Whites trusty Steed

Tuesday 12 March 2002

From Ian McCulloch

With the away end screaming "Steeeed" at the tops of their voices, Fulham's mercurial little Belgian stepped up to lift a perfectly flighted free kick onto Steve Marlet's head to take the Whites to their first FA Cup Semi-Final for twenty-seven years. What a night and what a first season in English football for Steed Malbranque.

Steed Malbranque. An unlikely name for a West London hero, but since his arrival from Lyon in the summer, the French U21 international has taken both Fulham and the Premiership by storm. A real crowd favourite, he has featured in every league game this season, and for a 22 year old beginning a new career in a new country, that is a real achievement.

Still struggling to get to grips with the English language, but now able to make himself understood, this quiet and likeable young man sat down on Tuesday to reflect on Fulham's run to Cup glory. A lot has been made about how imports to the English game don't really appreciate how important the FA Cup is in this country, but Malbranque was a League Cup winner with Lyon last season, and that experience has obviously spurred him on to do great things in the Cup again this year. He badly wants to get to the Final in Cardiff but acknowledges that it's not going to be easy.

"We're already in the semi-final," he said, "And we've every possibility of getting to the Final, but it's a big game against Chelsea, and we know how difficult that is going to be.

"The game against West Brom was very hard. We knew as soon as we went out on the pitch, because of the noise and the atmosphere, how important the FA Cup is to everyone. That sort of atmosphere can really motivate players. Even though it was an important game and we were already really up for it, in those sort of surroundings it motivated us even more."

It's been a pleasing factor of the Cup run that Fulham have really had to dig deep and show their battling qualities to get this far. Skilful football alone is not usually enough to overcome the potential banana skins that have littered the Whites' progress this season, and Malbranque says that the team have answered the questions that doubters have posed about their attitude.

"It was a very hard game, and at times it was very physical. We showed against West Bromwich that we had to be able to compete against them as individuals and as a team. We needed to be sharp and focused and able to stand up to whatever was thrown at us. I think we achieved that through the whole game."

They don't come any bigger than the next one up against rivals Chelsea. The opportunity to get one back against the boys from Stamford Bridge is reason enough to make this the most eagerly anticipated game of the season, but when the prize for the winners is a Cup Final trip to Cardiff, the enormity of the occasion is just overwhelming. Does Malbranque think that the team appreciate just how much all this means to the fans?

"We know that it is very important for our supporters," he said, "And we know that we need to win this game to give pleasure to the fans. As it's a derby it's doubly important for us to win. We have derby's in France, for example Lyon and St Etienne, so I know how vital it is. Chelsea are a very good team. We know that in the league we lost, but we felt that we could have drawn at least. We have a chance and we must believe in ourselves.

"It has meant a lot to me since I came to England to know that the supporters appreciate me, and I will do everything I can to give them pleasure on the pitch. We are looking forward to Chelsea game and we will do all we can to win the game."

You can't ask for any more than that. Malbranque has contributed eight goals from midfield this season, and another at Cardiff in May to bring out that infectious grin as he races to celebrate with the crowd would be very welcome indeed.