One photograph encapsulated Florian Thauvin’s time at Newcastle. It captures him, cheeks plump and sleek, a Louis Vuitton washbag clasped in his right hand, walking through a sunlit St James’ Park. His hair is impeccably swept back, he is wearing a bow tie and a slight smirk – he is clearly aware of the camera – gives his face an unfortunately smug aspect. Just behind him is a sign: “Please keep off the grass.”
Thauvin was sadly obedient. He started only three games in 2015-16, his one season on Tyneside. He had cost £15m, plus the season-long loan of Rémy Cabella and came to embody everything that was wrong with Steve McClaren’s side. He was overpaid, overhyped and overindulged, an indictment of the policy of recruiting in Ligue 1 that had been lauded.
When Chancel Mbemba had turned up in black tie in August, it had provoked amusement. Thauvin’s decision to repeat the stunt a month later, drew only scorn, not helped by the fact he went on to lose possession 33 times during the game. “He turns up in a tux!” Alan Shearer moaned on Match of the Day. “This is a serious business we’re in here. It was funny on the first day of the season. It’s not funny any more.”
Thauvin’s protestations that he had not been the only one wearing a bow tie and that Shearer’s criticism had damaged his confidence did not help the impression he was cut out for the extremely serious business of playing for Newcastle. In 13 desultory league appearances, he managed neither a goal nor an assist. He had one shot on target.
He returned to Marseille and was sent off against Montpellier on his second debut for them. At that point, it was hard to argue against the former France goalkeeper Jean-Paul Bertrand-Demanes’s comment, after he had abandoned Lille for Marseille without playing a game for them, that he “had chickpeas for brains”.
Under Rudi García, Thauvin, now 25, is living up to the promise he showed at Bastia. He has scored 22 goals in Ligue 1 for Marseille this season and set up a further 11. His role on the left of a 4-2-3-1 will be vital if they are to defeat Atlético Madrid on Wednesday and become the first French club to win the Europa League. Against Atlético’s narrow 4-4-2, his spark from wide, against a full-back in Lucas Hernández, who can seem a little clumsy, is the most likely means for Marseille to trouble their more experienced opponents.
Thauvin is important not just for his stats or the specifics of this game. He is somehow representative of Marseille as a whole, as a club who give players another chance. For two decades they have seemed a club in limbo, cursed by their illustrious past into expectations that outstrip their resources.
For clubs a tier or two below the superclubs, there are not many options. Marseille went the eccentric genius route with Marcelo Bielsa in 2014-15 and although they glimpsed glory, they suffered some dismal refereeing in a vital game against PSG and then the late-season fatigue that has so often undermined the Argentinian’s sides.
The loss of André-Pierre Gignac, Dmitri Payet and André Ayew that summer effectively undermined any hope of a second challenge and Bielsa quit one game into the season. Marseille slumped to 13th and there were further departures that summer.
But then the US businessman Frank McCourt bought the club and with the finances stable Marseille began a more traditional programme of rebuilding. They are not a superclub, far from it, but they had the resources to begin patching a side together from misfits and malcontents.
Thauvin has been the most striking success but on the other flank is Lucas Ocampos, who arrived at Monaco from River Plate as an 18-year-old in 2012. He never came close to living up to expectations and has spent his career in Europe shuttling between Monaco and Marseille, while being loaned to Genoa and Milan. Finally settled he has begun to thrive, scoring nine league goals and a further four in the Europa League this season.
Between the two wingers is Payet, a player who seems always to be either scoring brilliant free-kicks or sulking, with not a whole lot of grey area in between. His form suddenly has improved in the past month and there is talk, once again, of him forcing his way into the France squad.
Marseille are littered with Premier League rejects – Jordan Amavi, Steve Mandanda, Clinton N’Jie, Kostas Mitroglou – while the centre-forward Valère Germain was the forgotten man of Monaco’s run to the Champions League semi-finals last year.
There is something absurd in thinking of the 10-times French champions, the 1993 European champions, as underdogs, but that is the reality of football’s modern economics. Their progress may not be sustained but their quilt of players who have fallen through the cracks at least offers hope there is life beyond the elite.