There seemed to be a light-headedness in the air after Lyon’s breathless win over Bastia on Sunday afternoon. Their ever-affable goalkeeper Rémy Vercoutre holding court with journalists is not unusual, but here he was giddily promoting a France recall for one of his teammates – 33-year-old Steed Malbranque.
“I would love it so much if Steed was called up to the France team,” Vercoutre gushed. “It’s a sincere appeal. We don’t care about his age, or about his career path. He deserves it so much. He’s our Mr. Extra. From the start of the league season, it’s not even close; he’s the best. He gets the ball back, he gives great passes and now he’s scoring goals.”
In fact, Malbranque scored in Ligue 1 for the first time in 11 years, with a stoppage-time penalty that apologetically squeezed under Bastia goalkeeper Macedo Novaes. It was rather in keeping with the folly of the afternoon, as the final goal in a 5-2 win and almost like the finale of a testimonial.
How the penalty went in and whether Vercoutre’s argument has merit are not really the real stories, though. What is remarkable is Malbranque’s Lazarus-like return from the professional scrapheap that he had appeared to voluntarily climb upon when he quit St Etienne last year.
The midfielder had been at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard for less than a month, and had played precisely 26 minutes for the first-team, when he decided to quit the club in August 2011. Everybody was caught on the hop, and false rumours suggested that it was due to his child being diagnosed with cancer. “My son isn’t ill, seeing as I don’t have one,” Malbranque remarked dryly when commenting on the reasons for his decision after the contract cancellation was made official.
Les Verts coach Christophe Galtier had revealed that Malbranque had pulled out of a series of training sessions and matches, saying he wasn’t in the right frame of mind.
“I wasn’t enjoying training,” Malbranque confirmed. “I tried to be happy, but I just couldn’t manage it.”
Almost a year of personal exile from the game followed, although Malbranque insisted he never intended to quit. “The club (St Etienne) said I was retiring – I never did,” he insisted. Still, when he returned to boyhood club Lyon (where he came through the ranks with the likes of Fredi Kanouté) to train in June, it seemed like coach Rémi Garde was doing him a favour to help him back onto his feet.
Little by little, it became clear there was something more left in the tank, as Malbranque played for the B team and then in a pre-season friendly at Porto on August 4th, after which Garde admitted the former Fulham, Spurs and Sunderland man was “an interesting option” to reinforce his squad.
It’s all about the timing; this would have been an unthinkable move even 12 months ago, but Lyon’s reduced financial means and Garde’s keenness to strongly link the academy with the first team has worked in Malbranque’s favour.
Vercoutre is dead right about one thing; Malbranque has been outstanding, playing as if he’s spent his year off in an oxygen tank. On Sunday he was in his now-familiar role, deep in the centre of midfield besides defensive rock Maxime Gonalons. Yet he was also able to lay on two decisive passes as well as provide the support for the returning Yoann Gourcuff to flourish ahead of him.
Malbranque’s style has always been seductive, with his squat, foraging demeanour on the ball catching the imagination of supporters on both sides of the channel. Now it is producing tangible results, with Lyon just a point behind table-topping Paris Saint-Germain with a game in hand. If he is still helping Lyon to challenge PSG’s might come spring, this will be some story.