Steven Fletcher relishes passion of Marseille fans
Steven Fletcher admits it's a relatively novel experience given recent events to feel appreciated, so he is relishing such generosity of spirit while he can.
The striker has had his critics, most recently at Sunderland where he was cast as a non-scoring, big-time Charlie. But at Marseille even the opposing factions within the club’s own currently disgruntled support have united in their love for Fletcher, for whom the Saltire flag is flown at both ends of the Velodrome.
“There isn’t a song for me yet but they fly a Scotland flag in two stands – one stand is for left-wing fans and the other for right-wing fans,” he explained. “But they both fly the Saltire which is great.”
He is wide-eyed as he recalls the passion of fans in a city where football has long served as a panacea for social ills. Sunderland supporters are often praised for their devotion, but this, he suggests, is something else.
A clash against Paris St Germain in February, shortly after he arrived on loan, proved to Fletcher how Marseille fans might just be in a league of their own.
“I never realised how big the club was until I went over,” he said. “You hear about it, but don’t realise how fanatical the support is. My first game was against PSG and I’d never seen anything like it in any derby games I’d ever played in.
“The clubs are so far away from each other but it’s still the biggest game. Our bus was getting rocked before the game and I was like: ‘what’s going on?’ Even at the training ground the fans are there,” he continued. “After a game we train the next day at 5pm and are finished by 7:30. But there are 30-40 fans there who invade the training ground with flares and all-sorts!
“There was a banner at the weekend. I didn’t understand it and had to ask what it said. It was all about respect for the fans. They know the fans make the club.
“I don’t think all of them work to be honest. You get fans outside the training ground sitting there the whole day. It’s pretty much the same fans every day.”
Life in the south of France clearly agrees with Fletcher, though it hasn’t stopped him investing in a new property in Glasgow, for which he receives the keys this week.
Out of contract at the end of this season and already able to speak to other clubs, this news won’t dampen speculation linking him with Celtic.
He is savouring the prospect of being able to choose where he goes next, and isn’t ruling out staying in France. Nor is he ruling out a return to Scotland.
“I think I’ve been linked with Celtic since I was 18 but I’m looking forward to the situation I’m in, although at times it can be scary as well,” he said.
Whether or not remaining in France is an option remains to be seen. He has escaped the wrath of the Marseille supporters, who are directing their venom elsewhere as the side’s poor season continues. Fletcher has joined up with Scotland for the friendlies against Czech Republic and Denmark – he is the only striker to feature in both squads – on the back of a 5-2 home defeat by Rennes, during which some supporters broke through the security fence between them and the pitch.
Fletcher did not feature in that disappointing result but has made seven appearances so far, scoring twice.
Although their Stade Velodrome has been magnificently refurbished ahead of the Euro 2016 finals, it is not currently proving a comfortable dwelling for the home team. Remarkably, they have not won a league game there since September, hence Marseille’s slide down the league to the current position of 12th, 39 points behind champions PSG.
Some relief could yet be sourced from the French Cup, the competition in which Fletcher scored one of his two Marseille goals to date, against fourth-tier side Trelissac. He even made it on to the cover of the next morning’s L’Equipe. Marseille, who haven’t won the trophy since 1989, are in the semi-finals.
Fletcher hopes he can become the club’s latest British talisman, after Joey Barton, Chris Waddle and Tony Cascarino.
“The fans take to British players,” said Fletcher. “As soon as you lose the ball you try and get it back. But I don’t think they see that over there very often.
“I’ve seen that in training too – if a player loses the ball it’s a case of ‘you go and get it back for me!’ The players who have played in England appreciate that. Lassana Diarra [the French international midfielder] is happy that I’m there to help him win it back.”
Fletcher has been deployed in a more withdrawn role by under-pressure manager Michel. “I have been playing off the striker in the No 10 role, which I am enjoying to be honest,” he said. “I am getting a lot of the ball instead of having it stuck on my head all the time or down my throat.”
But he will be happy to resume his usual position at centre-forward tomorrow night against Czech Republic.
On his last visit to Prague six years ago Fletcher was not asked to play this role, and neither, controversially, was anyone else. Craig Levein, the then manager, elected to try a 4-6-0 system he now accepts will be engraved on his tombstone. There were major ramifications, for Fletcher as well as Levein.
The striker informed Levein he no longer wanted to be considered for selection after being sidelined that night, a situation only resolved after a lengthy period encompassing 16 games. So what is set to be his 26th cap tomorrow might have been so many more.
“I think I was sitting in the stand with you that night,” Fletcher shrugged, when conversation inevitably turned to that ill-fated night. “It was obviously frustrating. Especially when you are in the stand and not on the bench.
“Your team are losing and you want to be on the pitch and playing, so it was a frustrating night. But I am over that now.”