Toumani Diagouraga is a quiet, unassuming man.
Off the pitch, the man affectionately known as ‘Dave’ during his days at Brentford is a polite figure who keeps himself to himself. On it, a frantic movement, on occasion, will suggest he is uncomfortable in possession.
Internally, that could not be further from the truth and with an often exquisite touch or laser-guided pass, he has the ability to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
At 33-years-old, he has the experience to accompany those favourable attributes, too – over 450 appearances in the Championship, League One and League Two, in fact.
Now plying his trade at Morecambe, everything is rosy. But the Frenchman has had to traverse a rocky path to get to this point.
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After a six-year spell at Brentford ended in 2016, he made 20 appearances for Leeds, with a subsequent loan spell at Ipswich preceding short spells with Plymouth Argyle and Fleetwood during the 2017/18 campaign. In July 2018, he signed a two-year deal at Swindon and, after missing much of his first campaign at the County Ground through injury, things started to spiral.
Following relegation to League Two, Robins manager at the time Richie Wellens kept Diagouraga away from the first-team picture at the start of last season, restricting the midfielder to just two appearances in the Papa John’s Trophy three months apart.
“It was very frustrating because I do believe a lot of it wasn’t actually for football reasons,” he tells Sky Sports.
“I was asked to leave and go to another club in the summer, which I declined, so it all went wrong from there, really. But I know that’s how football works. Some managers are going to like you, some are not really going to take to you, but you always have to believe in yourself and I have always backed myself.
“As a footballer, all you want is to be playing regular football. So after going through a hard first part of the season, all I wanted to do was play football again and just enjoy it.”
Then an opportunity arose at Morecambe.
In any other instance, the decision to leave a team coasting at the top of the league to join one scrapping for its life at the opposite end would be a puzzling one, but this was about more than football – and Diagouraga sensed that something special was brewing.
On January 2 last year, his Swindon contract was terminated by mutual consent and his arrival at the Mazuma Stadium was confirmed, sealing a reunion with manager Derek Adams, whom he had played under during his time at Plymouth.
“I have worked with the manager before and I knew that we weren’t going to go down last year,” he continues.
“In pre-season, with the sort of players we were signing, I actually said to our captain [Sam Lavelle] that we would be in the top seven this year, with the manager and the know-how we had in our team. I knew we were going to have a good chance.
“He [Adams] deserves a lot of credit. He’s a good man-manager and I have got a lot of time and respect for him. I don’t think any other manager would have got Morecambe into the play-off final. He knows how to win and he is a winner. He got Ross County and Plymouth promoted, so he knows how to get results and promotions.”
It speaks volumes that, under Adams this season, Diagouraga has made 42 appearances in all competitions, which is the most he has chalked up for one club since the 2014/15 campaign.
“It shows that I’m settled and I have a manager who has got faith in me,” he says, candidly. “When you have that, it gives you a new lease of life.
“I know that if I play regular football, I will do well, so it’s about focusing on myself. I’m glad I had the chance to come here and enjoy playing football again.”
It is perhaps testament to his experience that Diagouraga’s words last year have proved prophetic.
Not only did Morecambe retain their status as an EFL club when the League Two table was decided on a points-per-game basis, but they finished fourth this term and were in with a chance of automatic promotion until the very last day of the regular season.
It wasn’t to be in the end, as Cheltenham, Cambridge and Bolton pipped them to a top-three spot, meaning Adams’ men were forced to settle for a place in the play-offs, where they overcame Tranmere 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-final to set up Monday’s play-off final clash against Newport.
“After missing out on the top three, we wanted to make sure we gave ourselves the best opportunity to still get promotion and now we are only 90 minutes away,” he says.
“Tranmere made it extremely hard, especially at their place. We had to soak up a lot of pressure and stick to the game plan but once we won there, I was quite confident that we would get the job done at home.
“It was very nice to have the fans back in and the buzz around the stadium again. The energy helped us along and when we were under pressure, they helped us get over the line.
“That has been the story of our season. Nothing has been easy and we have had to work for every single point we’ve got and we have had to dig deep every single time. It has just become the norm for us. We know every game is going to be difficult and we know we have to dig deep to get results.”
But having missed out in the play-offs twice with Brentford and also suffered defeat at Wembley on two occasions during his time with the Bees, this is not new ground for Diagouraga.
“In the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final in 2011, I got sent off and we lost – I won’t forget that. Then a couple of years later, we were so close to getting the automatic places and missed a penalty against Doncaster in the last minute of the season. To then make it to the final against Yeovil and lose was heart-breaking.
“In 2015, we lost to Middlesbrough in the Championship play-off semi-finals. That season, they were our bogey team. We always played really well against them but they were well organised and hit us on the counter-attack, which worked during the season and in the play-offs.
“I remember the first leg, it was 1-1 and we were on top. They took a striker off, brought a defender on and he ended up scoring a 90th-minute winner from a set-piece. I have lost twice and hopefully I can make it third time lucky.”
As haunting as those memories are, Diagouraga is well aware he can use them as a force for good.
“For the players who have never been to Wembley, I can let them know what to expect because sometimes you can get there and play the occasion rather than the game.
“It is important to let people know that if we give our best and play the way we play, we will have no regrets at the end of it. As a player of my age, I think it is a duty to pass on that experience.
“For a club that has never been to League One, I think if we could fire them there, it would be a massive achievement for everyone connected to the club. It would be up there with my career highlights, especially after the last few years where I haven’t been playing as much. To actually do it this year would be unbelievable.”
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