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How superb Steed Malbranque stole our hearts

It is twenty years today since the then French under-21 skipper Steed Malbranque swapped Lyon for Fulham in a £4.5m deal. The move wasn’t anywhere close to being the most high-profile in a summer of serious spending as Jean Tigana readied his charges for life in the top flight, but the diminutive playmaker quickly became one of the most important figures in Fulham’s side and a cult hero at Craven Cottage. He married magnificent technical ability, honed at Clarefontaine under the tutelage of Christian Damiano, with an insatiable work ethic and remains – for my money – one of the most underrated Premier League performers, despite spending almost a decade in the top flight.

Away from the football, Malbranque was quiet and unassuming. He largely kept himself to himself and had to be cajoled into giving interviews, believing that nobody could possibly be interested in what he might have to say. In Malbranque’s mind, he did all his talking on the pitch. He had already announced himself to Fulham fans before he had actually signed with a superb display at Selhurst Park, where he appeared as a trialist running rings around Crystal Palace, and the salute of ‘Steeeeeeeeeeed’ was born. So bashful was the Frenchman that he initially had to be convinced that the Craven Cottage crowd weren’t booing him, but once he was put right he grew to enjoy the chant – gesturing to the Hammersmith End for more after scoring on a frequent basis.

It didn’t take long for his skills to be appreciated in English football. Fulham struggled for goals after a bright start to life amongst the elite, but Malbranque was their most potent threat – scoring ten times in his first season by the river Thames – as he drifted into dangerous positions from the point of a midfield diamond with remarkably regularity. He played his part in the premature end to Jaap Stam’s Manchester United career making Louis Saha’s second goal at Old Trafford in the Whites’ astonishing display against the champions on the opening day and opened his Fulham account with a beautiful finish that briefly brought parity against Arsenal, who had tried to sign him as an eighteen year-old.

A brilliant brace beat Southampton at the end of September before he clinched Fulham’s first win at Upton Park since 1980 by tucking away Saha’s perceptive pass from just inside the box after a trademark late run from midfield having laid on Sylvain Legwinski’s opener from a corner. He grabbed a winner at Elland Road with an improvised finish of real quality after Leeds had failed to clear a set-piece and played a prominent part in Fulham’s run to the FA Cup semi-finals, opening the scoring as the Whites won at York in round four.

Malbranque’s influence only grew the following season, with twelve goals underlining his importance as the side struggled to find the net on a consistent basis. He scored one and set up another as the Whites roared back from 2-0 down to stun early pacesetters Spurs in a breathtaking comeback at Loftus Road and scored Fulham’s first UEFA Cup goal, a measured finish on the counter attack to clinch an impressive win over Hajduk Split in the intimidating atmosphere of Stadion Poljud before tilting the second leg back in Fulham’s favour by keeping his cool from the penalty spot to equalise after the referee had ordered a retake. He scored four times in four games in February, finishing that month with a hat-trick that eliminated Charlton from the FA Cup.

Malbranque’s form didn’t dip after Tigana’s departure as the fleet-footed French flourished from a wide position in Chris Coleman’s 4-3-3 formation, part of a front three that devastated defences alongside Luis Boa Morte and the sublime Saha. 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 scored twice 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.

Damiano wasn’t exaggerating when he compared the mercurial Malbranque to Zinedine Zidane – and it remains baffling to me that he was ignored by a succession of French national coaches. His eye for a pass, ceaseless running and unerring finishing ability made him an integral part of Fulham’s first five seasons in the top flight. Malbranque was a majestic midfielder, who racked up more than fifty top flight assists altogether in his time in England conclusively answering those who derided a lack of end product. He was consistently class and made it all look effortless. Merci, Steed.

When Fulham stunned the world by signing Edwin van der Sar

“Edwin van der Sar? To Fulham? Are you f****** sure?’ The immortal words of the sports editor at a major British tabloid as they considered changing their back page splash having taken a call from Italy claiming that the Dutch international goalkeeper was about to leave Juventus for Craven Cottage have always stuck with me. It was a huge surprise, but it showed that Fulham meant business, as Jean Tigana’s newly-promoted side moved swiftly to beat Ajax, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund to sign one of the world’s best keepers for just £7m.

