinced by a move to Arsenal mainly because of Arsène Wenger, but Comolli convinced him his chances of success would be brighter at Spurs. It was a decision that the player would later describe as a “big mistake” and that his friends, Armand Traoré and Abou Diaby, both advised him against.
With promises of a rapid promotion to first team football under the then manager, Martin Jol, Taarabt moved to Spurs two days into 2007, initially on a long-term loan that was later made into a permanent deal. By March he was in Jol’s first eleven and although he only made two league appearances that term, Spurs signed a full deal with Lens for his transfer in June.
The fee involved is open to debate, with reports differing, but whatever Spurs paid, given the outcome over the coming years, they would surely have felt they overpaid. Across the coming season he would make a mere half-dozen league appearances for the club, without troubling the scorers, and when Spanish manager Juande Ramos was appointed to replace Jol for the 2008-09 season, the new man at the helm declined to even give the player a squad number. An early promise had disappeared. Perhaps Taarabt was right about the move being an error, and who knows what would have happened had he instead come under the nurturing wing of Wenger.
There was a brief hint of renaissance when Harry Redknapp was moved in to replace the underperforming Ramos, and Taarabt was welcomed back into the first team squad. It would be a false dawn however, a mere three minutes as a substitute – ironically against Wenger’s Arsenal – was all the time granted in league first team colours in February 2008. It was clear that there was little future for the player under Redknapp, and their paths would cross again later, with a similar outcome. In all his time with Spurs, he would feature in just nine league games, without scoring once.
A move seemed the best thing for all parties and Redknapp sidled the player off to QPR on loan until the end of the season. As things transpired, between joining on loan and his eventual transfer away from Loftus Road in 2015, Taarabt would play under no less than ten different managerial regimes, but also deliver some of the best performances of his career. Perhaps here was a player who needed the constant change and challenge that new managers brought with them, be it full time, caretaker, or even when the job was being shared. He would play more than 150 league games for the Loftus Road club and score 36 goals, as well as a number of assists and provide the sort of mercurial talent not seen at the club since the days of Rodney Marsh and Stan Bowles. As with those two other mavericks though, it was not always sweetness and light, with injuries also complicating matters.
After scoring his first league goal in England, and with just seven games under his belt, a knee injury cut short the loan, with surgery required to correct the problem. Not much had changed at Spurs though, and in the summer, Taarabt was back at QPR with a loan for the season agreed unless, in the most unlikely of circumstances one must imagine, the White Hart Lane club received an acceptable transfer bid for him.
Early on though, such an event was perhaps rendered less unlikely when the player, now recovered and playing in his favoured ‘number ten’ role netted what his manager at the time, Jim Magilton would go on record describing it as a “wonder strike” and the player as “a genius.” It came about in a game against Preston when he gained possession, before slaloming past four defenders and sending a delicious curling shot out of the reach of the goalkeeper. The Hoops fans rejoiced at the talent being revealed and were in raptures at what delights he might deliver. The problem was that Spurs were looking for £4.5 million if QPR wanted to make the deal permanent and it was beyond the financial reach of the club.
Regular play and the trust of the coach was working for Taarabt. He would appear in 41 league games for QPR that season, a total unequalled in his career either before or since, and he delivered. Seven goals hardly tell the tale of his total contribution, but was still not a bad haul for a midfielder. For all that, now having what he thought was a chance to display his talent, Taarabt still had eyes on a bigger prize. In March 2010, he let it be known that he hoped, “to be playing for one of the top four in Spain next season – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Sevilla. I have contact with good teams and I know that they want me. Now I just have to hope they can agree a deal with Tottenham.” Of course, he was still officially a Spurs player, but talk of seeing QPR as a mere stepping stone to supposedly greater things would hardly have been what the Loftus Road faithful wanted to hear.
Such talk proved to be mere caprice however, and before the new season got under way, QPR agreed an undisclosed fee – but one thought to be substantially less than the original price – and signed Adel Taarabt on a three-year deal from Spurs. At least now, if there was a big move, the club would profit from it, although Tottenham had a clause inserted that they would receive 40% of any sell-on profit.
