Steve Marlet

Sunday 24 March 2002

By Jonathan Northcroft in today's Sunday Times...

When you are named by your mother after the actor Steve McQueen, you get used to having something to live up to. As a 22-year-old, with just two months' experience in France's top division, Steve Marlet dealt with being compared to Ronaldo by the legendary Guy Roux, his manager at Auxerre. The people at Fulham gave him quite a build-up as an interviewee ("such a lovely guy; he actually likes doing media work") and Marlet was able to justify it, being easy company, small in ego and quick of smile. It has been harder meeting expectations on the field.

The price Fulham paid for Marlet when they imported him from Lyon last August carried a cost to the striker. Marlet's transfer fee was £11.5m, more than the London club's entire turnover in the previous season, and it initially seemed to hang on him like the equivalent in pounds of weight.

August turned to September, October and November passed, Christmas came, and still Fulham fans waited for Marlet's first goal. Pundits began to ridicule Jean Tigana's claim to have signed the best Frenchman playing in France, and to question how Barcelona could also have been interested in the striker before he came to Craven Cottage. Worse, humble old Barry Hayles, the man Marlet was bought to replace, was scoring as if he were still facing Conference defences for Stevenage Borough.

Marlet prefers you not to re-run his false start ("please, for me that is the past and I want to look forward to the future") but it was hard not to appreciate the upturn in fortune when, last Thursday, he was named ahead of Nicolas Anelka and Youri Djorkaeff in the France squad. He won his place after three sharp performances in a two-week period against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, all watched by Roger Lemerre, the French national coach. If Marlet's scoring rate (seven goals in 17 games) since breaking his duck against Manchester United on December 29 is still not Ronaldo-esque, it is at least respectable.

"I'm happy now," he says. "I heard the comments about me and I was hurt, but I kept my focus on my work and had support from my family and friends. When you have difficulties like I had, you become tougher. I know I can go forward, now, much stronger in the mind."

One of Marlet's problems was that before he came to Fulham, he had never played as an out-and-out centre-forward. A flexible footballer, quick and strong but also poised and deft, with a good spring and impressive aerial technique, he had spent his career in France on the right wing or as the support striker to a main man - at Lyon it was the Brazilian Sonny Andersen.

"When I first came here and played No1 striker, I'd stand and look around, but I'm trying to alter my game and be more in the box. I used to think for the other players. Now I have to be more individualist."

Few critics understood the change Marlet was trying to make. Also overlooked, when people counted his weeks without a goal, was that because of an ankle problem sustained playing for France, and a fractured tibia incurred on Fulham duty, Marlet's four-month scoreless run involved only seven games.

"People forgot my injuries, but I understand why they asked questions," he says. "If you spend that much money on a person, you want them to be good."

Marlet committed himself to nine-hour days having his body manipulated by Tigana's gym-full of physios on his comeback from injury. Asked what his favourite pastime has been since moving to London, he jokes, "Seeing Roger." (Roger Propos, Fulham's physical preparation manager, has even had a hill built at the club's Motspur Park training ground so he has got something to make players run up).

The striker is familiar with tough regimes: "At Auxerre the young players live in dormitories and you can spend five or six years in the reserves before getting into the team. Roux used to weigh you every two days and if you were just one kilogram heavier than normal he would say, 'Ah-ha, your mother is here today'."

Roux never praises his players, "he only tells you when you've done something bad", so the Ronaldo comparison - made after Marlet scored against Rangers and Ajax in the 1996-97 Champions League - was a surprise. "Roux is a great manager and it can be good to learn under someone so tough, but that was the first compliment he ever gave me. He didn't tell me, of course, he said it to some journalists, but when I read it the next morning, I was so happy."

Marlet was to progress slowly, however, not taking off until he joined Lyon in 2000: "I'm an ambitious person and I never stopped thinking I'd play for France, but it began to seem far away. I was always confident about my ability, but at Auxerre I played on the right wing with Bernard Diomede (now at Liverpool) on the left and Stephan Guivarc'h in the middle. Diomede and I had to mark the full-backs, and sometimes we were almost defenders."

