Little Steed Malbranque turns 42 today. Where did all the time go? The prodigiously gifted playmaker typified Fulham’s thrilling emergence as a Premier League force under Jean Tigana. Eyebrows were raised when the top flight new boys splashed £5m to bring in the French under-21 captain from Olympique Lyonnais after already shocking world football by signing Edwin van der Sar as they tried to crack English football’s elite.

Malbranque wasn’t one for making much of a first impression. He shyly mumbled his way through an introductory press conference at Motspur Park, leaving several senior English football correspondents befuddled. The perceptive midfielder’s communication skills in his second language were perfectly passable, but it was just that the bashful youngster preferred to do his talking on the pitch. Those of us fortunate to see him run the show at Selhurst Park in a pre-season friendly before he had officially put to pen to paper knew Fulham had a special talent on their hands – and the joyous cries of ‘Steeeeeeeeeeeed’ rung out from the away section.

Malbranque chose one of English football’s storied theatres to mark his arrival in fine style. On an afternoon when Fulham came so close to shocking the champions at Old Trafford, he humiliated Jaap Stam so completely that he effectively ended the Dutchman’s Manchester United career. A brilliant ball created Louis Saha’s second at the Theatre of Dreams and opened his Fulham account with an impudent equaliser against Arsenal, who had turned him down after a trial aged eighteen, a month later.

By then, Malbranque’s magical movement, ability to run at retreating defences and eye for an exceptional pass had already made him the toast of the terraces. He produced a brilliant brace to beat Southampton at the Cottage – and gestured to the Hammersmith End for the first time to prolong their signing of his name – before securing Fulham’s first win at West Ham since 1980 with a virtuoso display. Having set up Sylvain Legwinski’s opener with a measured corner, he wrapped up the three points with a late run into the box to reach Louis Saha’s pass to the delight of the travelling fans.

There was another instinctive finish at Elland Road as he punished a poor clearance from a corner as found the net ten times in his first season in English football. Malbranque was arguably Fulham’s most consistent performer, starring as Tigana’s side reached the last four of the FA Cup, scoring a superbly taken opener at York City in round four and laying on subsequent winners for Steve Marlet.

The Frenchman only grew in stature the following season – scoring twelve times in a wildly fluctuating season that saw Fulham race out of the box inspired by their early Intertoto Cup exploits and end up battling against the drop under the stewardship of caretaker coach Chris Coleman. He scored one and set up another as the Whites roared back from 2-0 to clinch an incredible win over early league leaders Spurs in September and scored the club’s first UEFA Cup goal to seal a famous win in Hajduk Split.

He settled that tie from the penalty spot with a retake after Fulham wobbled in the second leg before starring as the Whites made it through a further couple of rounds remarkably. Malbranque found the net four times in as many games in February, finishing that month with a flawless hat-trick that knocked Charlton out of the FA Cup. There was frenzied speculation that Malbranque would follow his mentor Christian Damiano to Anfield following Tigana’s departure, but he flourished in a wide midfield role after Coleman switched to an enterprising 4-3-3 that embraced counter attacking with enthusiasm.

He sparked a comeback against Manchester City, before starring in the unforgettable triumph at Old Trafford – scoring once and laying on the clinching third for Junichi Inamoto. There was an equaliser and assist for Brian McBride’s winner on debut against Tottenham and he settled a pulsating FA Cup replay against Everton, before briefly sparking hopes of another win at Manchester United by successfully converting an early penalty.

Malbranque scored twice at St. James’ Park in Fulham’s astonishing smash and grab raid – most memorable for Mark Crossley’s magnificent afternoon in goal – the following season and his brace brilliantly beat Blackburn in the penultimate fixture of the season. He then bagged a brice to remind Stuart Pearce of his quality after Manchester City’s summer-long pursuit of his signature had failed the following year and returned from a prolonged injury lay-off to pinch a precious three points against Newcastle after coming off the bench. Perhaps his most effective display that season was one where he didn’t find the net but instead completely snuffed out Claude Maekele as Coleman’s men beat Chelsea in March. One of his best goals was a sensational curler into the Hammersmith End top corner against Portsmouth, which was soon followed by a late strike that sunk Wigan and it was perhaps fitting that we remember his Fulham career with the final goal – a fabulous late winner at the City of Manchester Stadium that clinched the Cottagers’ first away win in more than a year – rather than the manner of his departure after an acrimonious dispute with Coleman.

The joy with which this gifted technician approached his craft was what will always stay with me. Often doubled marked, or targeted for the dark acts by the division’s hatchet men, Malbranque was the man who carried the attack to opponents and he often emerged from the tightest of spaces still in possession, by dint of his devilishly quick feet or the deftest of tricks. His talents were admired by all-comers, including famously Tony Blair on Football Focus, and it still seems such a waste that he never represented France at senior level.

Watching Malbranque was simply exhilarating. He remains one of the Premier League’s most underrated performers despite lighting up the league for more than a decade and made a mockery of those those TIFF correspondents who once complained that he had no end product. He amassed more than fifty top flight assists and made it all look utterly effortlessly. Thanks for all those magical memories, Steed.