For reasons surpassing normal logic, former prime minister Tony Blair was invited onto the BBC’s Football Focus programme in 2005 to discuss his supposed love of the beautiful game. When asked to name his favourite players, the politician apparently went with Teddy Sheringham, Arjan de Zeeuw, and Steed Malbranque.
Teddy? Sure, that’s fair enough. Arjan de Zeeuw has the ring of someone trying to legitimise his supposed footballing knowledge by picking someone more than a little left field. And then there’s Malbranque who, at the time, was a few years into his career at Craven Cottage after joining Fulham for a then club record fee. So, what prompted Blair to eschew more obvious candidates, and totally ignore players from his supposed boyhood favourites, Newcastle United? Let’s take a look at the Belgian born France international’s career in England and assess whether such acclaim was justified.
An attacking midfielder, Malbranque began his professional career with Olympique Lyonnais, before Jean Tigana persuaded Fulham to part with £4.5million to secure the player’s services ahead of the 2001-02 season. It was a deal heralded at the time by the newly promoted Premier League club’s managing director Michael Fiddy, who declared that, “We are pleased and indeed delighted that Malbranque should choose to join Fulham. He will be a fantastic addition to the squad.” Perhaps Blair knew a thing or two.
The Fulham fans certainly took the midfielder to their hearts and he became a firm favourite by the side of the Thames scoring 44 goals in a shade more than 200 games for the club. Deployed as the creative fulcrum of the team, in his first season, his 10 goals and others that he assisted in, followed by 13 the following season kept Fulham afloat and safe from a hasty return to the Championship.
Malbranque would flourish under the lollypop loving Tigana, but when the Frenchman left to be replaced by Chris Coleman in April 2003 as relegation looked a real prospect, things would change. Despite signing a new deal in October of the same year supposedly keeping him at the club until 2007, the new regime, arguably more pragmatic in outlook than the expansive game favoured by Tigana, would suit Malbranque’s game much less. His goals return would dwindle over the following years, and some would argue that the change of system deployed by the Welshman was a contribution to that. Nevertheless, Malbranque remained a consistent presence in the Fulham line-up.
The extent of contracts is a moveable feast though, and with the last year of the deal approaching, talks to agree on anything further would flounder with the player, now 26 and in his prime, seeking a club more suited to his abilities, plus doubtless an increase in salary. With Malbranque declaring an intent to move on, Fulham were compelled to put him up for transfer, and a deal with Tottenham was agreed on Deadline Day ahead of the 2006-07 season. A fee reportedly of £2million changed hands, and Malbranque made the short trip across London from west to north. If the thinking was that Martin Jol’s tactics would suit his style better, he would only have a short time to enjoy that, as the Dutchman was moved on in October 2007.
Playing just less than 100 times for Spurs, Malbranque’s strike rate was much less than at Fulham, returning only a dozen goals in his two years at White Hart Lane. Whereas he had been the mainstay of the Craven Cottage club’s creativity, at Spurs, his role was less prominent in a team that contained a number of talents with aspirations for the same role. It meant Malbranque was often shunted out to a wide position to accommodate others. He would pick up a League Cup winner’s medal, playing 75 minutes of the Wembley showpiece, as Spurs lifted the trophy under Juande Ramos late in February 2008, but his days with the club were numbered.
Joining a miniature exodus from North London to the North East in July 2008, along with Teemu Tainio and Pascal Chimbonda, Malbranque moved to Sunderland on a four-year deal, with Roy Keane trying to add to the quality of the Stadium of Light squad to prevent another difficult season for the club. By now, however, Malbranque goals had become as rare as a politician – such as Blair – offering a straight answer to a straight question. In more than 100 games, across three seasons, he would find the net just twice, despite perhaps enjoying his best season, since the Fulham years, in the 2009-10 term. Similarly, to his time at Craven Cottage though, the Sunderland fans appreciated his application to the club’s cause and the effort on the pitch as the Sunderland battled through difficult times, despite his lack of goals as his role was switched from flank to middle and then back again.
In the summer of 2011 however, with manager Steve Bruce deciding that the midfielder was surplus to requirements, Malbranque entered into talks with French club AS Saint-Étienne and joined Les Verts on a two-year deal in early August, closing a decade in the English game. He would however only play a single game for the club, before an agreement to cancel his contract was agreed between club and player. It’s something that remains shrouded in mystery despite unwelcome, and later strenuously denied, rumours that the player’s son was seriously ill. A return to Olympique Lyonnais saw out the final four years of his career.
Despite starring for the under-age France national teams on several occasions, Malbranque would never make the full Les Bleus team. This was a generation of gifted stars in blue with the likes of Zinédine Zidane, Thierry Henry, Claude Makélélé, Florent Malouda already in place and the emergence of Franck Ribéry. Such talents would block Malbranque’s international aspirations at a time when he was enjoying his best years in England. Across a largely less than totally magnifique time in the Premier League, however, and a cool attitude from the national team, at least Steed Malbranque had the apparent adulation of fans at his various clubs and, of course, that of Tony Blair, to keep him warm.