A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
The phone rang for the Nth time. Once again caller ID revealed it to be Marseille’s press officer. André-Pierre Gignac had purposely avoided picking up for weeks. But this time he couldn’t leave it hanging. He knew what was being recommended.
The club had made it clear through other channels. It was time to face up to the elephant in the room or more specifically the one stood right in front of the goal at the Vélodrome blowing raspberries in his direction.
Five months had now past since Gignac completed an eagerly anticipated transfer from Toulouse. The 25-year-old who had grown up in Martigues, a mini Provence version of Venice just half an hour outside Marseille, was finally coming home to play for the club he had supported as a boy. It was a dream for Gignac, one that he had been vocal about realising ever since his time with Lorient.
“It’s something fantastic, a great feeling of pride, an enormous emotion,” Gignac gushed to reporters at his official unveiling. “A lot of memories come to mind. I remember the matches that I went to see at the Vélodrome with my dad like against Lens in November 1998 when Christophe Dugarry scored. We won 1-0. I am a Marseille supporter. It’s going to be crazy.”
Just how crazy, though, was for the moment completely beyond Gignac. The local lad couldn’t possibly have imagined at the time that the next press conference he would be asked to give would be one apologising for the woeful start he has made to his career at Marseille. But that’s exactly what happened last week, as a sheepish-looking Gignac walked gingerly into the club’s media room wearing the expression of a penitent Christian on his way to confession.
As an opening gambit, he didn’t quite say: “Forgive me father for I have still not scored at the Vélodrome, it’s been three months since my last goal in Ligue 1.” The dominant theme, however, was one of mea culpa. Gignac had no option but to hold up his hands.
Much like tumbleweed blowing through a barren landscape, his solitary strike against Saint-Étienne was all Marseille had to show for the €16.5m they had paid for him in the summer. The time when he scored 30 seconds into his debut for Lorient and said, “I thought I was Ronaldo”, seemed very long ago indeed.
Statistics in L’Équipe showed that Gignac had just a two per cent conversion rate in front of goal. Even Youssouf Hadji –brother of former Coventry City cult hero Mustapha - had done better at mid-table Nancy while also somehow finding the time to run a hair salon. This obviously was neither a French striker of international class nor one who had topped the scoring charts in 2009, but rather a Mexican child swinging blindfolded at a piñata on his birthday. For try as he may, Gignac was hitting nothing but air.
And yet that’s not telling the whole story. After all, if it hadn’t been for a silly foul called on Brandao in the 93rd minute against Monaco in September, the header Gignac had nodded beyond Stéphane Ruffier would have counted as his first goal at the Vélodrome. Talk of a jinx would have ended there and then.
Instead the wait went on. He struck the post against Spartak Moscow, then the bar against Sochaux. A hat-trick away to Slovakian side Zilina in the Champions League was taken for granted, come as it did in a 7-0 win.
It was becoming a problem. The fans had started to whistle one of their own. Gignac was now a figure of fun, definitely more Ibrahim Bakayoko than Jean-Pierre Papin. Old history was dug up, such as how he famously got his break in professional football through his pushy grandmother who spent much of a family wedding badgering Jacques Abardonado, a cousin of the Gignacs and a defender with Valenciennes, for some precious advice. The young André-Pierre was simply told to drink more milk. Only he liked eating too. Evidently it wasn’t just the goals that made the player think he was Ronaldo.
In fact, the days when Gignac’s Toulouse teammates used to buy him slimming pills weren’t a thing of the past either. His paunch has come to the fore again since his move to Marseille. France’s version of Spitting Image, known as the Guignols, has recently run a feature that has caricatures of Didier Deschamps and Bernard Laporte guessing at his weight. The latter suggested he tips the scales to the tune of 29 stone, something Gignac himself finds funny.
“It made me laugh,” he said last week. “I love it. It’s off the wall humour, nothing malicious. But if I could lose one or two kilos it would be good. I am working towards it. I was a little less professional than I might have been before.”
Joking aside, things were beginning to get uncomfortable for Gignac, not least because Marseille were without a win in five matches in Ligue 1 and had been knocked out of the French Cup by second division leaders Evian.
Though panic had yet to set in largely on account of his side being fifth and just three points off the top, Deschamps couldn’t hide his concern with a lack of a cutting edge in attack for much longer.