Mohamed Al-Fayed took advantage of van der Sar’s disenchantment in Italy after the Turin giants assured him of his future as their number one in private discussions only a week before making Gianluigi Buffon the world’s most expensive goalkeeper. The deal – nearly scuppered by a classic Al-Fayed prank at the end of negotiations with the Juventus board – came with the blessing of then Dutch national coach Louis van Gaal and van der Sar, who had been demoted to training with the youth team at Juventus, was desperate to both play football and make his mark in the Premier League.

He certainly did. van der Sar – astonishingly good with the ball at his feet, something which is seen as a pre-requisite nowadays, quickly settled in as a reassuring presence in the Fulham goal, conceding just 41 times in 37 matches as he kept fifteen clean sheets in the club’s first Premier League season. More than that, he was part of the side that reached the FA Cup semi-finals. Perhaps his biggest contribution was his professionalism at Motspur Park. Sean Davis recalled that the big Dutchman arrived an hour before training, going through his own individual set of routines, and worked with the club’s young keepers afterwards. ‘He was clearly a superstar, but very motivated and focused. He raised the level – and immediately made us tougher to beat,’ Davis told Danny Fullbrook and Harry Harris in their diary of Fulham’s first Premiership campaign.

Al-Fayed had sold van der Sar on European football if he made the move to England and, although the Intertoto Cup might not have been what the former Ajax goalkeeper had in mind, Fulham qualified for the UEFA Cup through the summer competition after a fine win over Bologna. van der Sar kept five clean sheets in ten games as the Whites reached the third round and conceded just nineteen times in 24 league games before his season was abruptly ended by a knee injury at St. James’ Park.

Tigana’s abrupt departure in April 2003 was a blow after the French coach’s prominent role in persuading van der Sar of his ambition but the big Dutchman’s displays under Chris Coleman in 2003/04 were arguably the best of his Fulham career. The one that always comes to mind is his extraordinary series of saves as the Whites hung on for an unlikely point at Highbury against Arsenal’s invincibles, but the goalkeeper also played his part in famous wins at Tottenham and Manchester United as Fulham shook off the mid-season loss of Louis Saha to finish ninth.

van der Sar’s commitment to the club that gave him his first chance in English football was such that he signed a contract extension to ensure Fulham received a transfer fee when Sir Alex Ferguson’s long courtship culminated in a transfer to Old Trafford. Before that became a reality in the summer, van der Sar memorably saved two penalties in the same game from Juan Pablo Angel as Fulham fought back to claim a point against Aston Villa at Old Trafford. He kept a remarkable 49 clean sheets in 150 appearances for the Whites – and was probably the biggest reason why Fulham established themselves again in England’s top flight.

Al-Fayed did eventually take Fulham to a major European final, of course, and the eccentric Egyptian’s ambitions for the oldest club in London wouldn’t have been realised without the immense contribution of the best goalkeeper I’ve seen in a Fulham shirt. He began the club’s proud unbeaten home record in continental competition – which still stands – and will always have a place in Craven Cottage folklore.

How Jean Tigana transformed Fulham

Twenty years on, it still seems like a dream. Fulham, so pedestrian under Paul Bracewell the previous season, stormed to the Division One title at a canter. Plenty of sides have done that in the past but there was something different about this one. Fulham played a type of football that nobody had seen down by the banks of the Thames before. The fact that they were able to keep it going, in the depths of winter as well as the heat of summer and spring, and beat their nearest challengers – with adversity against them – in the closing of weeks of the season only underlined the magnificence of the achievement. Although he was modest and shied away from interviews, one man was responsible – Jean Tigana.

