Mustapha Hadji: Coventry’s magician who played with a steak in his sock

Coventry City's Mustapha Hadji celebrates socirng. March 2000.

To look back on Mustapha Hadji’s spell at Coventry City is to recall a simpler time in the Premier League, before social media and the cult of Championship Manager had taken hold.

Back then, most fans got their only glimpse of the Moroccan midfielder in action during the 1998 World Cup – and they liked what they saw.

The tournament had begun with a turgid encounter between holders Brazil and Scotland before springing to life later that day during a thrilling 2-2 draw between Morocco and Norway best remembered for Hadji’s sublime goal.

Hadji ran the show and was rewarded for his efforts on 38 minutes with the opener. Chasing down a pass on the left flank, the Moroccan cut inside, producing a dazzling bit of footwork to leave Norway’s Dan Eggen flummoxed, before firing hard and low past Frode Grodas.

A perfect showcase of the pace, skill and eye for goal at Hadji’s disposal, it was clear a star had been born. Hadji had a bit of everything: good in the air with an eye for a pass.

Morocco would fall just short of reaching the knockout stages, despite a 3-0 drubbing of Scotland, but Hadji did enough to be crowned the 1998 African Footballer of the Year.

Though he was a relative unknown in England prior to the tournament, the fact was that Hadji, to borrow The Anchorman parlance, was kind of a big deal even then.

He’d already played for Morocco at the 1994 World Cup and had stints with AS Nancy in and Sporting Lisbon prior to landing a move to Deportivo La Coruna. All of which made the idea of him rocking up at Coventry that bit stranger.

Then again, the big money of the Premier League was attracting an influx of exciting attacking talent from abroad. Manchester City had signed Georgi Kinkladze while Middlesbrough had convinced Juninho to swap the sunshine of Sao Paulo for the torrential rain of Teesside.

Suddenly, anything was possible. Or at least it would be.

Though the likes of AC Milan were reportedly keen on signing Hadji straight off the back of the World Cup it would be another year before the Moroccan made any kind of move.

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“I had a few opportunities to go to a big club but I was injured after the World Cup,” Hadji told The Athletic. “I actually played in the tournament with an injury.”

The decision to play at the tournament despite nursing a problem did not sit well with Depor coach Javier Irureta – especially when Hadji returned with an even worse injury. Soon enough he found himself ‘sent to Coventry’ in both senses of the phrase.

“The manager wasn’t happy because I missed the first three months of the next season,” Hadji recalled. “He let me go to Coventry the following year.”

Signed for a then club-record £4million fee, Hadji was joined at Coventry by his Morocco teammate Youssef Chippo during what was a golden period in the club’s history.

Robbie Keane arrived from Wolves a few weeks later for another record fee of £6million and went on to spearhead an impressive forward line that featured Hadji, Chippo, as well as experienced hands like Carlton Palmer and Gary McAllister with Paul Telfer and Steve Froggatt running the flanks.

Playing alongside players of this calibre certainly helped Hadji settle quickly, but the Moroccan credits Strachan with helping him make the necessary adjustments to life at Coventry.

“He gave me a good feeling straight away,” he told the Athletic. “What I liked the most was that he was a great human being. It was one of the best moments of my football life because I felt part of the family.”

Hadji hit the ground running with one of his first notable actions for the Sky Blues being a delightful assist for his compatriot, Chippo, against Leeds.

Coventry may have ended up losing 4-3 but Hadji and Chippo were quickly making a name for themselves among the fans who began dressing up in fezzes and other Moroccan clothing as a show of support. It was a different time.

Highfield Road, meanwhile, was making a name for itself as something of a fortress. Over the course of the 1999-2000 campaign, Coventry won 12 of their 19 games at home.

That might have been enough to see them challenging for European qualification were it not for the fact they didn’t win a single league game on the road.

Even so, it was enough to stave off any suggestion of relegation with Strachan’s side producing some memorable performances in the process.

Hadji had his moments too. A bullet header from a McAllister cross to beat West Ham 1-0, a clever strike from a well-executed free kick routine against Newcastle and a brilliant chest and half-volley against Watford are all fondly remembered by Coventry supporters.

Yet it’s his goal against Arsenal on Boxing Day 1999 that undoubtedly ranks as his greatest.

Collecting a McAllister pass on the edge of the box, Hadji took a single sublime touch to open up his body before guiding a brilliantly placed shot past the hapless David Seaman.

Coventry went on to win 3-2 in what may have been the last truly great game witnessed at the now-demolished Highfield Road.

Hadji made an impressive start to his Coventry career – but it could have been different. A couple of games into the season, he had visited club doctor Moss Gold with a nasty foot injury.

Dr Gold suggested injecting the affected area to essentially freeze the injury until after the game. Hadji had other ideas.

On the day of Coventry’s game with Derby, Hadji turned up with two pieces of lean-cut steak. As kick-off drew near, he proceeded to place the steaks on top of the injured foot before strapping them on with tape and bandage and sticking his boots on.

Coventry went on to win 2-0 with Hadji managing 85 minutes. Dr Gold later told the Coventry Telegraph that the Moroccan had learned of the remedy from an old Frenchman at the World Cup, who recommended it to him after he suffered a bruised toe.

Dr Gold explained: “The cool meat soothes the pain and cushions the injury from further blows, and is clearly very effective.”

Hadji continued to play with raw beef strapped to his foot for several more weeks. Things went largely to plan too, save for the time Coventry turned up to face Tottenham at White Hart Lane only for Hadji to discover he had forgotten to bring his meat.

That sparked a panicked search for steaks in the White Hart Lane kitchens before an unnamed club official was dispatched onto the London streets to find some. Miraculously he made it back before kick-off with Coventry going on to narrowly lose 3-2. Hadji played the full 90 minutes.

To this day, he swears by the method.

“I promise you, it helps,” Hadji told The Athletic. “When I played, I didn’t feel much pain in the toe. The steak… it was very well done after the game.”

Though the steaks in Hadji’s socks remained as fresh as ever as the 2000-01 season got underway, something was rotten at Coventry.

With Keane and McAllister departing to Inter Milan and Liverpool respectively and Froggatt sidelined with an injury that would ultimately end his career, Coventry lost much of the attacking zest of the previous season while still maintaining their habit for shipping goals.

Hadji continued to impress but he was fighting a losing battle. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in the penultimate game of the season against bitter rivals Aston Villa.

Needing a win and other results to go their way to avoid the drop, Hadji, captaining the side, fired Coventry into a 2-0 lead with a neat brace. But Villa fought back to eventually win 3-2 and condemn the Sky Blues to relegation for the first time in 34 years. They haven’t been back since.

To add insult to injury for Coventry fans, Hadji moved on to Villa that summer. Though supporters would not have begrudged him wanting to stay in the English top-flight, a switch to their local rivals and the team that had relegated them was a bitter pill to swallow.

Not that it worked out for Hadji at Villa Park.

Though there were sporadic moments of magic under John Gregory, Hadji couldn’t quite recapture his Coventry form. Any chance of him regaining it died the moment David O’Leary replaced Gregory as manager and immediately deemed Hadji surplus to requirements.

Spells in the UAE and German Bundesliga.2 followed before Hadji saw out his playing days in Luxembourg, eventually retiring aged 40.

Now assistant manager of the Morocco national team, Hadji is probably regaling the next generation of North African stars about a simpler time when the scorer of a World Cup wonder goal could become a Midlands football god, all while playing with a bit of beef taped to their foot.

By Jack Beresford

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