Marlet had been a professional since leaving his home in the small town of Pithiviers, central France (famous for pastry, cheese and a World War II Nazi concentration camp) to join Paris St Germain at the age of only 15. PSG released him after a year, however, and he moved to their lower-division neighbours, Red Star 93, where he became a hero. Dubbed by supporters "the son of Red Star" he achieved national prominence when, still a teenager, he helped propel the tiny club to the French Cup quarter-finals, losing out to a Cannes team marshalled by another prodigy, Zinedine Zidane. His feats are still commemorated on a website, and when he left, fans held up banners saying "Thank you, Steve."

Red Star, formed by Jules Rimet, come from Paris postal district number 93, Saint-Denis, home of the Stade De France. He starred there for Lyon in last year's French Cup final, but Wednesday's international against Scotland will be his first time he has represented his country in the stadium, and he is bringing his family along for the occasion.

"I don't know if I can stay in the squad until the World Cup, because there are many good strikers, but I can also play on the wing, and maybe that's an advantage to me," he says. "I'm 28 and it's the right age to go to the tournament; the next time I'll be a little old and there are so many good young French players coming up behind me. If I don't get to the World Cup, I'll have to go far away on holiday and try to forget about it." Marlet was criticised in France for moving to Fulham, who signed him at the second attempt, having made a bid when he was about to leave Auxerre the previous summer. Lyon were about to play in the Champions League and it was felt staying would enhance Marlet's international prospects, though the opposite was true.

"I talked to Lemerre and he was happy about my move. He thinks playing in the English league helps develop your strength and mentality. I spoke to a lot of the French players in England and they all said it's a fantastic place to play."

Money, he is honest enough to admit, was also a factor, but more important was the chance to fulfil an ambition to play abroad and do so at a club where, with talent like Steed Malbranque, his former Lyon colleague, on board, he saw huge potential. Until a few weeks ago Marlet thought Fulham would qualify for Europe, but now defeat against Tottenham could mire them in the relegation fight.

When he scored against Manchester United, "all the team were talking about my goal and were happy for me. It was a good example of our solidarity", but "it was also a strange feeling because we had lost the game". Marlet's return to form has coincided with his teammates losing theirs: "It's difficult to say what's wrong. We've lost five games in a row, yet in the first four of them we played well and were beaten because of small details. Only in the last game, against Everton, did we play badly, and that was a special occasion because they had a new manager and were very charged.

"But it's amazing how things have changed. Between the bottom and middle of the league there are so few points that if you lose a few games you're in trouble. We're fighting relegation now, but if we win all our games, we can still get into Europe. It would be wrong for us to go down with all the talent we have, but sometimes talent is not enough. You need mentality as well. We've lost games together and now we must win them together, too."

Tottenham, Marlet acknowledges, are equally parched of points, making today's match "very difficult; we both need to win". He loves the amount of derbies London clubs play and says it makes the city the best place for a footballer to be in Britain.

"It's also a nice place to live. There are four airports and a railway station where you can get a train to Paris, and I'm happy here. Sometimes I telephone Thierry Henry or Bernard (Diomede, but there's never much time to go and see people or explore London. Even when I am free I just like relaxing at home with my girlfriend and our son. He is one year old on the day after we play Scotland, you know, and I'd like to score a goal for him."

Marlet's hobbies include listening to music (hip-hop and rhythm and blues), but his favourite place is the video room he has had installed. It is not, however, filled with the works of Steve McQueen: "I like him, but he's not my favourite actor. My mother used to watch him in a television series where he played a sheriff, and because of him, Steve was quite a fashionable name in France for a time. You can find several people my age called Steve."

Marlet should be happy for small mercies when it comes to monikers. After all, his mother could have been a Charlie Chaplin fan.