The move heralded Taarabt’s most productive and effective season. In 44 league appearances he would score 19 goals. It was the sort of strike rate that any forward would be proud of. His game was about so much more than goals though. Now in his pomp and with confidence flowing he saw it as an opportunity to reveal the full panoply of his skills. Outrageous dribbles, passes delivered with the accuracy of an Exocet and a work rate that made his coaches drool and him the Championship’s outstanding player. He was duly rewarded by being awarded league’s Player of the Year award. The club was rewarded with promotion, winning the title by a clear four points.
At such times though, for players of a similar talent and perhaps large but fragile ego, things often seemed to go awry, and it happened on international duty for Morocco. In a game against Algeria Taarabt, clearly unsettled by the recent death of a cousin apparently due to Algerian terrorists, was booked and lucky not to be dismissed, perhaps seeking retribution in absentia. It was enough to see him dropped to the bench for the return leg. The demotion hit a clearly emotional Taarabt though, and he refused to turn up, asserting he would never play for the national team again. He would later, in calmer tones, relent.
Taarabt’s play had been a major contribution to QPR’s promotion to the Premier League and in the 2011-12 season, he had the opportunity to prove himself in England’s top tier, as captain of his side, that he felt had been denied him whilst at Spurs. It was perhaps an entirely predictable response for such a player, but even before the season was under way, an incoming transfer upset the delicate equilibrium.
Neil Warnock was now in charge, and he brought Joey Barton into the club and immediately installed him as skipper, displacing the clearly less than delighted Taarabt. At the same time, his performances from last season had alerted a number of clubs that QPR had a talent that could perhaps be prised away by the right offer, and at such times, rumours are plentiful in the media.
The new regime hardly suited the ‘off the wall’ temperament of Taarabt, and Warnock’s more prosaic approach did little to inspire the sort of performances that had been joyously delivered the previous season. The downturn in form led to criticism from manager and players alike, and merely fed into the downward spiral of form. Twice he was substituted at half-time, and such hammer and nails approach by his manager appeared the very opposite of what Taarabt required. First team opportunities became rarer, but under Warnock there was little prospect of change and as Autumn turned to Winter, talk of any decent bid for the player being seriously considered was being bandied around.
Late in the year though, injuries opened a door for a return, and Taarabt appeared to be back in the mood. Performances against some of the league’s top sides showed that there was no doubting his talents and he even put in more of the ‘heavy-lifting’ work he had been criticised for neglecting previously by his manager. Warnock was out in early 2012, and Mark Hughes was perhaps more to the player’s liking. A first red card of his career perhaps demonstrated that he had carried the ‘commitment’ element from the previous regime a little too far though. Such things appeared to have convinced the management though and a new three-year deal was agreed in the summer of 2012.
Harry Redknapp, his old nemesis for Spurs, took over as manager in November and the zest, vim and vigour from a couple of seasons ago showed its face again. Although the club was struggling in the top league, individually Taarabt blossomed at times. A storming goal against WBA struck on the volley was a highlight, as was a brace in QPR’s first league victory in December. The fact that it was the first time the club had garnered three points in the season speaks volumes for the parlous state of their Premier League status though.
Taarabt had seemingly by now convinced Redknapp of his worth. The erstwhile and much-travelled man in charge of the team described the player’s contribution in the first victory as, “one of the all-time great performances.” Praise indeed from someone who had previously doubted him so much. Some time later, the pendulum would swing again. Despite Taarabt’s play, any benefit was swamped by a flood of mediocrity. Come the end of the season, QPR finished at the foot of the table, some 14 points adrift of safety, and Taarabt was loaned to Premier League Fulham for the coming season, where he joined up with Martin Jol again.
