"That's a trick question," says Steed Malbranque with a smile. The Fulham midfielder has just been asked if he would like to work again with Christian Damiano, his mentor since the age of 16. Damiano is, of course, the man who brought him to west London and English football but is now a coach at Liverpool - Fulham's opponents today - and Malbranque is well aware of the summer rumours that linked him with a move to Merseyside.
"It's a pleasure to work with Christian, and if the future finds that we are at another club together then it would still be a pleasure," he says. "Players do dream of one day playing for a very big club, but the fact is that today, as it stands, I'm here at Fulham and the most important thing is that I'm happy to be here."
Indeed, Malbranque's supposed exit from Fulham was scripted as part of the fallout from the departure of Jean Tigana, Damiano, his assistant, and fitness coach Roger Propos - the French triumvirate who instituted such a revolution at the club but whose reign ended unhappily last spring. It was meant to lead to a cross-Channel exodus.
"Of course at the time there were a lot of rumours going round that the French players would leave, but we are all still here. I'm still here," says 23-year-old Malbranque who, although clearly hurt by the departures, has, in fact, since signed an extension to his contract, as has Sylvain Legwinski. "I think the club are capable of some really good things," he says. "There is a good spirit among the players and everyone has to believe, and all the players do believe, what we can achieve."
It is in sharp contrast to last season, Malbranque admits. "There was not a great atmosphere around the place at the time because no one was certain that the coach was staying or going," he says. One of the criticisms levelled at the Tigana regime - particularly by Fulham's owner, Mohamed Al Fayed - is the poor return that was delivered on some very expensive investments.
The £11m purchase of Steve Marlet from Lyon - the only Frenchman to have left this season, now on loan to Marseille - is still under dispute. However, the £4.5m paid two years ago for Malbranque, a shy, uncapped, relatively unheard-of youngster, has proved a clear and constant exception. He has been Fulham's best and hardest-working player.
Now there is a new manager - Chris Coleman, who, aged 33, has made an astonishing start to his coaching career. Little else has changed in terms of personnel - just three players departed, three arrived - but the performances have been markedly different.
Take last weekend's victory at Old Trafford. "It was important for us to take something from the game," says Malbranque, who scored the vitally important second goal, created two others and turned in another man-of-the-match performance. "There was a great determination on the pitch to get a result." Such determination has been the hallmark of Coleman's team. He has added "belief" and "spirit", as Malbranque continually notes, to what is undoubtedly a talented group of players.
"I don't really know myself," says Malbranque when asked to describe his manager's qualities which, above all, include that most elusive commodity: leadership. "He works hard, he encourages a lot, talks to the players. He can have a joke but knows when to draw the line and can be serious as well." Malbranque adds: "He knows when to have a go and is able to do that. He asks the players to respect him and he gets that respect. It's very clear and honest. When he has something to say he says it, and he'll invite feedback. It's two-way communication."
Coleman has also nurtured something of a siege mentality. Fulham are thriving after being marked down by many as relegation certainties, although Malbranque understands where that came from. "Looking back at the end of last season there was a possibility that the team could be relegated, and we pulled out some great results in the last five games," he says. "We don't want to get into that position again and we are eager to get as many points on the board early so we can avoid doing that."
Beating relegation is still the priority - "even though we have had a really good start" - and once that is secured then Fulham want a top 10 finish. "Everyone wants to make it a great season," Malbranque says. "The fact that everyone is encouraging each other has enabled us to progress." Malbranque also wants to progress. An obvious target for a player who has represented France at every level apart from the seniors is the European Championships next year in Portugal.
It was Damiano who guided the Belgian-born midfielder, who moved to Lyon aged four, through the ranks of the French Football Federation Training School at Clairefontaine and made him captain of the France Under-18 team in an attempt to make him more forthcoming. And it is Damiano who has also called him the "new Zinedine Zidane" - although that is a view clearly not shared by the French coach, Jacques Santini. He has yet to select Malbranque, preferring Arsenal's Sylvain Wiltord, among others, despite the continuing excellence of his performances this season and last, when he scored 13 goals and was Fulham's top-scorer.
"We'll just see," Malbranque says. "Of course I would like to represent my country and I have done at other levels. But it will all come from playing for my club and hopefully the rest will sort itself out."
A thorn is the presence of Santini who, when he arrived at Lyon as coach, dropped Malbranque, who had just broken into the club's midfield to startling effect. "He's followed his instincts," Malbranque says diplomatically. "He has his points of view and maybe we agreed to differ."
Malbranque will come up against his greatest supporter today, of course, in Damiano. "We have a mutual respect," says Malbranque. It's something that he has clearly earned.Reuse content