Name game makes Marlet feel at home

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This afternoon, Steve will do everything in his powers to get past his fellow countryman William. With names like those, you could be forgiven for concluding that this is an all-English affair, but the Steve and William in question are actually French. Indeed, during today's most local of English derbies at Craven Cottage, Fulham's Steve Marlet will be making his full home debut against William Gallas's Chelsea.

There is yet to be an English footballer with a traditional Gallic name, but then there is also yet to be a French actor as renowned as Steve McQueen. Marlet's mother is a lifelong fan of the American Hollywood legend and was addicted to his television series Wanted: Dead or Alive at the time of her pregnancy.

It seemed logical, therefore, that she should christen her new-born Steve. Marlet laughs at the thought that it has taken him 27 years and three transfers for his name to be recognised. "My mother must have known that I would eventually end up living in England," jokes Fulham's latest recruit. "All my life I have had a strange-sounding name, but now it is really common."

That, though, is just about the only factor Marlet shares with other Steves. At £11m, the French international is London's most expensive player of the season and Fulham's record transfer. He is, by the same token, the most costly recruit ever by a newly promoted club in this country. Not bad for the kid from Pithiviers, a tiny village on the outskirts of Orleans, who had to wait until he was 22 before first tasting top-flight football. "Actually, it's £12m," he says proudly. "No, seriously, it is very flattering and I won't deny that my price tag puts a little extra pressure on me to do well. I feel I have to succeed."

Marlet has never been afraid to push himself. As an ambitious 13-year-old, he left home and studied for three years at one of the national football academies in St- Germain-en-Laye. He then joined Second Division Red Star, where he stayed until 1996, when he was spotted by Guy Roux, the legendary Auxerre manager, and persuaded to move to Burgundy. Auxerre had just won the Double [League and Cup] and, although Laurent Blanc was allowed to move to Barcelona, the likes of Mickaël Silvestre, Bernard Diomede and Lilian Laslandes, now with Manchester United, Liverpool and Sunderland respectively, formed the nucleus of an excellent team.

"That was my real football education," he says. "I remember when I first arrived, Roux was not happy with my left foot so he made me work on it every day for 20 minutes after training. At that rate, it did not take me too long to improve and I am pleased to say that I no longer merely use the foot to get on and off the team bus. I'm sure it will be the same here at Fulham. Roux and Tigana are quite alike; they constantly want you to do better."

Three years after he arrived at Auxerre, Roux and the majority of the team left. The winning side was being broken up and, following a difficult final season, Marlet felt compelled to move on last summer. "I needed to restart my career," he says. Fulham were an option, but the attraction of the Champions' League proved too great and Marlet joined one of Tigana's old clubs, Lyon, for £3.5m. "I felt that playing outside the First Division was too much of a risk for me," he says. "I was desperate to get international recognition and I just couldn't imagine Roger Lemerre [the France manager] coming to see me play at Fulham last year."

Marlet read the situation better than he could have dreamt, and it was not long after he had made an excellent start to the domestic and European season that he received the call out of Les Bleus' headquarters. Six caps, a goal, and a Confederations Cup later, Marlet is now fourth in the impressive line of French forwards, behind the Arsenal duo of Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord, as well as David Trézéguet of Juventus. No mean feat when you consider that Paris St- Germain's Nicolas Anelka and Bordeaux's Christophe Dugarry are two of the other pretenders.

"I have no regrets," says Marlet, who scored 17 goals for Lyon last season, "and I'm really pleased I waited 12 months before coming here. I feel like the club are ready to do special things now that they are in the Premiership and I'm excited to be part of that. Fulham remind me of Lyon two years ago. They're developing very quickly and are built to last. When someone like Jean calls you to tell you he has a project to try to become a big club like Manchester United, it's difficult to resist the challenge."

Much is expected of his partnership with last season's top scorer, Louis Saha, and today's match against Chelsea gives Marlet a further opportunity to adjust to the more physical demands of English football. "Last week [against Leicester] was a bit of a baptism of fire for me," he admits, "but I'm starting to get a feel for English football and I'm sure it won't be long before I'm in the groove."

A good old-fashioned derby is perhaps not the best way to settle the nerves, but Marlet insists he is relishing the prospect of playing against a club based less than a couple of miles up the road. "In France," he says, "the closest I came to this sort of match was when Lyon would travel 50 km to face St Etienne. This is what English football is all about. Passionate and exciting; it's exactly why I chose to come to Fulham."

Marlet's ultimate ambition is to be part of the French squad at next summer's World Cup finals, but his more immediate dream is to collect the ball in midfield at some point this afternoon, run past Emmanuel Petit, evade the challenge of Gallas and dummy Marcel Desailly on the way to scoring his first goal for Fulham. "That's not too much to ask is it?" he smiles.