The Dutchman had maintained his admiration for the player, and was keen to get him into Craven Cottage. Now 22 years old, he had been a mere teenager when apparently swamped by expectations and surroundings at White Hart Lane, and Jol considered it was the time to flourish. He had tried to take the player to Hamburg when managing there. “But they wanted too much money and he went to Rangers instead,” said Jol. “I have always liked him. To me he is the most natural No.10 in football. Other players will tell you that,” he declared. “I called him the Whizzer. He has so much ability. I can also understand why Neil Warnock at QPR gets frustrated with him. He often had Spurs reserve team coach Clive Allen pulling out his hair. He’d get the ball and that would sometimes be the last you would see of it for a while. I have watched him recently and he seems to have adapted better. I was not surprised when Paris St-Germain wanted to buy him for big money. Adel is a leader.” The reference to PSG’s enquiry is an interesting one. If there had been any serious approach from the French club, it’s difficult to imagine Taarabt not preferring Francophone Paris to staying in London.
Sadly, for both player and new manager, the anticipation was hardly matched by reality. In a season punctuated by minor injuries and erratic form, he would only play a dozen league games, failing to score in any of them. At the end of the season, Jol had gone, sacked just ahead of Christmas after a disastrous run of form led to six defeats. Fulham were relegated from the Premier League and QPR came back up courtesy of the play-offs. Taarabt, having maintained his top tier player status throughout, returned to Loftus Road. It would be a short stay however.
He started a League Cup game, and then appeared as a substitute in a league game, but things were clearly not going well. QPR were hardly pulling up any trees and Redknapp was quizzed about the absence of the player who had been so influential just a couple of seasons previously. Curtly, Redknapp dismissed the option of bringing him back into the fold. “Taarabt is not injured. He’s not fit. He’s not fit to play football, unfortunately. He played in a reserve game the other day and I could have run about more than he did.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement and would later be followed by the manager declaring that Taarabt was, “three stone overweight.” The player responded by saying he had been made the scapegoat for the manager’s failings. The brief romance in the relationship had gone; this time for good. By January, another move was inevitable.
In what many maty consider a strange move, a loan period with AC Milan appeared on the horizon and Adel Taarabt moved from Loftus Road to the San Siro until the end of the season. As with so many other occasions, an early start failed to develop into long-term success. Eight minutes into his debut for the Rossoneri against Napoli he opened his scoring account with the Lombardy club. It was a goal that again illustrated his still yet fully untapped talents. Collecting possession, he set off on a dribble that took him half the length of the pitch until he confidently struck the back of the net from just outside the penalty area.
Things didn’t continue on an upward curve, but four goals from 16 appearances across all competitions wasn’t a terrible return and there was talk of a permanent move in the summer. The introduction of a new man in charge though, when Pippo Inzaghi took over as manager, meant the end of his time in Serie A for the moment. Taarabt would lament the turn of events in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “That experience destroyed me psychologically. I had done well with the Rossoneri and we were on the verge of signing the contract, then Pippo Inzaghi arrived and made other choices. Returning to QPR after playing in the Champions League alongside stars like Kaka really hurt.” It’s an understandable reaction, and one that must have exposed any fragility of confidence.
The future at QPR remained non-existent and, in June 2015, he signed a long-term deal with Benfica. He would not play a first-team league game for the Águias in the coming season, and by the following September, his relationship with the club appeared to be shattered beyond repair, after reports suggested he had turned up for pre-season overweight – echoing the claims of Redknapp at QPR. He had also given an interview to France Football the previous month saying he wished to leave Lisbon, and begging clubs to come and sign him.
Understandably, such things hardly endeared him to club president Luis Filipe Vieira, who declared that Taarabt would never play for Benfica again. The president was reported on the official club website as saying that. “Taarabt is my and Rui Costa’s fault. But he’s a good player. I don’t understand anything about football, but I have a man by my side who understands a lot, which is Rui Costa. We watched and re-watched his games. But there are things lacking. He arrived with six extra pounds, but now he’s at the right weight. After the interview he gave, he certainly won’t wear the Benfica shirt. But we’ll have enough skill to loan him.” Sure enough, in June 2107, Taraabt was loaned out to Genoa until June 2018.
And so, entering the new season, at the time 29 years old, Adel Taarabt remains an enigma, blessed with an abundance of talent, but blighted by an inability to deploy it consistently, save for one brief period with QPR. Surely, out there, is a manager, a coach, a mentor of some description who can coax the genius from under the stone that hides it so jealously. If not, Adel Taarabt may become the intermittent genius who feel short too often.