Football: Big Tony warms to a little hero worship: Owen Slot in Marseilles meets the striker who has turned jeers into cheers

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a cool, clear evening on the Mediterranean coast and the Marseilles night was filled with an extraordinary noise - 19,000 football fans chanting the name of Tony Cascarino. The lights of the Stade Velodrome were still blazing, but the players had departed the field, leaving Cascarino to bathe in the glory of Marseille's 3-0 victory over Amiens. Cascarino had scored twice, one with his head, one slotted in from the edge of the penalty box, and most of the crowd had remained to celebrate their new hero. A huge Irish flag was thrust into his hand and an ovation then beckoned him round two laps of honour, the flag rippling behind him, and the chorus of 'Tony, Tony, Tony' filling the stadium. Discarded by Chelsea on a free transfer in May, here he was with one of the biggest clubs on the continent at his feet.

That was two weeks ago. A new chant is planned for next weekend; to the beat of 'Ooh Aah, Cantona', they will be singing 'Hero, Cascarino'. Cantona, Cascarino . . . the greats of European football. You have to pinch yourself. Yes, this is the same Cascarino who, recently, was attuned to donkey taunts, who scored hatfuls for Millwall but then spent five years in search of similar success at Aston Villa, Celtic and Chelsea. Marseille picked him up, but Big Cas in the South of France seemed a bit of a joke.

They weren't too sure in Marseilles either. The club had been rocked by a match-

rigging scandal, its First Division status forfeited, all its 1992 European champions sold, and a new, worryingly aged team installed, eight of them coming for free. Cascarino was 31 and came with a reputation for being good with his head; Marseille prefer to play to feet.

Even Bernard Tapie, the millionaire Marseille chairman who signed him, seemed unsure. Tapie (who, according to Cascarino, makes Ken Bates, Chelsea's intimidating chairman, seem a 'teddy bear') had asked Cascarino how he played. 'I said I was strong in the air and a good target man, but he just cut in: 'Waddle . . . I love him. Steven good. But Mark Hateley . . . ugh] Lee Chapman . . . ugh]' And he sat there giving them the thumbs down.'

Cascarino arrived in Marseilles after the Republic of Ireland's World Cup - in which he had played 17 minutes - ended in defeat to Holland. He spoke no French and communicated either through Michel de Wolf, Marseille's new Belgian international, or pidgin-French and sign language. Two months later, he says, 'I finally know what I'm supposed to do' - yet he scored on the first day of the season, against Le Mans.

Marseille lost that match, but then seven unbeaten games saw them go top of the table. And Cascarino kept on banging them in - nine, plus another two in a friendly against Juventus after which three Italian clubs made enquiries about him. It was not only his strike rate that seduced the fans: besides showing unexpected close skill, Cascarino scored almost all of them with his feet. 'It surprised me too,' he says, 'but it's due to their devotion to attacking football. I am maybe putting 90 per cent of my chances away, but I'm receiving many more than I would in England.'

From donkey to demigod, the transformation was completed on the practice ground. Every day when training has finished, Cascarino spends half an hour shooting against Fabien Barthez, the Marseille and France goalkeeper. Papin and Voller - the last Marseille heroes - did just the same, and the fans, who come in their hundreds to watch the show, are sold on him because of it.

Cascarino, meanwhile, is still holed up in hotels with his family, and his French is little improved as language classes will start this week. Yet the minuses are easily outweighed. His career has been rescued and he has displayed close control which recent injury-hit years rarely exposed. 'I think I showed these facets at Chelsea - when I played,' he said. 'Glenn Hoddle said I was more skilful than people gave me credit for. I think they'll realise they've missed out back home.'

They wouldn't, if they had seen him against Red Star, the Parisian side, last weekend. The chanting of his name softened gradually and was silenced in the 65th minute when he missed a penalty that would have salvaged a performance in which his new-found skills were not conspicuous. Marseille lost 2-1. They won in Tuesday night's Uefa Cup game, away to Olympiakos Piraeus, but it was another goalless performance from Cascarino and L'Equipe scored him 5.5 out of 10, the lowest Marseille rating.

Two bad games on the trot. English fans might suggest worse is to come. And if there is? Well, there are three Italian clubs waiting in the wings.