“The statistics are bad even if they have not had dramatic consequences on our place in the table,” he explained. “To be champions you need to score 50 to 55 goals with the two strikers sharing 25 between them.” Marseille had a shortfall. Gignac and Loïc Remy, the strike duo who cost €30m in the summer, had contributed just six in Ligue 1, that’s €5m a goal to be exact.
To use DD’s own Cantona-esque phrase against him, it looked as though Marseille had in fact caught a couple of sardines when they had instead gone fishing for whales. The worst kept secret in the Vieux Port last summer was Deschamps’ desire to lure a big name striker with a proven track record in Europe to take Marseille to the next level, above all in the Champions League.
The names of Emmanuel Adebayor, Diego Forlan and Alberto Gilardino were all mentioned. Talks were in an advanced stage for Luis Fabiano too, but they collapsed. “We did everything to have him,” revealed Marseille president Jean-Claude Dassier. “But the price Sevilla demanded wasn’t reasonable. Everyone agreed on it even Didier who had the elegance to tell me so. I asked him: ‘Come to the office and give me your choice’. He arrived, sat down and said: ‘Gignac’. And that’s how it all started.”
Before Marseille did so, however, they faxed Chelsea to half-heartedly inquire about the prospect of bringing Didier Drogba back to the Vélodrome. Gignac, you see, was never first choice, if anything he was a consolation prize, and the poor lad knew it. “Between what I wanted or what I hoped for and the reality, I’ve had to adapt,” Deschamps said. “I will try to get the best out of it with my staff. It’s like that. At Marseille, like anywhere else, a coach is forced to adapt.”
Gignac tried to remain unfazed. “The sceptics should know that I have the mentality of a warrior and I am ready to die on the pitch,” he roared. And die Gignac did, but not in the way he intended. The shock departure of Marseille’s captain and last season’s top scorer Mamadou Niang after the season had already started threw Deschamps’ plans out of kilter. The weight of expectation on Gignac grew. He wilted under the floodlights.
Though Gignac’s shirt was still the third most popular in the club shop behind those of Mathieu Valbuena and Lucho Gonzalez, until he actually started scoring he could never feel loved. The adulation Drogba received on his emotional return to the Vélodrome with Chelsea in December offered a telling reminder of the bond he had yet to form with the fans.
So last week’s press conference was an operation in catharsis. Gignac got to tell his side of the story, revealing that it has taken time to adapt to life back in Provence. “Now that I am all in place, I want to be able to think about my job more,” he said. “I have everything that it takes to do well. I no longer have any excuses. I need to be 100 per cent to be good.
“Last season, I played injured because there was something extraordinary to play for [namely the World Cup] and you all know how that went. I had to put back my holidays and I wasn’t able to do pre-season training. Then I was injured. I had a great physical deficit that I tried to make up for each day. Playing every three days is a change for me. But there are no more excuses.”
No sooner had the press conference finished than Gignac looked like a relieved man. He accepted all the criticism and promised an imminent change in attitude. A great burden appeared to have been lifted off his shoulders. And the following Sunday, when Ligue 1 resumed after the winter break, Gignac started afresh.
Instead of using him at centre-forward against Bordeaux, Deschamps tried a little experiment. Gignac was surprisingly positioned out on the left with Brandao in the middle of Marseille’s frequently tweaked 4-3-3 formation.
Asked about the decision, Deschamps said: “I was champion of Europe with Rudi Völler on the left and Alan Boksic at centre-forward. I have seen Eto’o and Rooney play wide. Lisandro does it at Lyon and Mamad Niang did it here last season scoring goals.”
Gignac thrived in the greater freedom of his new role. He scored after 23 minutes, appearing at the far post to tap in a cross. The Vélodrome cherry had finally been popped and much like with Pringles, Gignac now couldn’t stop. Three days later, stationed out on the left again, he cut inside and scored an exquisite curling winner from outside of the box away to Auxerre, putting Marseille through to the League Cup Final.
If the streak continues, a re-call to the France squad in time for February’s friendly with Brazil might well be on the cards. Should that happen, the family will no doubt be celebrating again, just like they did when André-Pierre’s mother Corinne won €100,000 on the French version of Deal or No Deal. But maybe don’t bank on it just yet. He’s still in debt to the Marseille fans.
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