Just luring Tigana to Craven Cottage was a coup in itself. The French maestro, well known to football obsessives for his role in that brilliant 1982 national side, fancied a crack at English football following his success with Monaco but it was the project of reviving Fulham’s fortunes from outside the top flight that really appealed. His early visits to the Cottage reinforced the idea that this would be something different to what he was used to – and, assured of the unstinting supporting of Fulham chairman Mohamed Al Fayed, Tigana threw himself into the role.

Initially, it was a culture shock – even for the more successful members of Fulham’s already expensively-assembled squad. Tigana took encouragement from an early dinner with Arsene Wenger and revolutionised the way Fulham did things. The players returned earlier from their summer break than anyone else and were submitted to a series of baffling tests – medicals, blood tests, x-rays and trips to the dentist. Their diets were handed over to a dietician that Tigana trusted and alcohol was out. Peak performance was the aim and the club’s fitness programme was overhauled under the stewardship of Roger Propos.

That began with three training sessions a day in the hot summer months, including during what some players thought would be a relaxing pre-season trip to Devon. Many of them were without a ball. It paid off when Fulham proved to be far fitter than their competitors. In the longer term, it also extended the careers of some Fulham stalwarts who feared they would be on the way out under the new regime – the likes of Andy Melville, Rufus Brevett and Barry Hayles flourished when given their opportunity in the first team.

Tigana didn’t tweak his squad – he immediately reshaped it in accordance with the way he wanted to play football. One of the first arrivals was John Collins, an important cog in the Fulham midfield for sure, but also an experienced player who had thrived under Tigana at Monaco and, at least initially, acted as a conduit for the manager’s ideas on the field as well as a translator. He describes the radical surgery he carried out on Fulham’s forward line as a risk. Out went crowd favourite Geoff Horsfield, who had scored 31 goals in 74 games. In came Louis Saha, best known to British audiences for a forgettable spell at Newcastle. The French forward’s touch, class and mobility would soon terrorise English defences.

Saha was joined in an enterprising attack by Luis Boa Morte, who had struggled at Southampton after getting his start under Wenger at Arsenal. Eyebrows were raised at the decision to loan him in from the south coast, but the Portuguese winger – who often operated up front in the First Division – scored 21 goals in 46 appearances scaring Division One defences with his pace, direct running and desire to win. Then there was Fabrice Fernandes, a mercurial winger from Rennes, whose loan spell might have fizzled out but he provided plenty of moments of magic. All of them together was a truly frightening prospect.

Tigana’s footballing methods seem old hat now, but he insisted on goalkeeper Maik Taylor playing the ball out from the back rather than thumping it downfield. The players recall the manager erupting in fury after a pre-season win over Brentford when the Northern Ireland keeper launched the ball forward once the opposition latched onto the tactic. Early in the season, Melville feared the drop when one poor ball cost Fulham a goal. Instead, Tigana encouraged him in the dressing afterwards – insistent that the rewards would come.

And they did. Fulham’s football was spellbinding. Collins and the evergreen Lee Clark formed a telepathic triumvirate with the academy graduate Sean Davis in central midfield. Davis has spoken previously about wondering where his career was going as he struggled to nail down a position in the side under Bracewell and Kevin Keegan having been handed his senior debut by Micky Adams. Tigana tried him in a deeper role and it proved a masterstroke, with the youngster blossoming into the archetypal holding midfielder, whose energetic bursts forward delivered vital goals.

The memories from that unforgettable season are bountiful. Saha’s sensational first half hat-trick against Barnsley, Barry Hayles’ brilliant treble that blew Watford away on Boxing Day and the ease of a derby win over QPR at Craven Cottage. The matches that bring back all the nostalgia are of course those at the close of the campaign when promotion was within touching distance. Tigana fondly remembers the way Fulham fought back at Blackburn, a man down, after Graeme Souness had insisted his side were the best in the division:

“If I was to choose one memory from my time at Fulham, though, it would be a game at Blackburn towards the end of my first season. We played half the match with 10 men, but Sean Davis scored a 90th-minute winner – it was the moment when promotion was all but assured. It was the first and only time that I jumped off the bench to hug my players. The only time in my whole career.”

Promotion was clinched at Huddersfield three days later and it was somehow fitting that Davis, who had netted that improbable winner at Ewood Park, secured the title with a last-gasp strike against Sheffield Wednesday. The scenes on the Hammersmith End terrace that afternoon will remain with me for a lifetime.

So successful was Tigana’s first season in charge that Fulham even put Al-Fayed’s five year target to reach the top flight. A summer of spending, including the purchase of Edwin van der Sar, showed they weren’t intending to make the numbers – as Saha’s brace at Old Trafford that twice put Fulham in front emphasised. Their excellent start to the season hit a road bump before Christmas, but the Whites still reached an FA Cup semi final and winning the InterToto Cup took them into the UEFA Cup. Tigana’s time at Fulham might have ended in recriminations and disappointment, but there’s no doubt he totally transformed London’s oldest professional club.

He also built the most stylish Fulham side I’ve ever seen. Today is his 66th birthday. I hope he’s celebrating at one of his vineyards in Cassis. He certainly deserves to.

How Jean Tigana’s French revolution had Fulham fans purring

Micky Adams might have lifted Fulham from the foot of the pyramid, Roy Hodgson oversaw the Great Escape and took the Whites to a scarcely believable European final, whilst Slavisa Jokanovic mastermined a return to the top flight culminating in that magical day at Wembley thirteen months ago, but ask any Hammersmith End regular who brought the best football to Craven Cottage and the answer will probably be almost unanimous – Jean Tigana.

The diminutive midfielder, forever immortalised in the Carré Magique alongside Platini, Giresse, Fernández of 1984, might have been a classy operator on the field but he proved something of a surprise appointment by the banks of the Thames in the summer of 2000. Despite guiding Lyon to second place in Ligue 1 and helping Monaco going one better before reaching the last four of the Champions’ League – surprising the mighty Manchester United along the way – in 1998, he was largely unknown on these shores when a chance recommendation from Eric Cantona prompted an approach from former chairman Bill Muddyman, on the orders of Mohamed Al Fayed.

Tigana, who had never considered venturing overseas during his illustrious playing career, had not come across Fulham before. Why should he? The club’s glory days, such as they were, belonged mostly to the era of black and white television and the amateur footballer, with Johnny Haynes to the fore. Despite Al-Fayed’s ambition and a couple of promotions, the conventional wisdom was that the momentum of the club’s surge up the English footballing pyramid had left with the departure of the charismatic Kevin Keegan for the national team. He was attracted by the challenge of bringing top flight football back to the white half of SW6 and the unique nature of the Cottage.

He sprung surprises straightaway. The players’ summer holidays were cut short by two weeks and Tigana took the squad off to French for an intensive fitness work under the watchful eye of Roger Propos, with three sessions a day mapped up from 6.30am. Seasoned professionals were astonished that they waited more than a week to do any kind of ball work – in Tigana’s own words, the first week was full of tests, both scientific and physical. In came dietitians, doctors and dentists as Tigana mapped a plan to revolutionise his side’s nutrition and fitness. Alcohol was outlawed immediately.

There were a raft of technical tweaks as Tigana, working in tandem with his trusted assistant Christian Damiano, started imparting a blueprint designed to take his charges to the Premier League. Key to the new approach was an insistence on possession and keeping the playing the ball to feet, something that diametrically opposed to the way most First Division sides operated. It took a while to school his new charges in this philosophy, but the results quickly quelled any doubts about the effectiveness of these methods.

Supporters were perturbed by the almost instantaneous departure of cult hero Geoff Horsfield, revered on the terraces for his impact since swapping his part-time bricklayer’s job at Halifax for west London. Tigana reasoned that Horsfield, whose goals had spearheaded Fulham’s push to the Second Division and knocked Tottenham out of the League Cup, lacked both the mobility and pace to suit his system – selling him to Birmingham for £2.25m. His replacement was Louis Saha, known only in England for an underwhelming loan spell at Newcastle. The young Frenchman scored twice on his debut at Tiverton Town and never looked back, rattling in 32 goals in 48 appearances as the Whites left everyone else trailing in their wake.

The other notable summer arrivals had more of a pedigree in English football. Many were surprised when John Collins dropped down a division to sign from Everton, but the Scottish international was delighted to work again under Tigana, who had been astonished by the way Collins had moved to Monaco and picked up French within a matter of weeks. Collins’ initial job was that of translator, but he soon became Fulham’s vision of Tigana on the field, capable of touches of class and unlocking defences from almost anywhere whilst seeming to having eons of time on the ball. Luis Boa Morte was on his way out at Southampton, but became part of a potent front three alongside Saha and Barry Hayles, scoring 21 goals in a supremely successful loan spell at the start of a seven-year love affair with the club.

Aside from the acquisitions, Tigana’s transformation of his existing resources raised eyebrows. Chris Coleman was always a classy presence at the back, but the transformation in Andy Melville, previously jeered by his own fans for what they felt were error-strewn performances, was startling. Melville and Kit Symons impressively coped with the trauma of Coleman’s career-ending car accident at the turn of the year as Fulham surged to the Division One title, whilst Rufus Brevett, who believed he would one of the first players Tigana was going to release, produced the best football of his career, despite having just turned 30. Steve Finnan, a converted full back brought in Keegan from Notts County, became one of the country’s leading right backs, who went on to the World Cup with Ireland and Champions’ League glory with Liverpool.

At the other end of the field, Tigana came to rely heavily on Hayles, a veteran of the English lower leagues, even though the forward didn’t test well during those early days in the south of France. By the end of his time in charge, Tigana felt Hayles could easily have fitted in to a number of the leading Ligue 1 sides.

He took a particular pride in promoting young players. Sean Davis had been a promising teenager when Micky Adams handed him a surprise senior debut but he had found regular first-team opportunities tough to come by under Keegan and Paul Bracewell. Tigana converted him into a deep-lying defensive midfielder, who enjoyed a tackle and retained an eye for goal. It was fitting that Davis scored the two most memorable goals of the season, an injury-time winner at Blackburn that capped a comeback from a goal and a man down against Fulham’s closest rivals and sparked a joyous dash down the touchline from the typically guided and private, Tigana and a similarly late equaliser against Sheffield Wednesday that sealed the championship. For much of his first season in charge, Tigana also insisted that the gangly centre back Zat Knight played in midfield for the reserves, preparing him for a promotion to the senior side that arrived the following year.

Mere numbers don’t do justice to the breathtaking way in which Tigana’s side blew away the competition. Fulham won their first eleven games in a row, finishing the year with a record 101 points and scoring ninety goals. Tipped to struggle with the step up to the top flight, Fulham not only survived, but reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, which led to an InterToto Cup adventure the following year and a first taste of European football in the UEFA Cup. Tigana reset the ambitions of London’s oldest professional club, signing Edwin van der Sar from Juventus and bringing in another classy midfielder in Steed Malbranque. The end of the ride might have been acrimonious – a parting of the ways after a loss of trust between Tigana and Al Fayed left a homeless football club in danger of relegation at Loftus Road – but the journey was majestic.

Tigana looks back fondly on his days by the River Thames, saying that he never found the fellowship he felt from the fans at Fulham anywhere else in his career. The feeling is mutual, because his football and impact on the football club, was arguably unparalleled. Happy birthday, Jean.

Was this Fulham’s Blackburn 2001 moment?

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Fulham’s last successful ascent from this level of English football is remembered for a dramatic April away win secured by ten men with a late, late goal. Making direct parallels between the night that Sean Davis saw off Blackburn back in 2001 and yesterday’s impressive dismantling of Norwich City might be stretching the link too far – but the central point remains, gutsy backs-to-the-wall wins away from home are what gets you out of the Championship, and Slavisa Jokanovic’s side answered a big question about their character at Carrow Road this weekend.

