Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
Prior expectations can have a disproportionate effect on whether or not you like something. For instance, if you buy a packet of cheese and onion crisps and find prawn cocktail inside, you’d be disappointed. Or if you board a Eurostar to Paris and you end up in Antwerp, you’d feel cheated. And if you pay £11.5m for a striker described as “the French Michael Owen”, only to find that he’s more like a French Darius Vassell, well… you’d be horrified.
This doesn’t mean there’s anything necessarily wrong with prawn cocktail, Antwerp, or Darius Vassell, but it does explain Fulham fans’ gloomy opinions on the 2001 signing of Steve Marlet.
The Frenchman became the Cottagers’ record buy that heady summer, his eight-figure price tag comfortably eclipsing the £7m they had paid for Edwin van de Sar – one of the world’s best goalkeepers – a few weeks earlier.
Supporters of the newly promoted club were already feeling giddy about that one, but if they thought “more expensive” would mean “even better” when it came to Marlet, they were in for a surprise. These days, he is frequently cited as Fulham’s worst ever purchase.
The question is: was he bad because they expected him to be so good, or was he just bad?
One man who seemed to back Marlet’s move to the Premier League was Roger Lemerre, coach of the then reigning world and European champions France.
“He will progress at Fulham,” confidently declared a man who thought highly enough of Marlet to add him to an attack already featuring Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Sylvain Wiltord.
But by mid-October, it was clear that Marlet’s progress was either very slow, or non-existent, and that the Cottagers were better off just playing Barry Hayles instead.
“Many of us who saw Marlet’s Fulham career unfold soon began to realise that we had been fooled, or had fooled ourselves, into expecting a goal machine,” said one fan on the Friends of Fulham forum.
By the time he scored his first goal – a consolation effort in a home defeat by Manchester United – it was late December and most fans had already given up on him.
“He never lived up to the hype and the price tag,” said another supporter.
“For the money we paid he was a real letdown,” agreed a fellow Cottager.
Further scrutiny of the transfer raised more questions about the wisdom of Fulham’s actions.
It turned out the French Michael Owen hadn’t even been especially prolific in France. He averaged a goal every four games in three seasons at Auxerre, then one in three for Lyon.
There was a reason for that: he wasn’t a striker, he was a winger. But Fulham didn’t really need one of those.
“I always though he looked a decent wide attacker, but not a centre-forward,” commented one fan.
But most of the time Marlet featured up front. He eventually scored nine goals in his first season (six in the league) – a respectable amount for anyone except the player burdened with the expectation of the record signing.
“Had we paid £4m for him instead of £11m it would not have been an issue,” said another supporter.
But Fulham hadn’t paid £4m, and it was an issue. In his second season Marlet scored just four league goals. To rub it in, he managed half that amount in one match for France – partnering Thierry Henry in attack and scoring twice against Slovenia in October 2002 as his international career blossomed in a kind of parallel universe. (It’s a point of endless mirth for Fulham fans that Marlet won more caps for France – and scored more international goals – that his teammate and Cottagers legend Louis Saha.)
In the harsher world of the Premier League, Marlet’s most memorable contribution of the 2002/03 season was a comedy own goal against Arsenal that seemed to sum him up as a concept in one perfectly inept moment.
It could be argued that Marlet’s most successful season at Fulham was 2003/04, although he only played one game.
A goal and a man-of-the-match display in an exciting 3-2 win against Middlesbrough gave a belated glimpse of his talent. We’ll never know if that could have been the springboard to Premier League greatness, because Marlet never played for Fulham again.
He moved to Marseille on loan and spent the next two seasons in the south of France – with moderate success – before his Cottagers contract expired and he moved to Wolfsburg on a free transfer. He subsequently did little of note in his waning career.
“Relief, tinged with a kind of ‘what went on there?’ bemusement, greeted his departure,” summarised one fan.
But regrettably, Marlet’s transfer got even uglier after he left west London.
Smarting from the failure of his record-busting investment, Fulham owner Mohamed al Fayed filed a lawsuit against former manager Jean Tigana, accusing the coach of misleading the club about Marlet’s market value in order to take a cut of the fee for himself.
“To pay £30,000 a week and £12m for a mediocre player is funny,” said Al Fayed in court, although the Egyptian was unamused when all charges against Tigana were dropped by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Sixteen years on, the Cottagers have only once paid more for a player than they did for Marlet – an equally calamitous £12.4m for Konstantinos Mitroglou in 2014.
But the Greek flop has since been banging in the goals for Benfica in the Champions League, and perhaps Marlet wasn’t so bad either.
“Though indisputably expensive, Marlet was a rather unfairly maligned player,” said one fan.
“Whatever the truth about the transfer, a £4million fee would have been a realistic,” concluded another.
A victim of unrealistic expectations and his own price tag, Steve Marlet was like a helpless prawn cocktail crisp in a bag of cheese and onion. Right ingredients, wrong packaging.
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