Wednesday 13 December 2017

Martial's journey from mean streets of Paris

United starlet has had to overcome many obstacles on his rise from the same concrete tower blocks that produced Thierry Henry

Anthony Martial will be at Old Trafford tomorrow for the visit of Liverpool
Anthony Martial will be at Old Trafford tomorrow for the visit of Liverpool
Anthony Martial in action for Monaco last season GETTY

Jonathan Liew

Thierry Henry once said of Les Ulis, the town where he grew up: "All I saw was cement. Tall buildings, long buildings, walls we played football against."

In one sense, Les Ulis is an unremarkable French banlieue: a knot of high-rise apartment blocks in the Parisian suburbs. It was built in the 1960s, at the height of Brutalism, and only now is it beginning to shed its reputation for petty crime and tedium. It has no train station.

Had it not produced one of the greatest footballers of modern times, most French people - including, you suspect, a lot of Parisians - would never have heard of it.

Now a new hope has emerged from these same concrete stacks: Anthony Martial, of Manchester United, purchased in the dying hours of the transfer window for a price that could rise to £58.8m

Tomorrow, the 19-year-old forward could make his United debut against Liverpool at Old Trafford.


But beneath the eye-watering price tag and its manifold implications for United, the Premier League, football and the Universe, what sort of player is Martial, really? What moves and motivates him?

Mahamadou Niakate, the coach at the Club Omnisports Les Ulis, first saw Martial when he was a six-year-old.

"Immediately, we saw that he had qualities above those of others," he says. "We saw the qualities of speed, power and technique."

Niakate has been at Les Ulis for most of his adult life. He played with Henry back in the day, and has spent most of the last week fielding questions from all over the world about his club's latest glittering star.

As well as Henry and Martial, Patrice Evra also came through the ranks. What's the secret?

"We are a small town, but it is full of football pitches, everywhere," Niakate replies. "The sporting infrastructure has led to lots of gymnasiums, lots of pitches. And the club is 500 metres from everyone.

"After that, you need good teachers who work hard for the club. It's a little family."

Hard work is the ethos that drives Les Ulis. Niakate is always drumming into his young recruits the importance of education, of concentrating in school, of displaying the right attitude whatever the task.

The young Martial was not always a keen student. He was quiet, sometimes a bit stroppy. His body language was frequently negative. In a way, these are traits that persist to this day.

But put a football at his feet and you could forgive him almost anything.

"He could do everything," Niakate says. "He was always the best player in the team. Always, always, always. He was incomparable. The best technique, the best in training.

"Yes, he is a little bit shy, a little bit reserved. But on the pitch, when the match begins, he has the mentality to win. He's someone who works hard and listens to his trainers."

At 14, Martial was snapped up by the Lyon academy.

"At the age of 15," says former Monaco sporting director Tor-Kristian Karlsen, "every club in France would have known about him."

Within two years, Martial was training with the first team. The day after his 17th birthday, Martial made his senior debut in a Europa League group stage game. A long and glorious future with Lyon appeared to lie ahead. At that point, fate intervened.

"Under normal circumstances," Karlsen explains, "a top Lyon talent wouldn't be within Monaco's reach. But in this case, a move opened up as Lyon failed to make the Champions League and apparently were under certain financial pressures.

Amid Monaco's remarkable spending spree of summer 2013 under Claudio Ranieri, when Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho all arrived on the Cote d'Azur, the signing of Martial for around £3.6m raised barely a murmur.

And given his value has increased tenfold over just two seasons, you would imagine that those two seasons were filled with stellar performances and jaw-dropping statistics.

Well, not quite. In his first season at Monaco, Martial found his commitment publicly questioned by Ranieri, and he played only 11 league games.

Ranieri was sacked and replaced by Leonardo Jardim, but with rumours building of a move to Valencia, the early portents were not encouraging.

Jardim also criticised Martial's attitude, and in an early game brought him on as a substitute only to humiliate him by bringing him off again after just 27 minutes.

In retrospect, it was something of a turning point. After the match, Martial's parents decided to issue their boy with a few home truths.

"When I look at the images, I see that I was not giving everything," Martial later said.

"My parents said it was up to me to offer more, to concentrate more. But it was the time when I was going to Valencia, and I was unsettled."

So, does Martial have an attitude problem?

"In my 20 years in football recruitment, I don't think I've ever witnessed a teenager who hasn't experienced challenging moments during his first year or two at senior level," Karlsen says.

"And I certainly don't believe Martial has behaved in any way that may suggest that he isn't developing into a top professional. In the past nine months, he's shown remarkable progress and taken on a lot more responsibility on the pitch."

"They see my nonchalance, not my behaviour," Martial complained in an interview with L'Equipe this year. "I get on well with everybody. I've always been like that."

And so the last campaign ended far more happily for Martial: 12 goals, many of them coming from the wing, where he would play in support of Dimitar Berbatov up front.

In time, though, the consensus among those who know him best is that his best role is in the centre: either as a second forward or as a lone frontman.

"The most effective way of using him is to search for gaps," says Niakate. "Play him at centre-forward, where he will score more goals.

"He will bring more to Manchester, because they don't have many forward players. He has the same characteristics as Thierry Henry: powerful, an effective goalscorer."

And Martial would appear to have many of the attributes to succeed, even at a club as tactically befuddled as United. True, he is perhaps at his best in a pure counter-attacking team, using pace and space to deadly effect.

But he is adept at playing a more closed game, too, comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal, and an excellent timer of short passes.

Might Martial struggle with the 90-minute physicality of the Premier League?

"No," Niakate insists. "The adjustment is something he will love."

As he steps out at Old Trafford, perhaps Martial will consider the unlikely journey that has taken him there.

Under Fifa rules, a percentage of a young player's transfer fee is paid in compensation to the club that first developed him. The windfall comes to about £400,000, and at Les Ulis they reckon it will pay their running costs for the next five years, helping them unearth the next Henry, the next Evra, the next Martial.

For years, the locals have been watching Martial's every move with interest.

Now, like the tower blocks casting their concrete shadows, Martial is watching over Les Ulis, too.

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport