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Steve Marlet prefers Cottage to Nou Camp

last updated Sunday 09th September 2001, 8:46 AM
For Steve Marlet, the next few days were always going to put the biggest decision of his career into the sharpest focus. The Valley this afternoon, or Nou Camp on Wednesday night? A south London derby in the Premiership, or the European Champions League? Fame or Fulham? Marlet did what most talented French footballers do. He chose to leave home.

At a transfer fee close to £12m, Marlet's arrival ought to put beyond doubt Fulham's intention to make the top tier their long-term home and a finish in the upper half of the table their expectation. Their attractive, enterprising football in three Premiership matches so far - one win, one draw, one close defeat - had already established their bona fides; the recruitment of Marlet fills a gap in their resources that had been preoccupying Jean Tigana, their manager.

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His transfer activity during the summer, he says, was frustrated by the desire of most of his targets to be playing in Europe. Marlet, then, is a coup and a half. Until a fortnight ago he was ready to lead Olympique Lyonnais's assault on the Champions League, where they felt reasonably confident of making the top 16 and perhaps going further. Their first assignment? Away at Barcelona. Marlet admits he was tempted to stay for that alone.

In the end, money talked, although Fulham will have to wait until after today to evaluate their new man. Marlet will miss the Charlton game with injury, but hopes to be fit for next weekend. Fulham are paying him superstar wages. At 27, and genuinely pressing Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and David Trezeguet for a place in France's attack for the next World Cup, Marlet looked at the figures on offer, and at the respected figure of Tigana, and finally said: "Oui."

"I won't hide the fact that it's a decision based on financial as well as sporting motives," he explained. "But there are sporting reasons. Jean Tigana has an ambitious plan to have the club competing with the biggest in England within two or three years. Fulham remind me of Lyon two years ago. They're developing very quickly on every level and are built to last. But it's also a financial choice. I will be very well paid." Thirty-five thousand pounds a week is a conservative estimate. Marlet has become one of chairman Mohamed al-Fayed's best-rewarded employees, and Fulham paid a record fee to get him.

Tigana first tried to recruit Marlet when the club was running away with the First Division title last season; but Lyon were making progress in the Champions League. "It was the logical decision to stay with Lyon at that stage," Marlet said. "But my heart is in this move. The challenge is very exciting."

He comes with a high reputation and can, given a fair wind, expect to go to the World Cup next year with the world champions ahead of the likes of Nicolas Anelka, Youri Djorkaeff, Christophe Dugarry and Frédéric Kanouté. He also stands ahead of the phenomenal Louis Saha, Fulham's goalscorer par excellence, in the national estimation. Saha means to challenge that.

The partnership should guarantee a few visits to Craven Cottage by Roger Lemerre, France's manager, a man with enviable decisions to make on his final striking options next year.

Marlet was part of the France squad that won the Confederations Cup during the summer and he won his fifth cap in the 2-1 loss against Chile last weekend, when he told journalists that he expected more caps, even if settling at a new club meant possible upheavals. "I don't think I'm taking a big risk," he said. "Roger Lemerre knows my qualities and I know I've got the potential to make it in England."

The association with Saha excites him: "I used to follow his progress when he was playing for Metz. He's a super player. Last year he scored 32 goals. We'll get on well."

For Tigana, who may yet be offered the chance to succeed Lemerre, the signing represents a watershed. Fulham had pursued several international strikers over the summer, including the mammoth Czech Jan Koller. Germany's Oliver Bierhoff was linked, as was Hakan Sükür, the Turkish beanpole. Three guesses as to the particular qualities Tigana was after. Saha apart, Fulham's strikers are not dominant in the air. Although it was no handicap in the First Division last season, when pace and guile brought Saha, Barry Hayles and Luis Boa Morte stacks of goals, the manager thought it a potential frailty in the Premiership.

Marlet is a strong header of the ball, has a good turn of speed and was admired for his unselfishness at Lyon, where he played alongside the Brazilian Sonny Anderson. His record in the French First Division is 38 goals from 143 games; in European competition, eight in 20. He began his career at Red Star Paris, and moved to Auxerre in 1996. Lyon paid about £3.5m for him only last year. They were sorry to lose him, but, by anybody's standards, they have done very good business.

French club football has long been resigned to losing its leading players, who mutter about the ghastly tax rates at home when asked about the exodus. Nowhere is the appetite for French players greater than the Premiership. Half of the France squad with whom Marlet travelled to Chile have English experience.

And Fulham are becoming as francophile as Arsenal or Chelsea. Al-Fayed has bought into a culture of success. "It's the way they do things in France," John Collins, the Fulham midfielder, always says. "It's the way players look after themselves, it's so professional."

No sooner had Marlet checked in to Fulham's training headquarters at Motspur Park last week than he was meeting the club's busy English teacher and catching up with a few old friends. Tigana's recruitment since May has focused heavily on his old clubs, Monaco and Lyon: Marlet joins former Lyon teammate Steed Malbranque, and midfielder Sylvain Legwinski, who played under Tigana at Monaco.

Add Saha and the central defender, Alain Goma, and you get a predominance of Frenchmen in Fulham's first team. Christian Damiano, Tigana's deputy, used to work at France's feted youth academy.

They have an interesting week of derbies ahead. Charlton today and Arsenal next weekend, a fixture already arousing a good deal of interest in France. The agendas are many: Tigana versus Arsène Wenger, the manager he succeeded at Monaco; Marlet and Saha against Henry and Wiltord; Malbranque, the France under-21 international midfielder, against Robert Pires, his senior equivalent.

In between those games, Marlet will glance at what Lyon get up to on Wednesday: "Playing Barcelona at Nou Camp in the Champions League was tempting, but I don't regret no longer being there.

"I always said that the two leagues which appealed to me were the Spanish and the English. I'm going to get to know one of them now. I'm also sure Fulham will be sampling the Champions League soon."
Source Sunday Times by Ian Hawkey
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