The Serbian himself said afterwards that there would be ‘no surrender’ in the race for a play-off place and his words were merely a stirring reinstatement of what the team had just delivered. No matter that Fernando Forrestieri had sneaked a late winner past Cardiff City at Hillsborough or that Newcastle conceded a last-gasp equaliser at home to Leeds – getting three points in adversity against a side who had lost just three times at home all season sent out a real statement to the Championship’s top six. Fired up by an what appeared an unjust red card (for Rufus Brevett at Ewood Park, read Chris Martin on his old stomping ground), Fulham’s ten men battled brilliantly – and produced a far more complete footballing performance than anyone could have envisaged at half time.

There have been a lot of criticisms of Jokanovic’s decision to hand Tom Cairney the captain’s armband. He’s not a natural leader, they said – the same sort of allusion to British bulldog spirit that was thrown at David Beckham when he took over the England captaincy. Some leaders don’t have to cajole and wave their arms around histrionically, they just lead by example. Cairney did that yesterday. He was everywhere – causing the Canaries all manner of problems and leading poor old Alex Tettey on a merry dance through the centre of midfield – and, when the Whites were given a penalty at the start of the second half, who stepped up to end the spot-kick hoodoo? That’s right. Cairney dispatched it with a coolness that belied what must have been a beating heart – and gave Fulham precious breathing space.

Jokanovic’s tactical decisions need saluting here as well. In the absence of Chris Martin, most managers would have opted for a big man up top – in the form of Cyriac or Lucas Piazon – but that would have gone against the Fulham head coach’s possession philosophy. His side have kept the ball at close quarters all season with a brilliance that has seen football correspondents claim they are the Championship’s Barcelona and, such is the confidence the players have in the plan, Jokanovic was loathe to rip it up in fifteen minutes. He pushed Floyd Ayite on as a lone forward and the man whose goals have reignited the Whites’ play-off bid rose to the challenge. Ayite charged across the Norwich back line and carried the ball forward with purpose – his willing running creating the greater chances for Fulham than their opponents. When Jokanovic did introduce Piazon, the pair combined magnificently for the clinching third goal.

Tim Ream’s presence on the teamsheet since the turn of the year has prompted some fierce debate and the American has picked up his far share of stick as one of the latest scapegoats, but he was a colossus at the heart of the defence yesterday. Time and time again, Norwich floated high balls into the box and Ream repelled them with excellent clearing headers. During a period where Fulham were under immense pressure, Ream’s ability to play a clever pass out of the back proved invaluable and, although Tomas Kalas has received most of the plaudits this season, the former Bolton centre back’s contribution to a crucial win shouldn’t be understated.

Neither should that of Marcus Bettinelli. The academy graduate has had to wait an awful long time for his chance in the first team – especially following a succession of David Button blunders – but he has taken his opportunity with both hands. Bettinelli’s distribution with his feet, apparently the reason the ex-Brentford goalkeeper was preferred at the start of the season in what Jokanovic concedes was ‘a very difficult decision,’ was exemplary yesterday and he came up with massive saves as the Canaries ramped up the pressure. Just how he clawed away Timm Klose’s header before half time I don’t quite know – and he two made excellent stops to deny Jacob Murphy and Alex Pritchard as well. The home fans were incensed by Bettinelli’s perceived time-wasting – a special shout-out to the Norwich supporter who thought it appropriate to aggressively lambast the goalkeeper and scare the little Fulham mascot trying to get her shirt signed after the final whistle – but any gamesmanship from the visitors paled in comparison to what Reading, Sheffield Wednesday and Burton Albion, to name just three, have got away with at Craven Cottage this season.

Such a commanding victory leaves Fulham in a terrific position, with Wednesday, Reading and Leeds in all their sights ahead of another crucial clash with Aston Villa on Easter Monday. The magnitude of the win was recognised at full time when Cairney, in another moment that enhanced his leadership credentials, took the whole squad over to the travelling supporters. He was soon followed by a passionate Jokanovic who, in a rare outward show of that raw Serbian passion, clenched his fists in delight as he thanked the travelling 1,500 Fulham fans. Far from being bottlers, Fulham are keeping their composure at just the right time to make the Championship run-in very interesting indeed.