For someone with a fierce, almost pathological, hatred of being in the limelight, Steed Malbranque has had a terrible few weeks.
This has been worse, even, than in November 2005, when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair named him in a BBC interview as one of his favorite players (the others were Teddy Sheringham and, bizarrely, Arjan de Zeeuw). Worse, also, than after the publication of former FA director David Davies's book, which revealed that Sven-Goran Eriksson considered picking Malbranque for England as he qualified on the residency rule (Eriksson reportedly also considered Carlo Cudicini, Louis Saha and Edu).
The reason? Malbranque has become one of the chief talking-points in France after canceling his two-year contract with Saint-Etienne just three weeks, and 26 minutes of action, into the new season.
The saga began when Saint-Etienne coach Christophe Galtier told French reporters that his new winger had asked to be left out of the squad to face Sochaux a two weeks ago. "He has personal problems, I saw a troubled guy and I'm worried about him."
When it emerged that Malbranque was considering quitting soccer for good, aged 31, the rumour mill went into overdrive. Was it family, health, financial reasons, or something else? (It wasn't because of a son with cancer, a sick rumor started on Twitter, picked up by prominent UK football writers and published by the British media, despite Malbranque not even having a son. The French press, significantly, never ran the story.)
His agent, Sebastien Boisseau, insisted that there was nothing sinister going on, telling Le Parisien: "He has been professional for 15 years and out of respect for his club, he wants to make sure he is 100 per cent. If he is only 99 percent, then he will stop. It¹s that simple."
Except it wasn't that simple. Malbranque is not that simple. He has always been popular, yes, but sociable, most certainly not. When he first came to London, signing for Fulham at 21, he joined a Francophone squad coached by Jean Tigana which included Louis Saha, Sylvain Legwinski, Alain Goma, Martin Djetou, and Abdeslam Ouaddou. ³"The other French guys were all affable types, who could talk for hours, but Steed was never like that, he was so quiet," remembered Paul Warburton, who covered the team for local paper, The Fulham Chronicle. "I've never seen a player who fought so hard on the pitch and who was so quiet off the pitch. He had the least to say, and yet his performances lived longer in the memory than any of the others." In France, they joked, he tackled like an Englishman.
The last journalist to interview him at Saint-Etienne noticed that something was amiss a few weeks ago. "I would not say he was distant, but he did not seem totally focused," France Football's Xavier Rivoire told SI.com. "I felt he was on the defensive throughout our conversation."
Malbranque told Rivoire that he had moved back to France, after 10 years playing in England, "to be close to my family," but that comment jarred. Malbranque, it was known in the French game, had a difficult relationship with his parents, which was cited as one of the reasons he left Lyon in 2001, the summer before its decade of dominance began.
Malbranque's father was an overwhelming influence during a telling interview the player gave to The Observer as far back as 10 years ago. The story ran: "His father cannot help himself from offering expert elaborations to any quietly answered questions. He will be returning to France shortly. Thankfully, Steed pipes up."
Malbranque stayed at Fulham for five years, before spending two seasons at Tottenham and a further three at Sunderland, about which he said, "If you want to talk about lost seasons, the last two would be a place to start." It would appear he made his career choices based on wanting a quiet life (and there is nothing wrong with that). He told Rivoire that the Tottenham spell was tough for him, "because the players wanted to show off and the game was more individualistic," and his choice of Sunderland, in 2008, came as a surprise when there were bigger clubs interested.
"The player and the man are two different characters, but he has always functioned better at smaller clubs where there is more space for him to be left alone," said Rivoire. Saint-Etienne may not have won Ligue 1 since 1981 but it is one of France's biggest clubs.
Last week, France Football published a story under the headline "Affaire Malbranque," saying that family pressures were behind the decision. "He was being financially solicited by both parents, who are separated," it wrote. Reading between the lines, it would appear that that the problems that encouraged Malbranque to leave France 10 years ago resurfaced, and forced him into this decision. "Maybe he thought it would be a different story, coming back after 10 years, but he was wrong," said Rivoire.
Malbranque broke his silence on Thursday night, giving an unconvincing and at times confused explanation on RMC Radio. Yes, he had family problems -- "I am not the only in France to have them," he said -- but they had no connection to his decision; he was considering quitting the game for good, yet he already missed it. "I could have taken my money, kept quiet, not played well or been happy, but I don't think Saint-Etienne would have been pleased with that." He added that he returned his month¹s salary back to the club. In L'Equipe on Friday, he said of his relationship with his father: "It is what it is, but there is no family racket going on."
At least Malbranque gave Saint-Etienne enough time to buy cover for him before the transfer-window closed: Banel Nicolita and Max Gradel came in on deadline-day. His next move, though, remains uncertain. He says he misses the Premier League, while Scottish side Glasgow Rangers and Ligue 1 team Valenciennes have expressed an interest. But it will be a brave team that takes a chance on him now.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.