Steed's a bargain

Tuesday 12 February 2002

Fulham star Steed Malbranque was the loose change out of the £30million Jean Tigana has spent since Fulham's promotion to the Premiership last year, but it has probably proved his best piece of business.

The £4.5m fee that brought the 22-year-old from Lyon to London looks a snip and, given his recent form, Malbranque could be forgiven for casting an eye towards the France side that will defend the World Cup this summer.

Yet, Malbranque is nothing if not a realist. As a creative midfielder, he has Zinedine Zidane, Robert Pires and Youri Djorkaeff barring his way into Roger Lemerre's side. For the time being, he is happy to ply his trade with the Under 21s, for whom he will play against Belgium tomorrow.

He said: 'At the moment I am in the Under 21 side and I have to concentrate on the European Championship in May. That is all that is in my mind at the moment. After that, who knows what might happen?

'I am surprised how fast I have settled into the Premiership as I have had to get used to a different style of play and the rhythm is much faster. It is noticeable in England that players always give 100 per cent for the whole 90 minutes. Physically, it is so much tougher than in France.'

Malbranque was never noted for his goals at Lyon, where he made his debut at 18. But since moving to Fulham, he has been on target eight times, making him the club's second-highest scorer behind Barry Hayles, who has 10.

Even so, Tigana's side have managed just 25 goals in as many League games this season and Malbranque said: 'We are not scoring enough goals, everybody recognises that. I don't think there is a particular reason for it. We are all motivated and working hard. We just have to persevere and carry on with the way we play.'

Malbranque, who was born in Belgium but moved to France at the age of four, twice won the French championship with Lyon at Under 15 level and also lifted the French cup with their Under 17s.

He naturally came under the watchful eye of Christian Damiano, then one of the men behind France's renowned Claire-fontaine academy and now Tigana's assistant at Fulham.

Damiano said: 'I spent perhaps eight years with the national team and he was always the best player in his age group. When I selected him for the France Under 17s he was my captain and for two years he was fantastic - the best.'

The French connection at Craven Cottage helped Malbranque - whose English is, at best, fractured - settle in at Fulham. As well as Tigana and Damiano, Malbranque has players such as Louis Saha, Steve Marlet, Sylvain Legwinski and Alain Goma to converse with.

He said: 'It certainly helped my decision to know there were French players and French coaching staff here. I knew that would make settling down easier.'

English lessons are slowly breaking down any remaining language difficulties but at least Malbranque now understands that when the Fulham crowd shout 'Steeeeed' they are cheering rather than deriding him.

'It is nice that they encourage me,' he said. 'I now know that is what they are doing.'

Malbranque believes he can only get better under the tutelage of Tigana. 'I haven't had that many managers in my career but with Tigana, he knows how to motivate and how to encourage. He gives advice when he needs to. He is like a trump card.'

All Malbranque has to do now, it seems, is await the call from Lemerre.

He said: 'It will be difficult to break into the national team but it starts here with some good performances with Fulham and the Under 21s.'