Everyone knows about the French revolution taking place in the Premiership. Barely a day goes by without a story about Fabien Barthez, Laurent Blanc, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry or David Ginola. But scratch beneath the top soil and there are an incredible number of Bleus gems in the lower divisions. He may be less polished than many of his high-profile countrymen, but Marc Libbra's influence on Norwich City has been no less dramatic.
The 29-year-old is part of a second tier of French pros, including the likes of Alexandre Bonnot at Queen's Park Rangers, George Santos and Benoit Croissant at Sheffield United and Ludovic Pollet at Wolverhampton Wanderers, who have found happiness in the English game. Even lowly Rushden & Diamonds have their de rigueur Gallic import, in the shape of Jean-Michel Sigère. "I think French players are in vogue at the moment because we have a little je ne sais quoi of difference about our game," Libbra says. "It's very flattering that so many of us are being bought as the key players of our respective teams."
Norwich originally agreed a fee of around £500,000 with Toulouse, but, after the French club went into administration last June, France's football federation ruled that Libbra was a free agent. "Marc was the final piece in the jigsaw after a very positive and productive summer in terms of the additions we were able to make to the squad," says the Norwich manager, Nigel Worthington, who has quietly guided his team into the First Division's top six.
Despite the craze for French imports, Libbra admits he is amazed at the number of "fellow frogs" he bumps into each week. "It's absolutely unbelievable," he says. "You cannot imagine how many of us are around. There is not a game that goes by without me hearing someone swearing in French. I always like to check the programme before each match just in case there is an old friend playing against me. The other day, I was facing George [Santos] who was also born in Toulon."
Libbra believes that most of the French players who agree to come to England to further their careers do so because attitudes are better in this country. Treated like adults and given the freedom to express themselves, French players can enjoy a far superior quality of professional life than back home. "It really is dramatically different," says the former Marseilles and Toulouse striker, who had a four-month loan spell at Hibernian last season before joining the Canaries in July. "People are much more honest and open in England. If things aren't right, everyone immediately deals with the problem and tries to rectify the situation. Nothing is ever done in secret.
"It's a very refreshing approach to the game. Players are given advice and help, but, so long as they perform to the best of their ability on a Saturday, are left to make decisions for themselves. That means no one tells you you can't eat a Mars bar before a game or you can't chew gum on a Tuesday. The manager has instilled a system of trust where you don't have silly rules and the players are responding positively to the freedom they are being granted."
Much of Norwich's good start can be attributed to Libbra, who announced himself at the Norfolk club in the most remarkable fashion. No more than 11 seconds after coming on as a 74th-minute substitute against Manchester City, he latched on to a flick from Zema Abbey, lifted the ball over Steve Howey with his first touch and then drove the ball into the bottom corner with his second. Eric Cantona eat your heart out. "It was a nice way to introduce myself," Libbra says. "But more importantly that victory gave us the belief that we could go on and do good things this season."
Libbra adds: "There is a very good atmosphere at the club. The coach wants us to play nice football and I think his ideas are catching on. We have been very clever at times this season, particularly against the long-ball specialists, and we can be proud of our progress. The first aim was to finish in the top half, but now we are pushing for the play-offs and our ambitions have grown alongside our self-confidence."
Today gives Libbra and his team-mates the opportunity to put their new-found belief to the test as they travel to another of the division's surprise packages, second-placed Crystal Palace, who have lost only once at home so far this season. "They are another good footballing side with a young manager and plenty of ambition," Libbra says. "They will be very difficult to beat, particularly at Selhurst Park, but we are confident that we can get the result we need."
Judging by his influence on the team, it would be no surprise if Libbra helped the Canaries discover a way to defeat the Eagles. The one thing Libbra will not find today, however, is a fellow refugee. "Palace must be the only club in the land without a Frenchman on their books," he jokes.Reuse content