The Premier League was a different animal back in 2001 and it like felt we already had enough talent in the squad to make a decent fist of things. However, it was clear that with the cash at our disposal the squad would be strengthened…
The most surreal arrival that summer was Edwin Van Der Sar; a truly world class goalkeeper with Champions League honours and clubs like Ajax and Juventus on his CV. Decent money was also spent on Sylvain Legwinski and an astonishing fee (rumoured to be £11.5 million) on forward Steve Marlet. Arriving at a slightly cheaper price and to a limited amount of fanfare was midfielder Steed Malbranque. I have to confess I knew very little about Steed other than the basic facts that he’d broken into a very good Lyon side at a young age, had impressed in Champions League outings and had earned age group honours for France.
Jean Tigana obviously knew him well though and Steed went straight into the starting line up for our Premier League bow at Old Trafford. Louis Saha took the plaudits that day for his two goals in our very unfortunate defeat, but Steed immediately caught the eye as he slotted seamlessly into our midfield. He also made a quick impression in front of our home fans a few days later when he latched on to a poor clearance from Thomas Sorensen to set Barry Hayles up for the opener as we went on to get our first Premier League win with a thoroughly deserved 2-0 victory over Sunderland.
The Fulham faithful quickly took the midfielder to their hearts with his high energy output. He had a distinctive running style and his low centre of gravity assisted his ability to twist and turn and mesmerically dribble the ball around opponents. Pundits were quick to take note of his ability too and I recall an early season game at Charlton being covered by the Sky cameras. Harry Redknapp was quizzed about the money Fulham had spent and he made me chuckle when he said you had to pay £1 miilion at that time just to get a player that could lace his own boots up. Harry was always one for a cheeky quip but I do recall him being impressed by Steed’s contribution when he came on as sub that day.
Malbanque’s first Fulham goal arrived a week later with a beautiful equaliser just after the interval at home to Arsenal. Sadly we went on to lose 3-1 but Steed was starting to establish himself in the hurly burly of English football and went from strength to strength as the season progressed. It was the 10th game of the season before our second League win arrived and it was a Malbranque brace that led us to a 2-1 win over Southampton. He was on the scoresheet again a week later as we got our first away win in a 2-0 victory at West Ham. I was particularly happy to be at Upton Park that day as I still hadn’t forgiven the Hammers for making 12 year old me cry in 1975.
Although we went on to struggle in the second half of the season, Steed’s tidy contribution of 8 goals ensured relegation was never an imminent danger and he was also instrumental in our run to the FA Cup Semi-Final.
2002/03 saw the club temporarily move to Loftus Road and the campaign was something of a struggle in the League but Steed again contributed a decent 6 league goals in a season that ended with Chris Coleman in caretaker charge. Cup football was kinder to both us and Malbranque that term. He netted a hat trick in the FA Cup against Charlton and also got three goals in our run to the 3rd round of the UEFA Cup having earned himself an Intertoto Cup winners medal at the season’s beginning. We did indeed win it one time and the Frenchman was one of very few who featured in every European game for the club that season.
With Coleman in permanent charge in 2003/04, Steed was again a mainstay of a team that surprised many pundits by roaring into a Champions League position and remaining there heading into the festive period. Louis Saha’s departure saw form tail off but we were still very satisfied with a final position of 9th; an all-time high for the club at the time. In February of that year during a 1-1 draw with Man Utd, he became the first Fulham player to reach 100 Premier League appearances. In fact, he only missed 2 League games during his first 3 seasons at the club, which is quite astonishing!
2004/05 saw us back at the Cottage but it proved to be a stop start season for Steed as a succession of injuries limited him to just 22 League starts. The fact he still managed 6 goals in that many games was a measure of how good he was and how crucial he was to a team where arguably only he and Luis Boa Morte were players of true star quality during the Coleman era. Without this duo it’s highly likely we’d have been relegated long before we actually were.
Malbranque’s reputation had been continuing to grow over his time at Fulham, and most transfer windows sparked rumours of other clubs interest. Even the Prime Minister – Tony Bair professed his admiration for him in a TV interview; although that soundbite may have had more to do with his spin doctor Alastair Campbell who is a genuine football fan.
I think this comment was made around the time of a 2-1 win over Manchester City in November 2005 when a Steed brace saw us to victory. It was our incredible home form that kept us safe that season and it wasn’t until our penultimate away game at Manchester City that we recorded our first win on the road. Steed fittingly getting the winning goal that day and it would prove to be his last goal for the club. His regular contribution of 6 that season helped us to a creditable 12th but when the club couldn’t convince him to extend his contract that summer he departed for Tottenham Hotspur.
Malbranque scored 32 League goals from midfield over his five seasons at the club was an instrumental reason that we avoided any serious relegation trouble in those years. He left SW6 as the clubs leading Premier League goalscorer, later sharing this title with Brian McBride before Clint Dempsey broke it several years later. He was pretty much my favourite player in those formative Premier League seasons, when the cry of STEEEEED was a constant soundtrack to games.
He spent two seasons at Spurs and won a League Cup winners medal before spending time at Sunderland prior to a return to France. However, it will be for his time at Fulham that he is best remembered in the English game. We were blessed to have watched him at the peak of his powers and he is rightly regarded as one of the best Fulham players of the modern era.