Steed raring to go

Friday 12 April 2002

If Jean Tigana's Fulham is a blend of French finesse and home nation grit, then the former side of that equation is no better exemplified than Steed Malbranque.

Tigana's hops across the Channel to spend Fulham chairman Mohamed Al Fayed's millions have not proved cheap for the owner of Harrods.

And over £30m has been splashed out on the Fulham manager's compatriots Alain Goma, Sylvain Legwinski, Louis Saha, Steve Marlet, and Malbranque.

But of all those purchases it is the former Lyon player Malbranque, who cost Fulham £5m last summer, that has consistently caught the eye.

From an advanced midfield position the 22-year-old Malbranque has not only provided goals, but just as importantly a much-needed dynamism to Fulham's sometimes overly patient build-up play.

He has also played a key role in Fulham's FA Cup run to the semi-finals, where they meet rivals Chelsea at Villa Park on Sunday.

He scored against York in the third round and in the quarter-finals delivered the free-kick to Marlet's head as the French international striker clinched the decisive goal against West Brom.

Tigana's assistant Christian Damiano, who has kept track of Malbranque's development since he was 13-year-old, believes that the midfielder has the potential to one day replace Zinedine Zidane in the French national side.

"Malbranque plays that number 10 position that Zidane excels at," said Damiano, who was part of France's back-room staff for their 1998 World Cup success.

"Steed may be little, but he is very quick, and he has a great technical ability when he moves.

"He is able to decide quickly to keep the ball or to give it. The ball is like his girlfriend and with it he has the capacity to change the face of a game."

Malbranque, who Damiano says is the best French player of his generation, was born in Mouscron in Belgium, before he crossed the border and moved to Montpellier and then on to Lyon.

It was with that club's youth academy - Malbranque never attended the renowned Clairefontaine academy - that the midfielder honed his close ball control skills and wide range of passing.

He eventually broke through into the Lyon first team and last season scored twice in 26 games.

But he was frequently a substitute and when he did play was more often that not deployed on the right side of midfield.

His departure to Fulham dismayed Lyon and the club's sporting director Bernard Lacombe said after Malbranque's transfer was sealed that the midfielder's appearances would have increased if he had stayed.

"He has arrived at Fulham and taken his chance," added Damiano.

"He has that ability to score or to make the last pass and he thrives in one-on-one situations. When you move to another country you have a human challenge and then the player challenge.

"He is very young and for him the most difficult thing is learning to speak English."

Since he was 13 Malbranque has represented France at every level.

He also captained France at the 1999 European Under-18 Championships, under the guidance of Damiano, before both men left to join Fulham.

Damiano linked up with Tigana in the summer of 2000, while Malbranque followed a year later.

Yet it is unlikely that Malbranque will be going to the World Cup.

The French coach Roger Lemerre, in contrast to Sven-Goran Eriksson, has a more conservative approach to blooding young players.

Which means that like Auxerre's Djibril Cisse, Newcastle's Laurent Robert, Nantes' Mickael Landreau, and Chelsea's William Gallas, Malbranque will have to bide his time before he pulls on the les bleus shirt. Instead he will travel to the European Under-21 Championships at the end of May.

"I think it's too early for him the national team," admitted Damiano.

In the meantime the prospect of an FA Cup winners' medal and a Uefa Cup place for Fulham will have to act as consolation.