Absolutely Fabrice: Saints salute bargain of the season

Alex Hayes
Sunday 09 March 2003 01:00
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For the big players, of stage, screen and football, early spring is the season of award ceremonies. For the vast majority, though, life continues as normal. Forget the back-slapping and the speeches, this is a time for knuckling down.

So consider the confusion surrounding Southampton at the moment, as the perennial strugglers ponder the benefits of possessing contenders for manager, striker and, most of all, bargain of the season. Gordon Strachan's astute coaching and James Beattie's goalscoring go a long way towards explaining the Saints' progress in the League and the FA Cup, but it is the enduring trickery of Fabrice Fernandes that has most caught the eye.

As Strachan points out, Fernandes is only a "wee lad", but his status is growing by the week. So, too, is his value. "It's amazing to think Southampton got him for just £1m," says the player's one-time coach at Fulham, Christian Damiano. "For someone of such talent and creativity, that is a steal."

But for a contretemps with the Fulham manager, Jean Tigana, Fernandes might still be in west London. Instead, the 23-year-old is plying his trade on the south coast with his fifth club in four years as a professional. "Southampton is where I'm going to stay," smiles the Frenchman, who made a permanent return to the Premiership last summer after stints with Rennes, Fulham, Rangers and Marseille.

"I am very happy here because there are big games every week, and people are much more passionate about their football than they are in France. Also, the style of play allows me to get involved." The same could be said of Southampton, where Fernandes has finally been given the opportunity to play his natural game. "The atmosphere at the club is great," he says. "The players, the staff and the spirit are excellent. And most of all, I enjoy my role."

Much of the credit for this transformation must go to Strachan, who appreciatesthat good things come in small packages, and has given his protégé the guidance he needed. "Fabrice has been dotted about the world for the last couple of years," Strachan says, "but we've given him a home and made him welcome so he can enjoy his game. He has been used by everyone but we've taken him in and looked after him. He's been a good player for us, but most of all he's a good lad. I like him."

The respect is mutual. "As soon as I was invited to Gordon Strachan's house and he told me about his plans," Fernandes says, "I knew this was the place for me." Armed with his new-found security, Fernandes has been in scintillating form, topping the Opta Index charts as the Premiership's best crosser.

Intriguingly, he is a left-footer who is deployed on the right. How the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, would love that sort of luxury. "It comes from hard work," the Frenchman insists. "I try crosses with my right foot in training every day and it gets easier in each match. It's good, because when I have the opportunity I can go on either foot to cross the ball."

Fernandes' canny wing play has helped carry Southampton to Premiership safety by Christmas and an FA Cup quarter-final by spring. All they need now is that elusive ticket to Europe. "Why not?" he asks ahead of today's vital FA Cup tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers. "But first we must win today. There is a danger the fans might think this one will be easy, but nothing could be further from the truth. This will be a very hard match for us. We have to concentrate on our game. For us it is very important to move on in the Cup for the future of our season."

Whether they dispose of Wolves at St Mary's, let alone reach the promised land of the Uefa Cup, remains to be seen, but the current campaign has been an unqualified success. "We're improving with every game and I think that we've all moved up to a higher plane," says Fernandes, who admits to having eyes for only one personal prize this year, namely a French cap.

"The France situation is very complex," he says. "There are many good players. I want to play for my country and I hope one day that will happen, and that the gaffer of the national team [Jacques San-tini] will come and watch me. Some of the players in the Euro 2004 qualifiers are now 32 or 33; there is a new generation starting to come through, so hopefully I'll have the opportunity to be part of the team."

Going to Portugal with his country remains the ultimate dream, but travelling around Europe with his club is the more immediate aim. "I'd love us to win the FA Cup because then I could show the lads a few cities on the Continent next season," says this great traveller, before adding jokingly: "After all, I've played in most of them."

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