Demba Ba's disposition is so unfailingly sunny and his accuracy in front of goal so unerring that he has been dubbed the "Smiling Assassin" by team-mates at Newcastle United.
Laid-back yet lethal, the Senegal striker delights in telling colleagues that professional footballers should make having fun a principal priority. It may seem a slightly strange philosophy for a devout Muslim to espouse but Ba is referring purely to events on the pitch. Once the first whistle blows, the Gallowgate End's latest attacking darling believes relaxation and enjoyment represent the keys to success.
After delivering 13 goals in his past 12 Premier League games a 26-year-old who rarely stops beaming – or scoring – is certainly sufficiently qualified to offer his own blueprint for striking success.
"If I enjoy myself on the pitch, then I'm going to have a good performance," says a man whose displays have made Newcastle fans suspect that Andy Carroll's £35m move to Liverpool last January was probably a blessing in disguise. "As long as I'm having fun I'm happy. It's all about having fun. As long as I can say it's fun, that's good."
Ba's evident pleasure in life on Tyneside is spiced by seeing his name looming large in the Premier League scoring charts alongside rather more vaunted peers such as Sergio Agüero, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie.
"It's great to be up there with company like that," he says. "It's a compliment to me when you see the background of those guys and then you see my background. And it's also different for me because I am doing it at Newcastle, whereas they are scoring goals for Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal. They probably get more chances."
Ba's background should offer real hope to late developers everywhere. After growing up in the Paris suburb of Sèvres as the sixth of seven children, he crossed the channel for trials with Barnsley. Unwanted at Oakwell, he was offered a contract by Watford but departed after failing to make the first team. His breakthrough came when he began scoring goals for the Belgian side Mouscron before moving to Germany and helping Hoffenheim into the Bundesliga.
By now Ba was regarded as a hot property but mooted moves to Stuttgart and Stoke City collapsed following failed medicals. The problem lay with his left knee, with consultants spotting a reportedly degenerative condition possibly exacerbated by a unsuccessful operation. When Stoke pulled out of a £7m move for Ba last January their manager, Tony Pulis, described the striker's afflicted joint as a "ticking timebomb".
He ended up joining West Ham United for an undisclosed fee and, staying fit, scored seven goals in 12 appearances, although he could not prevent them from being relegated. "The knee isn't 100%," he acknowledged on arrival at Upton Park. "But it's fine. I can play football; I know how to manage it."
Having proved neither to be an idle boast, he got a free transfer to Newcastle on a pay-as-you-play deal. At first glance a 6ft 2in striker boasting shoulders as broad as the Tyne appeared a classic centre-forward but Ba's new manager, Alan Pardew, regards him as "a brilliant footballer who is more a clever No10 than a traditional No9".
"He always told me I'd score goals; Alan Pardew gives me a lot of confidence," says Ba who, drained by the demands of fasting during Ramadan, endured a deceptively slow-burn start to life in the No19 shirt at St James' Park. "I thought Newcastle were a team and a club I could trust and I made the right choice."
A run of six games without a win has stripped the sheen from Newcastle's outstanding opening to the season but Ba remains unconcerned. "We need to improve a little but everything is still going well," he says.
Although he is around for the Boxing Day trip to Bolton, Friday's visit to Liverpool and the home game against Manchester United on 4 January, Ba will shortly be bound for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea to play for Senegal in the Africa Cup of Nations.
"I've mixed feelings about leaving Newcastle. In one way it's a terrible blow," he says. "This is my club and I'm proud of it but the Africa Cup of Nations is for my country. I'm going to try to win it for Senegal. I have to go, it's a big tournament. I want to make my people and my country proud but I also feel sad leaving Newcastle."
Pardew will pray for his safe return.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © StartAgain
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