Family, faith and childhood tragedy: Inside the second coming of Sheffield Wednesday striker Saido Berahino
There’s a recurring theme that keeps popping up in conversations about Saido Berahino. And that’s family.
The arrival of the 28-year-old at Sheffield Wednesday pushed eyebrows northwards. A career that promised so much in its early days stuttered among accusations of attitude problems. His reputation didn’t quite precede him so much as blow the entrance door off its hinges.
Darren Moore knew the craic of course. Stood at Morecambe a couple of days before the transfer window closed, he quipped that he had been surprised that news of an unnamed transfer target had not yet become public. Rightly or wrongly, the fact is that Saido Berahino attracts headlines.
“I think the best choice that I ever made was to go away, just to get away from everything really,” Berahino told Talksport this week.
“I had a lot of time to think to myself and that really helped me look back and think about my career and life. It was the best choice I made.
“This was always the dream to come back. When I left I think it matured me as a person and I’ve come back a better player I feel.
“I’m glad I’m back, glad I’m back among family as well which is important to me.”
That word, then; family. It’s a word that many believe influenced any problems Berahino had in the first years of his career and one that is credited with a perceived maturity now.
The forward has been honest about two years in Belgium that frustrated him on a football level but also a human one; travel restrictions meant vast time away from people he cared about. The passing of time and the focus that a young family has brought has focused him, those close to him say. And sadly, it’s a family unit Berahino wasn’t afforded himself.
He was just 10 years old when he fled the brutal Burundi civil war that claimed the life of his father six years earlier, travelling alone to join his mother and siblings who had already made it to the UK.
A speaker of French only, he was placed in a care home on arrival as an asylum seeker and had to wait several weeks until his mother was traced. Unimaginable terror.
A bright boy who threw himself into sport, within six years he had not only learnt English but was the proud owner of 10 GCSEs and was signed on at West Bromwich Albion, where he met club captain Moore aged 12.
As his reputation grew and his teenage years dwindled, those that knew him at the time remember there was a streak in him that unchecked threatened to derail a career that saw him bag 15 goals in his first full season in the Premier League and earn an England call-up.
There followed a public fall-out with his chairman over a failed move to Tottenham Hotspur, scrapes with the law and the decline of what was a burgeoning top tier career. He has designs on rekindling that potential at Wednesday.
His Hawthorns boss Tony Pulis was the first to publicly link this streak to the tragedy of a lack of father figure in Berahino’s life. It would be glib to suggest his new manager could act in that role, but the pair have a long-standing relationship that has stood the test of time. They share a strongly-held faith. Moore has tried to sign him before.
“I can speak on this because I do know him,” Moore told The Star when asked about his striker’s new leaf in life. “As a man he’s a really caring individual, a team player who understands the dynamics of football.
“I understand some of the comments from the past but that’s gone, he’s moved on and he’s mature. He knows what he wants from the game, he has a real thirst and hunger for the game and that’s a wonderful thing.
“I had absolutely no hesitation when it came to bringing him back to present him with an opportunity to come in and get better than he’s ever been. That’s what we’ve spoken about him doing at this football club.
“What’s gone is gone and I want to echo all this to the outside audience. I wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t so. He’s a wonderful man with a lovely young family and he wants to get his head down. He’s found a home now in us and it’s up to us to get behind him. He can become a hero here.”
Shy by nature, Berahino has settled in nicely in the changing room and sits beside fellow Midlands boy Chey Dunkley – who is certainly not shy by nature – in the Middlewood Road changing room.
As a youngster at West Brom he created space for himself so he could change closer to Nicolas Anelka, a fine example of a hugely talented player who overcame accusations of misbehaviour in his youth to become a model professional. Football often finds a funny way of coming full circle.
“He’s a good guy,” Dunkley said. “He sets demands for himself and everyone knows what he’s about. He’s fitted in well and I’m buzzing for him. He’s hungry and he wants to get goals, that’s clear from the way he’s going about things in training.
“He’s another Midlands boy and that’s always good for me! I didn’t know him hugely from before, I know a lot of the Midlands boys and it was a case of saying hello and that.
“But now we know one another personally and he’s cool. We have a lot of mutual friends. Hopefully he’ll do great with us.”
Saido Berahino is back with his young family and may well have found extended family at Sheffield Wednesday. If the club can get the best out of him, it could well prove to be the signing of the season.