The year 2013 was a far better one for Sunderland A.F.C. for various reasons.
The League One side were still in the Premier League, they didn’t have a Netflix series about them detailing their two successive relegations and Covid-19 wasn’t a thing.
That year, they also signed El-Hadji Ba from Le Havre on a free transfer, who would only go on to make three appearances for the club over two years before being sold to Charlton Athletic in 2015.
Still, the defensive midfielder got to experience life at a Premier League club, which was a stark contrast from what he was used to in Ligue 2.
Speaking to La Voix du Nord ahead of L’Equipe’s TV channel broadcasting a series similar to Sunderland Till’ I Die about RC Lens, the now 27-year-old, who has played for both clubs in his career, was asked about his move to the Stadium of Light.
He said: “I arrived in another world. The manager then was Martin O’Neill. I’d arrived from Le Havre, a humble Ligue 2 side. Over there, it’s everything times ten. The infrastructures were crazy. There was three pools, including an Olympic one, jacuzzis, about 10 physios…
“In the parking lot, there were Bentleys and Ferraris. At Le Havre, we were driving around in Clios or Corsas! I did ask myself if I was really at Sunderland and not Chelsea or Manchester United! For French fans, Sunderland might not mean much, but over there, it’s a very respected club, one that has the best fans in the country, with Newcastle and Liverpool maybe”.
The contrasts between Le Havre and Sunderland were such that Ba was offered a choice between two phones by the club, and because he couldn’t decide which one he wanted, they just gave him both.
He also explained Lens and the Black Cats were ‘very similar’ clubs, two sides from the north of their country with a ‘strong history’, one ‘rooted in the heart of the town, linked to its inhabitants’.
Asked if he the passion at Sunderland left a mark on him, he said: “The English have this culture in their blood. One to go to the pub before games, before going to the stadium and to push the team even when it’s getting drubbed. If we lost 4-0 but gave it our all, they would clap us.
“When I went to Lens, I wasn’t surprised by the atmosphere. I’d known England, but it was so nice to see, because I knew that in France, that type of atmosphere is very rare”.
Following his move to Charlton from Sunderland, El-Hadji Ba spent time at Stabæk in Norway, before returning to France at FC Sochaux in 2017, which led to his transfer to Lens, where he only stayed a year before being bought by Guingamp last summer for £360k.